In the 2018 Thinking Texas Football preseason preview, I predicted that the Cowboys would take a step back this year, despite their preseason rankings in the Top 25 and some media Big 12 Dark Horse title talk. Given that the resilient Mike Gundy has won 10+ games in 4 of his last 5 seasons and in 6 of his last 8, the odds probably were not in my favor, but the prediction has borne out. A team that hasn’t signed a Top 30 recruiting class in years can’t lose that much production and experience and simply reload without a year or two to retrench.
Early on, it didn’t look that way. The Cowboys seasons peaked early with a home win over Boise State and a #17 national ranking, but after that 3-0 start, they’ve gone 1-3 in Big 12 play with a blowout loss to Texas Tech, a shootout loss to Iowa State, and a debacle egg-laying in Manhattan against Kansas State where they scored only 12 points. A prime time night game in Stillwater against Texas represents a line in the sand for their season. Their goal is to play spoiler and for Gundy to land a Burnt Orange scalp to placate their fans and a certain billionaire with more than a passing interest in the Cowboy program.
QB Taylor Cornelius has struggled to replace Mason Rudolph (who started 45 games for the Cowboys) and while big plays certainly still abound in the Cowboy passing game (he averages a fat 15 yards per completion), Corndog has shown a particular knack for untimely turnovers (8 INT on the season) and inaccuracy when he feels uncomfortable in the pocket. He’s big, fairly mobile for his size (he’s employed in the running game more than you’d expect given his 6-5 frame) and has plenty of arm, but he doesn’t always see the field well and has a bad habit of extending plays that should be a 5 yard check down. Todd Orlando’s job is to make sure it stays that way with disguised coverages and plenty of interior pressure. Corndog could be benched for true freshman Spencer Sanders (talented, inexperienced) or Hawaii transfer Dru Brown (experienced, not talented), but assume he’ll be on a short leash if he does get the start.
Justice Hill is averaging over 6 yards per carry, but he was held to a combined 3 yards per carry against ISU and KSU. Texas may come out in dime, but you can bet that Brandon Jones, PJ Locke and BJ Foster will be coming hard downhill in the running game. Look hard at that dynamic, particularly in the 1st quarter, as OSU play actions on 1st down and tries to grab chunk plays downfield against the Longhorn cornerbacks.
The OSU OL is huge, but they’re a little slow-footed. Too often, they lean and screen. Texas can’t let them play that game and accept blocking. If Nelson can hold integrity inside and demand double teams, there’s plenty of opportunity for Hager, Omenihu and Gary Johnson to run by these guys, inflict negative plays in the run game and create pocket pressure. Because of Justice Hill’s elusiveness and OSU’s propensity for running outside zone to set up play action shots, the Texas linebackers and Locke have to be aware of taking generous angles and using the undefeated defender – the sideline – as an ally. A bad angle and Hill with turned shoulders running up the alley is bad news for the good guys. We did a poor job of that against Baylor and my guess is that Orlando stressed it during the bye week. The surest way to give the OSU QB and crowd confidence is to allow the Cowboys a running game.
OSU’s receiving corps no longer features Marcell Ateman and James Washington (they combined for over 2700 yards last year) and while they can’t replace their combination of speed and strength, Tylan Wallace is proving to be an absolute stud. He already has 718 yards receiving on the season on 18 yards per catch and they’ll target him 10+ times against us. The rest of the OSU receiving load is disseminated and you won’t confuse any of them with Ateman as a #2 option. Keep an eye on former walk-on Landon Wolf. He saw little action early in the year, but he has scored in consecutive weeks and he’s getting run because he makes smart reads and knows where to settle when Wallace takes the top off of the defense. One thing worth noting: OSU has always combined big body downfield ball winners who possess fantastic body control (Bryant, Blackmon, Ateman, Washington) with little fast guys in the screen and vertical game. This corps doesn’t feature that balance. No big boys. That’s giving them some struggles in the red zone and in winning 50/50 balls.
Mike Gundy hired Jim Knowles from Duke based primarily on his ability to field competitive defenses in the ACC despite operating at a talent disadvantage. Gundy was pretty forthright about identifying him based on advanced analytics. As always, The Mullet is a disguise for a pretty good football mind. OSU runs a high pressure defense that looks to inflict negative plays above all. They frequently play press man coverage outside (with help inside) and then blitz on the interior to force check down throws short of the sticks or create sacks. The downside of their defense is that if you create assignment indecision with option football or include the QB as a runner to give you extra blockers, they can falter. The defense also falls apart if the corners can’t hold up outside or Cowboy safety inexperience allows free receivers in the middle of the field. This is a feast or famine defense and Texas will have to adopt a much more aggressive game plan if this staff wants to really exploit the Cowboy back end.
The strength of the Cowboy defense is their linebackers. Calvin Bundage and Justin Phillips are prototypical spread-busting greyhounds and what they lack in size, they make up for in speed and quickness. They lead the Cowboys in tackles and we’d like to have either in Burnt Orange. They delay blitz a lot. I’m looking at you, Patrick Vahe. Don’t turn your shoulders, dude.
The Cowboy defensive line took a big blow with the loss of Darrion Daniels in late September. Daniels was their Chris Nelson and while he’s a negligible pass rusher, he was a physical run stopper who provided a shield to Bundage and Phillips. His replacement Enoch Smith is a JAG. Trey Carter is his interior counterpart and he’s OK. He has a decent first step, but he can be bullied at the point of attack. The DL star of the Cowboy defense is Jordan Brailford. He leads the Big 12 in sacks and he’s disruptive against the run. He’s 6-3, 250 and does a good job of translating speed to power as a pass rusher and run defender. I like how Calvin Anderson matches up with him, but a fair amount of Brailford’s sacks come from running down a QB after he bails the pocket. The Longhorn QBs need to understand that bailing backwards from the pocket is a no-no. As are off-balance back foot throws while doing the same. The other DE is Jarrell Owens. Big 12 average player who went nuts against Boise State (2 sacks, forced fumble) and hasn’t done anything since.
When we want to take a shot to Duvernay on a deep post that Duvernay will run incorrectly and the QB misses by six yards, chipping Beck on Brailford to help Anderson makes a lot of sense, particularly if Buechele starts.
The Cowboys secondary had to replace all of their starting safeties from 2017 and in 2018 they’ve reshuffled the unit a couple of times since season’s start, inserting true freshman Kolby Peel and Jarrick Bernard at their two “true” safety roles. Both have very bright futures, but they’re not Caden Sterns and BJ Foster. If two freshman safeties doesn’t scream attack downfield against a blitzing defense and force them into run indecision on play action, I’m not sure what does. Their hybrid safety is Kenneth Edison-Magruder and he’s a big, active dude. OSU’s cornerbacks are pretty good in my opinion, but they’re given a hard job. AJ Green and Rodarius Williams are both long and largely do a good job in man coverage, but neither tops 185. I have to wonder how they’ll hold up tackling LJH and CJ underneath. The staff needs to stress that catching a short ball against the blitz, and immediately getting upfield instead of juking around is the easiest way to a 40 yard gain. Knowles calls defenses where there’s a lot of green behind the tackler. Put that tackler on his ass and our fight song will play.
A hell of a lot of our offensive game plan should be built around neutralizing Brailford on deep shots and forcing those freshman safeties into playmaking roles. The Texas running game will open up like the Oklahoma plains if those safeties are forced to play deep, the Cowboy interior DL can’t demand a double team, and our OL starts to leak on to the second level. But it has to be created with a credible passing threat.
Not much to say here except that the Cowboys are historically aggressive in trying to block punts and based on what they’ve seen on film from us, they’re probably licking their chops. Kicker Matt Amendola has hit 22 of his last 23 field goal attempts. We don’t want this game coming down to a Cowboy kick.
Truthfully, OSU isn’t that good. But Baylor wasn’t that good and we saw how that went. Their strengths can all be identified and schemed against and their weaknesses are pretty obvious in both their scheme and personnel. Obviously, there are some constraints on the Longhorn side with Boyd and Davis suspended for 1/4 of the game and Ehlinger’s health up in the air, but coming off of the bye this game is a good test of our staff’s game planning ability. If we’re content to just grind, it’s anyone’s game. If Texas can scheme a few big plays isolating Cowboy weaknesses, the Stillwater crowd will start to play against them instead of for them