(this was originally written for our Oct/Nov digital magazine before the OU-TCU game)
The first Stream I ever wrote was after last year’s Red River Rivalry game, hence the absence of the ‘o’ and the ‘u’ in the title. OU sucks, apparently, so it has little utility when paired together, don’t y_ _ think? Last October, after watching a game in which the Longhorns thoroughly outplayed the favored Sooners I had tons of excess thoughts to offer. It was an immensely entertaining game, and a great way for Mack Brown to end his often lopsided series with Bob Stoops.
Oklahoma is now out for revenge. The school from Norman is playing quite well. Texas is not playing winning football, unless you’re measuring against North Texas and Kansas, which nobody is.
This is a tough way for Charlie Strong to enter his first contest in one of the most historic and heated rivalries in the history of the sport. But coach Strong is no stranger to big games, or Bob Stoops.
STRONG VS STOOPS: A PRECURSOR
Longhorn fans will recall the strength of the 2008 Oklahoma Sooners team. In what was one of the greatest games in the history of the rivalry – featuring two of the greatest teams in the history of their programs – Texas defeated OU in a thriller, 45-35. That year, holding OU to 35 points was a feat in and of itself. The ‘08 Sooners offense was one of the most prolific college football had seen, even though the conference was quite good that year.
Coaches are collusive, sportswriters are mindless and computers are heartless. Despite the head to head victory, OU was awarded the trip to the National Championship where they would play Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators.
Stoops won’t have fond memories of that meeting. Florida’s defense, coordinated by Strong, looked exactly like the defenses fans want to see at Texas. They were young, fast and ferocious, and of the four units on the field, the Florida defense was the differentiator. Using many of the same looks, and focusing on instilling the same traits as he does to this day, Strong made a name for himself on that night.
Florida won by the score of 24-14. That hardly underscores the quality of performance. Oklahoma had averaged over 60 points per game in their previous six contests. Being held to 14 equates to a shutout. Sadly, Strong doesn’t have a team with the talent or mindset required to pull off performances like he did on that night. His challenge is now much greater.
STRONG VS STOOPS: LET THE GAMES BEGIN
Stoops had Mack Brown’s number in a bigger way than the record indicates, but not quite as much as some of the scores assert. After getting the better of the Texas coaching legend, Stoops now moves on to combat a person he surely respects.
As former Florida defensive coordinators who both experienced success, Stoops will look across the field and see a fellow football man. Football is much more than X’s and O’s. It’s about instilling toughness, physicality and aggressive disposition. These are the things the Florida team in 2008 had and even though that was Urban Meyer’s team, it was Charlie Strong’s defense.
Conversely, Strong will watch tape of Oklahoma and see many things he wants his team to become; athletic, fast and well-coached. The Sooners defense plays fast and is opportunistic. The offense attacks every level of the defense and that starts up front with a great offensive line. 2014 OU is in many ways a lesser version of the 2008 team. There’s no Sam Bradford or Jermaine Gresham, but there’s still tons of talent littering the field. Scheme specific talent which has been developed over years. This is what Strong hopes the Longhorn program becomes from top to bottom.
Interestingly, this Longhorn defense is much more experienced than the Gator defense that stymied the Sooners on that January night. It also doesn’t lack for talent, but it has yet to exhibit the consistent sound play and physical mindset of the typical Strong defense. It doesn’t lack for athleticism, necessarily, but it does lack for cohesion.
As you might imagine, I’m not bullish on the Longhorns’ chances. That’s certainly to be expected when we’re discussing an unranked team playing a top five squad, especially when said unranked team has a green quarterback and offensive line.
PROGRAM DIFFERENCES DEFINED BY ONE POSITION GROUPING
Offensive line, it’s kind of a big deal. All too often I hear how Running Back X is terrible! That’s often, but not always, an argument made out of lack of understanding the importance of line play. The first question is an important one; are there lanes for the running back to actually run through?
The answer for Oklahoma is ‘yes’. For Texas, it’s been ‘hell no’. Earl Campbell doesn’t win the Heisman behind this Texas line. Adrian Peterson would win one behind OU’s.
When recruiting for any position you must look far ahead. A person shooting pool doesn’t look to leave for his next shot. He looks to leave for the third shot at a minimum because shape on the second gets you shape on the third. No position requires forward thinking more than offensive line. The big uglies are the longest to develop in S&C and also on the field. They’re almost always at a strength, quickness and coordination disadvantage upon arrival. When you’re somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-foot-4, 290 pounds (generic average), those traits take time to develop (many need to reshape their body), as does o-line cohesion.
When Mack Brown resigned, he left a 2014 class largely thought to be complete. It included one offensive lineman; an undersized center! That, in a nutshell, is what Strong is up against. Poor roster management at the two most important position groupings (offensive line and quarterback) were destined to fail the Texas coach in 2014, whether it was Brown, Strong, or the ghost of Bill Walsh at the helm.
Texas has a makeshift offensive line consisting of a left tackle playing out of position, a guard who may or may not play but hasn’t shown a whole lot when he has, a green yet promising center, a guard who should be a depth piece and a quality guard miscast as a right tackle. Not surprisingly this lot isn’t getting much push.
The same can’t be said for Oklahoma. If you want to watch Texas-bred players performing well on the line watch Tyrus Thompson, Adam Shead, and Darryl Williams. They, along with the rest of the line are blowing defensive lines off the ball – and then getting the linebackers.
SOONERS YOU NEED TO KNOW
QB Trevor Knight, So: He’s more of a distributor at this point – think of a pass first point guard, but he has enough athleticism to make you pay with his feet and run a credible zone read package. He’s neither accurate nor inaccurate and his touchdown to interception ratio won’t wow you, but he does a good job of facilitating his playmakers and running the offense on script.
LB Eric Striker, Jr: Menacingly active, I’m not sure I’ve seen a more apropos name for a linebacker. He plays in space or blitzes the edge equally well. He’s the type of player who needs to be accounted for on every snap. This opens things up for the brothers Stoops to get creative. An example of that is the safety blitz that comes right off of Striker’s hip. Not. Fair.
RB Samaje Perine, Fr: Imagine a bigger and better Joe Bergeron behind a better line than anything Bergeron ever ran behind. Perine requires angry gang tackling to get down. Great feet for such a big back.
CB Zack Sanchez, So: Decently long and very fluid, Sanchez is an excellent cover corner who also breaks quickly and decisively on the ball. If you’re fearing a deep out being picked you’re in good company.
DT Jordan Phillips, So: Much more than just a space eating nose tackle, but he’s that as well. Phillips moves uncommonly well for being 6-6, 330 pounds. With pressure on the edge that will require double teams and Phillips in the middle, it will be tough to account for all the Sooner pressure. Also, Phillips will make running inside zone very difficult.
WR Sterling Shepard, Jr: Shepard is the key to the passing game. He runs every route you’ve seen from Oklahoma receivers throughout the years. He specializes in everything from tunnel screens to vertical routes.
Gulp: I didn’t list a single senior. They may have some early NFL draft entries.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Just as Wheel of Fortune spots contestants the R-S-T-L-N and E, the usual givens certainly apply to this game: no turnovers, some semblance of a run game, don’t allow big plays, etc. I’ll try and be a bit more specific than that formulae.
Texas will have to mitigate OU bringing late pressure and using disguises, which is very tough for a young offensive line and quarterback. All schools do it, not many have anyone the caliber of Eric Striker or Geneo Grissom. Watson will have to have a plan for this. Tennessee had some success with the screen game to combat pressure. West Virginia does what it always does and used the quick game. Texas is traditionally a poor screening team but we’ve seen evidence of quality quick game execution. That needs to be employed in heavy but unpredictable doses.
Funneling runners inside and tackling will be paramount. OU’s staple plays haven’t changed; stretch zone, underneath passing and screens. Corners and edge players will need to squeeze plays towards the middle of the field where more bodies await. All too often we’ve seen OU succeed down the sideline where yards after contact often occurs. Duke Thomas and Quandre Diggs are going to have to get off blocks and help in run support. They have to be physical. Same for Mykkele Thompson when he’s playing man.
Positionally the biggest matchup is Texas’ defensive line versus Oklahoma’s offensive line. On paper and on the field, both have the ability to be great. UT will need a Herculean effort from his front in order to keep this one close late in the game. Malcom Brown and Hassan Ridgeway will have to collapse the pocket in order to stop the run and hurry Knight. Knight, can be rattled as a traditional drop back passer. Rattled quarterbacks make mistakes.
After watching a lot of Oklahoma in preparation of writing this I’ve come to the conclusion they’re better than I originally thought. They play total football – there literally isn’t a phase of the game to be routinely exploited. I still think they stumble at some point (maybe to Baylor at home or TCU on the road) but I can’t see a way Texas trips them up. To keep it interesting into the fourth quarter Texas will have to play mistake free while also being very aggressive in the passing game and tackling on defense.