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Slowing Tulsa’s ground game will be a true test for the Texas linebackers

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If Tulsa can escape Austin with a win, it will be due to finding a tremendous amount of success running the ball.

NCAA Football: Texas at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns would love a week 1 re-do.

Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler deserve one.

The start to the season for Todd Orlando’s defense was mediocre at worst, slightly promising at best, and if asked, the aforementioned pair of linebackers would likely tell you their presence would have made a drastic, game-changing difference in the outcome of Texas’ Week 1 loss to Maryland.

Johnson was ejected from last week’s game after being called for targeting, while Wheeler didn’t even get to take the field until the second half as he spent the first two quarters of the 2018 season serving a suspension for a targeting penalty in the Texas Bowl.

The Terrapins managed 407 yards of offense against the Longhorns, which compiled 77 total tackles, seven of those for a loss, and only 1.5 sacks. But the most glaring statistic of Texas’ defensive effort was the combined 11 tackles between Johnson, Wheeler, and B-Backer Malcolm Roach, Texas’ starting linebacker core.

To suggest the partial absences of Johnson and Wheeler wasn’t a detriment to Texas’ presence on defense is like saying the Longhorns defended Maryland’s continuous use of the jet sweep just fine.

Texas fans can be irrational, too passionate and deprived of happiness, but stupid they are not, most of the time. Burnt Orange Nation knows better. So does Todd Orlando, who openly admitted the Longhorns knew the jet sweep was coming, prepared for it, but just simply didn’t do well at defending the play that became a part of the Terrapins’ offensive identity.

Unfortunately, Tulsa is not going to be the usual Week 2 punching bag for Texas.

If anything, the Longhorns may have similar issues defending the Golden Hurricane, and no matchup could be more important than Texas’ linebackers versus Tulsa’s rushing game.

The Golden Hurricane played their version of a Week 1 cupcake, a real punching bag, Central Arkansas. Although Tulsa didn’t cruise past UCA as it may have wanted to before finally escaping with a comeback win in the fourth, the Golden Hurricane offense ran over, through and around their opponent — literally. Tulsa’s dual-threat backfield featuring Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor II combined for 239 rushing yards, and its quarterback, Luke Skipper, scampered for 53 yards of his own. Nearly 300 of Tulsa’s 493 total offensive yards came on the ground, with the Golden Hurricane rushing 63 times compared to just 24 pass plays.

Tulsa is coming to Austin with four quarters of film from Texas’ Week 1 letdown, where the Longhorns gave up 143 rushing yards on 46 attempts, and an offensive game plan that could give the Texas familiar fits. The biggest upside for the Longhorns: They, too, have had four quarters of game film to review and an entire week to implement improvements, this time with the anticipation that their starting linebacker core should, for all intents and purposes, be intact when they take the field on Saturday through all four quarters of the game.

Texas doesn’t need to limit Tulsa’s ability to run the football, it needs to completely take it out of the Golden Hurricane’s offensive approach. Shutting down any attempt by Tulsa to establish a running game will force the Golden Hurricane to rely on their passing game, effectively rendering them one-dimensional, and thus, allowing the Longhorns pass rush to bolster its sack count and force Tulsa into crucial turnovers.

The biggest takeaway from this Saturday’s contest will be the grade this linebacker core receives after finally getting a complete game on the books. It’s imperative for Orlando’s defense to show shades of 2017, particularly performances like the Oklahoma State game, where Texas held one of the Big 12’s most prolific offenses to just 10 points in regulation. Look for Texas’ linebackers to be a key difference maker Saturday evening, and with a key stretch upcoming, the identity of the Longhorns’ defense going forward may very well depend on it.

Emptying the Notebook

It’s hard to imagine Texas fans are fully focused on Tulsa with the Week 1 loss to Maryland still fresh on everyone’s mind and a huge Week 3 matchup with No. 17 USC looming. When Texas faced unranked opponents the week before facing a ranked program, it’s a tale of two decades.

Between 2002 and 2009, the Longhorns went 15-1 against unranked programs the week before facing a ranked opponent. However, from 2010 to 2017, Texas is just 15-12 against unranked teams the week before a matchup with a ranked opponent. Under Tom Herman, the Longhorns are 3-0 against unranked programs the week before facing a ranked team, which means Herman has Texas prepared on the task at hand, regardless of the opportunity in waiting.