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Potent Texas, Oklahoma State offenses likely to lead to high-scoring contest

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First to 50 wins?

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Oregon State Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

After largely looking as expected throughout the first three weeks of the season, dominating Louisiana Tech and Rice and falling just short to LSU, the Texas Longhorns are set to kick off their Big 12 slate on Saturday against the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Typically, Oklahoma State occupying the opposite sideline is less than ideal news for the Longhorns. The Pokes have topped Texas in each of their previous four meetings and seven of the last nine, which includes wins during each of OSU’s last five trips to Austin.

Texas is projected to, at long last, snap its skid against Oklahoma State, entering as 6.5-point favorites with a 61.4 percent chance to win, per ESPN’s FPI. But as if recent history between these two programs isn’t enough evidence that the Horns will have their hands full, one needs to look no further than head coach Mike Gundy’s latest elite offense.

Texas head coach Tom Herman probably said it best on Monday when while previewing the Pokes: “I’ve used the phrase before, it’s a scene from Armageddon, right? It’s the scariest environment imaginable — that’s all you had to say,” Herman said. “Scariest environment imaginable. You know, they have the nation’s leading rusher. They’ve got an All-American wide receiver. They have a quarterback that can not only throw it to that receiver, but is a threat with his running ability, too. It’s going to be a challenge, for sure, but you can’t sell your soul, I guess, to stop one because they’re so proficient in the other [areas]. You’ve just got to be sound.”

The nation’s leading rusher and All-American receiver Herman referred to are Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace, respectively.

The former is still a fairly new name on the national scene, as Hubbard split carries with star running back Justice Hill last season, though he still managed 740 yards and seven scores in his reserve role. Now the feature back, Hubbard has already matched his rushing touchdowns total through three games and is already more than halfway to a 1,000-yard campaign at 521 yards, courtesy of a pair of 200-yard performances against Oregon State (221) and Tulsa (256).

Boasting a unique blend of size, vision, speed, burst, and shiftiness, Hubbard is nothing short of a complete ball-carrier and quite possibly the best back Texas will see this season. And yet, despite that reality, there’s a case to be made that Hubbard isn’t even Oklahoma State’s most dangerous weapon offensively — a distinction that may very well belong to Wallace, which makes game-planning to slow the Pokes that more more problematic.

“[Hubbard is] unique because he’s got big-time speed so if you miss a one-on-one tackle with him, he really makes you pay,” Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “If you load up the box and go on the outside one-on-one with Wallace, it’s not even a 50-50 ball, it’s like 90-10. If you put it in the ballpark, he comes down with it. He’s probably the most complete receiver in the country.”

The junior receiver is a talent Texas is already quite familiar with, as his 10-catch, 222-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Longhorns last season was the highlight of not only a near-1,500-yard campaign, but a 38-35 win over then-No. 6 Texas.

This time around, not only is the Texas secondary much younger, breaking in first-year starters at corner in Jalen Green and Kobe Boyce, but the hyper-dynamic Wallace is producing at an even more prolific pace, as his 390 yards and six scores each lead the nation. Not to mention, those figures, of course, don’t include what Orlando said is nine drawn defensive pass interference penalties.

Simply put, Wallace has been a handful for secondaries this season, and it would be safe to assume that he’ll continue his success on Saturday and Austin against a Longhorns defense that ranks 125th in passing yards allowed per game (330) and 108th in passing defense efficiency (156.52).

However, there is a bit of telling, and as far as Texas is concerned, encouraging news to that end.

While Wallace will almost certainly see his fair share of catches, yards, and likely at least a touchdown or two, Oklahoma State’s aerial attack, now orchestrated by redshirt freshman and first-year starter Spencer Sanders, has centered around Wallace and not much else. This isn’t to say the Pokes down have talent at receiver, as senior Dillon Stoner is a factor in the slot with 12 receptions this season, while the 6’6 Jordan McCray and 6’5 C.J. Moore feature size and speed on the outside and Landon Wolf provides quality reps in the slot.

But Wallace has unsurprisingly become the favorite target for Sanders, and that’s resulted in him accounting for essentially half — 49.7 percent — of Oklahoma State’s receiving yards.

Speaking of Sanders, the former four-star talent will be making just his fourth career start when he takes the field against Texas.

His inexperience became evident last week against Tulsa as the Golden Hurricane made a strong second-quarter push to capture the lead entering the break, but for the most part, he’s been poised and impressive to begin his college career.

Through three games, Sanders is 43-of-64 for 622 yards and seven touchdowns with only one interception, and he’s flashed a notable ability to make throws that would be considered impressive for any quarterback at this level, much less a freshman. Factor in that he’s also a threat on the ground with his legs, totaling 219 yards and one score this season, and there’s yet another dimension to a dynamic Oklahoma State offense that ranks ninth in scoring (49.3 PPG) and 12th in total offense (547 YPG) that Texas is tasked with slowing.

“There is a commitment to pounding the ball and trying to make people tap out. But to go along with it, it’s high pace and spread and has those elements and they’ll throw the ball down the field,” Orlando said. “But the fundamental part of [Mike Gundy] wanting to run the ball and wear on people has been consistent since we’ve played them the last couple of years.”

Up front paving the way for all of the aforementioned to take place is a sizable and experienced offensive line featuring 110 career starts, led by center Johnny Wilson and left guard Marcus Keyes.

Defensively, the Pokes are still very much a work in progress, primarily up front in what’s largely an inexperienced front six.

Brendon Evers and Cameron Murray anchor the interior, while Tyler Lacy and Brock Martin set up shop on the edges. The former can be found on either side of the formation throughout the course of the game, and Lacy often shares the field with senior Mike Scott or Trace Ford when the Cowboys pull a true defensive tackle out of the game. Similarly, Amadou Fofana can be found on either side of the line in what’s largely been an abundance of movement up front as Oklahoma State tries to find a unit that consistently impactful. That extends to Martin, as well, as he’s typically the Pokes hybrid edge rusher, but can be found serving as a linebacker and even dropping back into a zone at times.

Amen Ogbongbemiga and Malcolm Rodriguez set up shop behind that bunch as Oklahoma State’s top two talents at linebacker. Ogbongbemiga has been a force and a mainstay around the ball to begin the season, totaling 3.5 sacks and 25 tackles, which is second on the team to only Rodriguez, a converted safety who has amassed 31 total tackles to date. Unsurprisingly, he can often be found aiding in coverage, which is where the Pokes typically deploy nearly half of the defense, if not more.

More times than not, Oklahoma State features a three-high-safety look with Tre Sterling setting up in-between Jarrick Bernard (left) and Kolby Harvell-Peel (right). Harvell-Peel and Sterling have been especially active early on, totaling 35 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and four passes defended.

At corner, A.J. Green is one of the best the Big 12 has to offer at the position. He’ll typically line up on the left side of the formation, which would seemingly pit him against Brennan Eagles on Saturday, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Cowboys elected to have him shadow Collin Johnson for much of the game. If not, those duties will go to junior Rodarius Williams, who’s a physical talent with plenty of experience.

All things considered, the secondary is the strength of the defense, ranking 75th nationally in passing yards per game allowed (225.3), but it will be tested unlike it has yet this season against an elite quarterback in Sam Ehlinger and a deep and versatile receiving corps, which collectively make for the nation’s 10th-best passing offense per game (349.3).

On paper, Texas should probably win this game, but that isn’t something anyone can say with much confidence, especially given the recent history between these two programs. Factor in the fact that Texas is tasked with slowing an offense as potent as the one Oklahoma State is bringing to Austin and it’s no wonder the Longhorns coaches were so complimentary of the Cowboys’ skill players.

Those skill players are quite likely going to find the end zone, and more than once, which will require the Longhorns offense to do much of the same. But that said, unlike in recent meetings, it’s Texas that features the elite quarterback and the Cowboys still breaking in a talented, but inexperienced option behind center, and he’ll now be playing on the biggest stage of his career in front of a sold-out crowd at DKR.

Both defenses will sacrifice points, and probably plenty of them. But Ehlinger’s efficiency and control of the offense will be on full display, while a mistake or two from Sanders proves to be the difference in an otherwise tightly-contested game that comes down to the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Texas - 44, Oklahoma State - 34