The Gameplan: toughest stretch

Duke Thomas. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Duke Thomas. (Will Gallagher/IT)

As difficult as Texas’ pre-conference schedules have been in recent years with stern tests like Ole Miss, BYU, and now Notre Dame, the opening stretch of Big 12 play in Texas’ 2015 season may prove to be an extraordinarily stiff challenge.

After facing Cal there will be zero respite for Charlie Strong’s young team as they then take on everyone’s favorite 2015 darkhorse, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, in Austin and then follow it up with a road trip to Fort Worth to battle the TCU Horned Frogs, then they’ll try to reload enough bullets in the gun to win the 2015 Red River Shootout.

There’s a good chance that part of the reason for Oklahoma’s lack of physical edge in the last two Shootouts has been related to the fact that the Sooners had to play TCU the week before the big game both in 2013 and in 2014. The Frogs will bruise you up and command your full attention the week before the big game. That challenge will now go to Texas.

Finally after that showdown Texas will get a bye week and a chance to put something together in order to finish the season out well.

Game 4: The Oklahoma State Cowboys

Offensive summary:

There’s some mystery over what exactly Mike Gundy is up to in Stillwater these days after he hired a more power-oriented coach to oversee the OL and added another coach devoted entirely to tight ends and fullbacks.

After putting on a clinic on how to combine the zone running game and Air Raid passing attack over the last several years they now seem to be evolving to perhaps feature more power and possibly dual TE sets. They’ll need to find a running back to make that approach worth their while but they did pull in JUCO power back Chris Carson to help Rennie Childs carry the load.

Mercifully they no longer have freakishly fast Tyreek Hill to threaten the perimeter anymore after some legal trouble forced him off the team.

They’ll have some interesting choices to make, formation wise, as they have a pair of reasonably versatile TEs in Jeremy Seaton and Blake Jarwin. Seaton is first and foremost a blocker but he’s capable enough as a receiver that it’s not a disaster if you have to throw him the ball. Jarwin actually has the quickness and hands to run routes from a flex or attached TE position and do some damage. However, the ‘Pokes also have three very solid returning receivers in Brandon Shepherd (39 catches, 737 yards), James Washington (28 catches, 456 yards), and David Glidden (42 catches, 598 yards).

It’s possible that Gundy will put all of them on the field at the same time in order to feature the main reason that Big 12 sportswriters are so intrigued by the Cowboys, true sophomore quarterback Mason Rudolph.

OSU double TE empty

This Patriot-style set could help them make the most of their skill talent, keep some extra blocking help around to aid an OL that was even worse in 2014 than the Texas unit, and ask some tough questions that Big 12 defenses are largely unused to asking. The double TE empty set is not one that has seen much action in this league.

Their young gun, Rudolph “the reindeer” took over in 2014 for former walk-on Daxx Garman after Texas buried the ‘Pokes in Stillwater. He showed some real potential in a loss to the Bears before leading the Cowboys to victory over Oklahoma (in Norman, no less), and in their bowl game against Washington.

His greatest attributes are a strong and accurate arm throwing downfield along with a reasonably strong command of the offense for such a young player. One addition that should help him continue to grow is UAB transfer left tackle Victor Salako, a 6-foot-6, 330-pound monster that should seriously upgrade the Cowboy OL.

There’s some potential on this roster to be a real handful depending on how much of a leap Rudolph has taken in the offseason.

Matching up:

If the Cowboys can establish a power run game from double TE sets and/or add some empty passing game formations utilizing those two, then look out.

Learning how to play the run against a gap scheme, especially one paired with quick passes in an RPO system, can be challenging stuff for a young LB corps. Similarly, it would be hard for Texas to attack an empty, double-tight end formation with the blitz as the offense can alternate between five-, six-, and seven-man protections without tipping their hand.

If Rudolph is ready to be a big time player than this will be a tough draw.

Defensive summary:

A year after Oklahoma State had one of the strongest defenses in the league (they even shut down Baylor) they were decimated by graduation and took their lumps throughout 2014 while getting a very young secondary up to speed. They found some real players in the process and should be back near the top of the league again in 2015.

The greatest talent on this side of the ball lies in 6-foot-4, 275-pound DE Emmanuel Ogbah who had 17 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, and five pass break-ups in 2014. He’s a true edge rusher but his large size made him an impossible match-up even for the massive and experienced Sooner OL.

OSU will have to replace defensive tackles James Castleman and Ofa Hautau. Former 4-star recruit Vincent Taylor has drawn positive reviews in the spring and will need to have a solid season along with JUCO (Tyler JC)  DL transfer Motekiai Maile.

The defensive backfield should be loaded and will have enough depth to allow DC Glenn Spencer to do what he does best; build defensive packages to choke out different types of offenses in different situations.

They have three solid corners with starting experience back in Kevin Peterson, Ashton Lampkin, and Ramon Richards along with a safety tandem in Jordan Sterns and Tre Flowers that played a lot of promising football in 2014.

At linebacker, both inside starters Ryan Simmons and Seth Jacobs are back and backed-up by tons of developing talent. Another JUCO Jordan Burton is hoping to match the play the ‘Pokes got with star linebackers in the last two years from Shaun Lewis and Josh Furman. This is a deep and fearsome unit.

Matching up:

Whatever Texas’ offensive strength will be in 2015, it’s very likely that Oklahoma State will be able to shut it down with their versatile defense, provided their new defensive tackles aren’t abhorrent and Glenn Spencer is who I think he is.

It’s just a very simple matter for the Pokes to bring extra run defenders into the box thanks to a coverage safety in Tre Flowers, excellent run support player in boundary safety Jordan Sterns, and the fact that their system utilizes a “space backer” to the field that can blitz or force the edge on standard downs.

They can run-blitz or drop down good run-support players to either side of a formation as needed to squeeze out the Texas run game. The only recourse left for UT may be to try and power the ball down main street behind Taylor Doyle and Kent Perkins against OSU’s unproven DTs with some pass options on the outside to try and keep the run-support from arriving too quickly.

Texas slice RPO vs OSU

If Perkins can handle the OSU nose tackle and one of the Texas TEs can handle that slice block on the defensive end, then Texas could do some damage on plays like this all year long.

Threat level: HIGH

Drawing Okie lite at home, before Rudolph gets going, and before the worst part of the schedule is probably in Texas’ best interests this season. This could be a 50-50 toss-up if trends in the season break right for both teams. OSU should be able to hold down Texas’ scoring but it’s possible that they won’t be dropping many points in DKR either.

Game 5: The TCU Horned Frogs

Offensive summary:

The Horned Frogs were not just devastating on offense in 2014. Texas actually had them pretty well under wraps aside from TCU winning a few 50-50 jump balls until the putridity of the UT offensive performance finally burned out Strong’s better half.

However, it’s schematically very difficult to account for all of the ways in which TCU can threaten the field and a leap of improvement from the Big 12’s fastest player could make this offense pretty scary in Year 2 of the Air Raid.

And of course, everyone is back on this offense save for left tackle Tayo Fabuluje, including Aaron Green who was starting to dominate between the tackles in the TCU Wickline-esque run game. They should be pretty dang strong.

Matching up:

What worked for Texas last year was to mix up as many looks as was feasible to keep Boykin from feasting on easy (for him) hitch/comeback throws on the outside, bring lots of different pressures, and then mix in max coverage schemes while leaving Hughes to spy Boykin and keep him from rolling out of the pocket to scramble or throwing free from duress.

Spy Boykin

This might be a game for Texas to get some young DBs in a dime package to get as many athletes on the field as possible.

Defensive summary:

Texas was totally outmatched by the TCU defense in 2014. The coaching staff looked helpless trying to attack the Frogs with the run game in either the spread or pro-style looks and Texas was regularly beat at the point of attack by the superior Frog front.

The Frogs are losing tackle Chucky Hunter along with the top three linebackers (and they only play two at a time), the strong and weak safeties, and leading cornerback Kevin White.

Their DL should still be formidable but there will be a learning curve for all the new parts in the middle of the field and it’s hard to believe that the new LBs will fly to the ball in the same way that Paul Dawson and company did a year ago. Eric Nahlin favorite Denzel Johnson will probably be a star at strong safety but he is replacing Sam Carter, who was one of the best players in the league.

The big question will be what happens at corner as two dominant corners in this system makes for a pretty nasty defense. Ranthony Texada should hold down one spot so if they can find a really good option at boundary corner, which is no easy task, then everything will be easier for their green ‘backers and safeties.

Matching up:

As we’ve covered, TCU junked up their defense a tad to attack Texas’ power-stick RPO game last year and the Longhorns couldn’t make them pay.

As strong as John Harris was in 2014, Texas needs to use Armanti Foreman or Daje Johnson in the slot role he often occupied in order to attack the TCU safeties vertically in 2015, that’s the key to punishing their brand of defense. Once you force the Frogs to play conservatively with their safeties in coverage then their ability to demolish your run game with aggressive support goes out the window and the game is changed.

From there, the clincher would be literally using Swoopes (or Heard) in the run game. Force the safeties to back up and then account for the QB as a runner and they start to run out of answers. This RPO yielded a 28-yard gain for Swoopes last year and could do wonders for Texas if ran it five times a game rather than once.

DW RB screen-QB draw

Put simply, if Texas can’t force the Frogs to play conservatively by attacking the deep middle of the field then this game is going to be ugly again.

Threat level: SEVERE

The TCU defense may take a step back but they’ll be far from terrible, they’ll be playing in Fort Worth, and they’ll be playing a Texas team staring down the barrel of an important Red River Shootout. Meanwhile their offense should be a better version of the one that moved the ball reasonably well on a better Texas defense than 2015 is likely to see.

Game 6: The Oklahoma Sooners

Offensive summary:

The Sooners are a game manager at QB away from having a potentially terrifying offense. JUCO WR transfer Dede Westbrook could prove to be the reason I thought so much of his QB, Jake Hubenak, and has already been dominating in Norman in their practices. Fellow receiver Sterling Shephard is back after an injury plagued 970 yard season where he was lightning when healthy.

Jared NortonNew Air Raid OC Lincoln Riley has also re-introduced the concept of the flex TE to the land thieves with 6-foot-6 Mark Andrews as the beneficiary. On top of all that, the Sooners bring back Samaje Perine, welcome back the formerly suspended Joe Mixon, and hope to bring along young receiver Michiah “ultra” Quick.

If they can find a QB that knows where the ball should go and can reliably get it there, then all of this prodigious skill talent should do the rest of the work for him.

What they have is Baker Mayfield, who is the homeless man’s Johnny Manziel, and Trevor Knight, who is prone to staring down receivers and making baffling decisions with the ball. Redshirt sophomore Cody Thomas is probably the best hope at the position but he has a ways to go before he can even win the job. Redshirt freshman Justice Hansen already transferred out of the program.

Whether new OC Lincoln Riley will be able to save the Bob Stoops era probably depends on whether he can salvage Knight or make something of Cody Thomas in 2015.

Matching up:

Stopping Oklahoma’s running game won’t be the worst challenge since Texas has done this reasonably for several years running now and the Sooners’ best run-blocking personnel have exhausted their eligibility. As good as Perine is, running behind the massive 2014 OU line and behind their fullback Ripkowksi and tight end/H-back Blake Bell made his life much easier.

Instead this game becomes a matter of matching up to another Air Raid that happens to lack a trustworthy signal caller and may struggle to contain Texas’ pass-rushing threats. There are more worrisome threats on the schedule.

Defensive summary:

Bob overhauled his entire staff in the offseason but while he didn’t spare loyal servants such as Josh Heupel or everyone’s new favorite back-up Texas OC (Jay Norvell), he did manage to save a space for his brother Mike Stoops. Nepotism, imo.

After flirting with some of Saban’s 3-4 defensive tactics and an interesting take on how to use Eric Striker (as a nickel/space-backer), the brothers Stoops seem to have determined that if they’re going down they’ll go down with what they know. Striker is now back on the line of scrimmage in a Buck/Fox type role, they’re playing more Over fronts to protect him by lining up a 3-tech DT alongside of him, and base nickel defense is returning toprotect their big safeties from challenging coverage assignments.

The Sooners had two problems in 2014 that repeatedly reared up. One was that they couldn’t rush the passer without involving Striker, and by moving him to nickel they imposed self-limits on how often they could utilize him, and the second was that their corners just weren’t very good.

They return Zach Sanchez, who is good at baiting picks though he isn’t a lockdown coverage player and unless a young corner like Jordan Thomas steps up in a big way, they may struggle to improve as needed.

Matching up:

Once again, Texas is looking at a defense that could pose some troubling matchup issues. Swoopes might end up losing his job to Heard simply because of unlucky circumstances with Heard taking over in time for a weaker 2nd half to the schedule.

In this instance the problem is Striker, Texas just can’t block that guy and that limits how they can attack the Sooner defense. In fact, the whole OU defensive front could be problematic as they still have some athletes up front even with nose tackle Jordan Phillips departing for the NFL.

If the Sooners shore up their coverage on the outside and young safety Steven Parker proves to be as effective a nickel as you’d expect it could be tough to navigate their coverages…particularly with Striker bearing down on the QB.

Threat level: HIGH

The week before facing Texas, Bob Stoops will face the West Virginia Mountaineers in Norman. Now, Holgo’s crew may be feisty when playing out east but in Norman they aren’t likely to present a threat that prevents Bob from staying up late that week to get extra Texas prep in. His seat is getting warm and he’s traditionally used this game as a way to make statements that stave off pressure from the more demanding elements of the Oklahoma football community.

That said, he’s facing similar difficulties to Texas at QB only with a better supporting cast to try and prop up whomever he has to choose to man the helm. If Charlie gets his first victory over OU, it’ll be because cultural rot has hamstrung Bobby’s program and robbed him of his extra “big game Bob” gear.