The story of the last two weeks for the Texas Longhorns has been rewriting their recent history, snapping losing streaks against the TCU Horned Frogs and the Kansas State Wildcats. This week could be the third for the Longhorns.
As the Longhorns head to Dallas for the Red River Showdown, questions abound on both ends of the 50-yard line, centering around what their team is truly capable of. The Sooners have looked dominant against some teams that have struggled since losing to Oklahoma, while Texas has dominated teams that should have been close and played close with teams it should have dominated.
To help shed some light on the Sooners, we welcome in Jack Shields of Crimson and Cream Machine to help answer our questions. You can follow Jack on Twitter (@jlarryshields) or Crimson and Cream Machine (@CCMachine) for perspectives from the other side of the Red River.
Burnt Orange Nation: Kyler Murray has been nothing short of spectacular this year. He’s No. 5 in the country in total offense and is the second-most efficient quarterback in all of college football. Most expected Murray to be good, but how far beyond expectations is the Heisman-level performance he’s turning in this year? Do you see this level of production continuing or do you see Murray leveling off at some point?
Crimson and Cream Machine: I wouldn’t say he’s surpassed all expectations, but he’s lived up to the highest of expectations. As wild as this sounds, there are times in which he looks better than his predecessor just because of his pure talent. However, he’s also checked off all of the other boxes — leadership, poise, accuracy, etc. Texas obviously presents his most difficult challenge to date (and likely his toughest of the regular season), but he’ll likely continue to be insanely productive on account of his offensive line’s abilities in pass protection. Like Baker Mayfield, he’s been incredible against the blitz because of A.) his offensive line and B.) his ability to improvise. Saturday will obviously be a tough test, but I’m still expecting him to be quite efficient.
BON: The Oklahoma defense is a bit of an enigma, giving up 405 yards of offense per game, but holding opponents to just 23.2 points per game. Is this an intentional “bend, but don’t break” strategy, or is there some deeper issues happening with the defense? If Oklahoma continues to struggle, how hot does defensive coordinator Mike Stoops’s seat get?
C&CM: Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other. The deeper issue would be the inconsistency in tackling, as players have been much better about being in the right position to make plays — in coverage, out on the edge and in the gaps — in comparison to last season. This unit actually played solid games against FAU and UCLA (take that for what it’s worth), but back-end tackling was the big issue against Iowa State, scheme was the issue against Army, and the issues against Baylor were a bit more dynamic.
As far as Mike’s seat is concerned, it’s difficult to say. The fact that Oklahoma keeps winning games is one thing that saves him. Oklahoma has also done quite well with defensive recruiting over the past few cycles, so that also helps his cause. The general belief for many is that as the talent level increases, a lot of the issues with Mike Stoops will take care of themselves — at it makes sense, to a degree. He’s been a bit more aggressive this year due to an increased confidence in his personnel, and that’s resulted in a fairly effective pass rush. If OU loses some games this season on account of defensive ineptitude, he could be in trouble. But no matter what happens, it’s going to be a difficult balancing act because of the recruiting element. There’s also one other question — was there an understanding of some sort between Bob Stoops, Joe Castiglione, and Lincoln Riley before Bob made his announcement? The general belief is that there’s a good chance that Mike will “step away” in the next few years if things don’t improve, but OU will have to be very tactful as far as timing and other factors are concerned.
BON: Oklahoma has looked like there was not much drop off from a year that featured a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and four players drafted into the NFL. To what can you attribute the Sooners’ ability to reset, rather than reload?
C&CM: Having a veteran offensive line obviously doesn’t hurt, and this team has also replaced one legendary QB with what appears to be another. Beyond that, the overall level of talent on this roster is higher than it was a year ago, and that’s likely going to continue as OU strings together these highly-ranked classes in consecutive cycles.
BON: It seems like it’s going to be a strength vs. strength matchup on Saturday, with the Sooners led by their offense and Texas led by the defense. What do you see as the key for Oklahoma to come out on top of that matchup?
C&CM: It would have to be Oklahoma’s running game. This offseason, Bobby Evans moved from RT to LT, regular contributor Cody Ford moved from guard to RT, and now redshirt freshman Creed Humphrey is starting at center, with seniors Dru Samia and Ben Powers at the guard positions, there’s plenty of talent and experience along this offensive line, but they’re still working on cohesion as far as run blocking is concerned. This team wasn’t able to get much going on the ground until the fourth quarter against Baylor, so being able to truly establish it against Texas might be the difference between a close game and a blowout win.
BON: Conversely, the Texas offense is good but struggles to move the ball at times. We’ve already explored the questions about the Oklahoma defense. So is there a matchup or facet to the Texas offense that worries you heading into the game?
C&CM: Larger receivers have given OU trouble, and Texas obviously has some of those. OU probably blows Iowa State out of the water of the secondary doesn’t miss a ton of tackles on the back end against the big, strong Hakeem Butler. Against Baylor, the huge plays didn’t happen, but guys like Jalen Hurd and Denzel Mims were able to do some damage against this secondary.
BON: What’s your prediction for Saturday and what are your keys to the game for Oklahoma?
C&CM: Well, this sort of brings me to another concern about Oklahoma’s defense. In 2017, Texas was able to keep this close late with long, sustained drives that kept the ball away from Oklahoma’s offense. If Sam Ehlinger is able to make that happen again by pulling out third-down conversions, this will be another close one. I think OU will be a bit better about that this time around, but I also think Texas’ defense is going to come to play. I’ll go with OU narrowly beating the spread and pulling out a 34-24 victory.
BON: Bonus — The other big draw of the weekend is the Texas State Fair, and the assorted fried foods. What is your go-to food when you go to the fair?
C&CM: I’m so glad you asked me this, because I actually posted a preview of this year’s new food options earlier this week. While Oklahoma’s defense disappoints me on the reg, a Fletcher’s Corny Dog will never let me down. This year, however, Fletcher’s has added the Cheezy Pup (basically a corn dog with cheese instead of meat) to the menu, so I’ll probably have to add that to my order. I might have to try a Corn Dog Ale, as well.