This is now the fourth consecutive season that Texas has entered the Red River Shootout in a state of program-wide chaos.
In 2013, everyone was in a panic after blowout defeats against BYU and Ole Miss that included losing Manny Diaz and David Ash for the season. Considering that Texas had lost the previous season’s match-up with the Sooners 63-21, it looked like this game was going to be the final nail in Mack Brown’s coffin. Instead the Longhorns played like it was the only game that had ever mattered in a 36-20 thumping.
In 2014, the program was in a panic after getting thrashed by Baylor due to complete incompetence on offense that had Texas at 2-3 and likely 2-4 after facing OU. Then Shawn Watson temporarily discovered the zone read play and Texas came within a pick-6, fumbled goal line possession, and special teams TD from pounding the Sooners once again.
In 2015, the program was in a panic with Dylan Haines calling out the other DBs for failing to spend enough time in the film room in the Longhorns’ 1-4 start to the year. Then Strong emphasized a team identity that week of running the ball, single-wing style, and they went out and smashed the Sooners in a 24-17 win.
Each time it appeared as though surely Bob Stoops wouldn’t let Texas sneak up on his Sooners again and each time Texas controlled the line of scrimmage and usually the game. Will the Sooners allow Texas to be the more physical team once again or will they finally administer an old school Stoops beatdown and send Charlie packing? If Texas can’t finally be physical and effective on defense then that question will have a simple answer.
The first step Charlie needs to undertake in winning the Red River Shootout is figuring out which defense the players understand best and then hammering it all week. The decision to spend the bye week doubling back to the 3-4 “Hager is coming…” package was a bafflingly bad one that has really set Texas back in terms of competing in this game. That was time that could have been spent nailing down the base defense and preparing to handle the Sooners potent offense, instead Texas will have to waste precious practice snaps this week re-installing the base defense.
The base needs to be a variety of the 3-3-5 nickel, as Texas can’t get away with playing the 3-4 package against OU, and that’s the defense they’ve been used to playing over the last few years. The Sooners are really a run-first team this season but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t shred the 3-4 to pieces with Baker Mayfield and the passing game. That defensive approach is suicide in the Big 12, as evidenced by the 14 yards per pass that OSU dropped on Texas last weekend.
Next Charlie needs to nail down who’s playing in this game and it’ll need to be the players that will be most likely to spend the week glued to the film room. This game has a history of getting the most out of seniors so any upperclassmen that seem up for it in game week should be given the chance to lead the way. They probably need to turn to the Haines-Hall combination at safety for that reason as the chances of getting DeShon Elliott or Brandon Jones up to speed in time to compete seriously in this game blew up in smoke when Vance spent the bye week trying to take Texas football back to the 90s.
Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach have provided real upside with their physicality on the edges and in the pass-rush but that needs to be focused now with simplified schemes that only deploy one of them at a time in the Fox position. These two aren’t yet so dominant that Texas needs to find ways to play both at the same time, as Vance did with the 3-4. We can talk about the possibilities of unleashing multiple Fox ends in the 2-4-5 next offseason when Texas can get creative again after nailing down defensive fundamentals.
P.J. Locke has played really well in limited action this season and needs to see the field at the nickel position. At cornerback Davante Davis has battled hard all year (save for his strange mental lapses against Notre Dame) while Kris Boyd always plays the game with his hair on fire. Holton Hill is in the doghouse and Sheroid Evans seems to have lost his mojo but Davis and Boyd could still end up being the best cornerback tandem in the Big 12 if Charlie can just cement their assignments.
From the base 3-3-5 package there is more than enough in the playbook to contend with Oklahoma. Execution is the key, Texas has the kinds of athletes that can give the Sooners trouble if they can finally get them playing fast and confident.
Sizing up Oklahoma’s offense
The Sooners are a very good offensive team this season, but they aren’t unstoppable. The biggest issue is their run game, which already featured the best backfield in the Big 12 by a safe margin even before Texas lost Chris Warren to injury.
Samaje Perine is the workhorse and everyone knows him well by now. If you give him a chance to win the perimeter or square up his shoulders he’s very difficult to tackle and he can wear a defense down over the course of the game. Baker Mayfield is underrated as a runner by Texas fans after the Longhorn’s success against the OU offense a year ago. He’s a fearless little punk on the field with some real quickness that can make him hard to corral in the pass-rush and effective enough to allow the Sooners to mix zone read schemes into the mix.
Joe Mixon is quite possibly the OPOY in the Big 12 this season. They may not get him the ball enough times for that to become a reality but his route running and traditional running skills make for a combination that is truly elite. If you don’t keep track of this guy he’ll score, just ask Houston.
Here’s an example of Mixon’s running skills:
That’s a weak zone run and TCU has it bottled up with aggressive deployment of their star strong safety Denzel Johnson, but then Mixon jump steps outside, makes Johnson look foolish, and is off to the races.
Here’s Mixon running a dig route from the slot:
Joe Mixon averages 14 touches per game and it’s frankly a wonder that he doesn’t get 20-25, Texas probably shouldn’t assume they’ll be so lucky as to avoid being the first to get a full game’s worth of Mixon.
The Sooner receiving corps consists of burner Dede Westbrook, big flex TE Mark Andrews, and then an assorted cast other players that rotate in and out. Sophomore A.D. Miller has shown a lot of potential on the outside but he’s not yet been trusted with a featured role. Andrews is a nice red zone target but Mayfield has a propensity to over utilize his size and make him extend to make catches that nearly get him killed. Westbrook is only truly dangerous on tunnel screens, which Texas will hopefully diagnose effectively next Saturday.
The offensive line is very solid but not great, they’re well coached and have talented tackles but they’ve been shuffling guys around due to injury and are vulnerable inside. There’s a lot of talent on this team and with a QB like Mayfield at the helm there’s a multiplier effect for the skill talent but there isn’t enough talent to overmatch Texas if the Longhorns just play sound football.
The Game Plan
Texas is going to have to trust Boyd, Davis, and whomever else to hold up outside in man coverage against the Sooners. If the coaches don’t think they’re up for it then they’d better rep cover 3 pretty extensively this week so that no one gets lost on a wheel route. Either way, Texas needs to play a single deep safety and pack numbers into the middle of the field where OU makes their living.
Jason Hall seems the most likely to get the assignment of dropping down into the box with Haines dropping deep but if Jones or Elliott show aptitude in practice for that role then by all means, let’s see it. Kevin Vaccaro probably shouldn’t play in this game.
The Longhorns also need to be repping zone read extensively this week, they were poor against that scheme a year ago in this game and they were awful defending it from Notre Dame in this season’s opener. There’s really no reason Texas shouldn’t be great against the play since they can always drop a safety to even out the numbers. Priority one should be making sure they can stop the play successfully, if they can game plan to always force Mayfield to be the ball-carrier that’s even better.
Lincoln Riley should be forced to ask himself how many carries he wants Mayfield to have to take in this game or whether he wants the contest to be determined by his QB’s legs or by the ones attached to Perine and Mixon.
If Texas can present sound fronts and numbers against the Oklahoma run game the battle is more than half-won. The way Chris Nelson, Paul Boyette, Charles Omenihu, and Poona Ford have been playing this year is definitely enough to give the Oklahoma OL fits.
The next step is keeping careful tabs on Joe Mixon. Texas doesn’t want a repeat of the 2015 TCU game, where Kavontae Turpin kept finding himself matched up on players like Peter Jinkens and Naashon Hughes. They need to use their “plus one” advantage in the middle of the field that’s gained by manning up the outside receivers with man coverage from the corners to zero in on Joe Mixon if he’s flexed out as a receiver, or else to double Mark Andrews or spy Mayfield.
If I was Lincoln Riley, I’d be probing the Texas defense for weak spots and moving Mixon all over the place in an effort to either pick on a bad match-up or just to force assignment busts by the shaky Texas secondary.
The majority of Texas’ calls on defense should look something like this:
I just watched Washington take down Christian McCaffrey and the Stanford while playing mostly one main coverage and then just mixing in some simple stunts up front, there’s no reason Texas should be any more complicated than that. Indeed, a big reason for the victory in 2013 was Texas simply lining up in nickel or dime depending on how many WRs OU put on the field, eliminating easy match-ups, and playing man coverage all day long. It turned out Blake Bell and that Sooner team weren’t able to out-execute that Texas team if they just played simple, mano y mano football.
They’ll need to follow a similar prescription against the Sooners on Saturday. If Oklahoma is good enough to out-execute Texas, so be it, but Charlie needs to unleash his athletes and give them a chance to go toe to toe with their rivals. You can’t go into the Cotton Bowl and play confused, unaggressive football or terrible things happen.
Playing simple defense, man coverage, and being aggressive up front used to be Charlie’s calling card and was how he took down Oklahoma in the championship years ago. If he wants to keep this job he’ll need to get his defense to play that way once more.