The 2018 Oklahoma Sooners are a juggernaut. Led by their potential Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray, who has hardly missed a beat replacing No. 1 NFL draft choice Baker Mayfield, the Sooners offense has been putting up video-game numbers all season. Starting with a 63-14 drubbing of a solid Florida Atlantic team that was hopefully the opening salvo in a championship season, Oklahoma is scoring nearly 50 points per game on their way to a 5-0 start. Last week they lit up the Baylor defense for another 66 points. The Sooners enter tomorrow’s rivalry game against the Texas Longhorns as the sixth-ranked team in the nation. According to cfbstats.com, Murray has already thrown for nearly 1,500 yards and has completed over 70 percent of his passes, while also running for nearly 300 yards as the team’s top rushing threat. The superlatives have been heaped upon Oklahoma all season, with 11 separate players making the preseason award watch lists, and the team a consensus choice to win the Big 12.
Meanwhile, the Texas Longhorns continue to struggle in their quest to reassert the dominance of an era unseen in at least a decade. Their hopes for a berth in the national championship playoff came crashing down in the first game, an uninspired 34-29 loss to a Maryland team that was missing their head coach and reeling from the heat-related death of a beloved teammate. The Longhorns squandered numerous chances to win the game late, the last of which was a dreadful interception by Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, whose floating pass somehow missed the incredibly athletic 6’4″ frame of wide receiver Li’l Jordan Humphrey. Four straight victories since that fateful day have done little to quell the doubters. An outgunned Tulsa team gave Texas all they could handle in Austin, with the Longhorns escaping with a 28-21 victory.
What seemed like quality wins over ranked programs USC and TCU at the time have become less impressive in retrospect, as both teams have faded from the polls. Last week Texas had to survive a furious second-half comeback from an embattled Kansas State team before sealing a 19-14 win. Texas enters the Oklahoma game as the 19th-ranked team in the nation, but there seems to be nothing to suggest that the Longhorns have a chance of upsetting their hated rivals.
Yet the Longhorns know differently.
The first indicator that Texas may be primed to upset Oklahoma lies at the top in head coach Tom Herman. While Herman’s game management — particularly his penchant for unnecessary fourth-down gambles — is often questionable, his track record of success is indicative of his quality. Yet it is a more esoteric aspect of his record that suggests his team will give their opponents all they can handle tomorrow. Herman seems to step up his game when the chips are down. In games where Herman’s team is the underdog, Herman has led his team to an upset victory eight times in 13 attempts. Furthermore, Herman’s teams are an incredible 12-1 against the spread as an underdog. For some reason, whether it is better preparation, more focus, motivational techniques, or a combination of factors, Herman seems to always get the best out of his teams when the chips are down. This game should be no different. Underdogs also typically fare well in rivalry games anyway, so this could be a signature win for the Longhorns coach.
Another Texas coach will have a strong hand in determining the outcome of this game — defensive mastermind Todd Orlando. Last season, after the humiliating opening defeat to the same Maryland team that delivered the same result this season, Orlando’s defense was one of the top five in the nation. This season has followed that same pattern. Since the opening loss to Maryland, the Texas defense has steadily progressed with each game. In last week’s game against Kansas State, at one point in the second half Texas’ 19 points were nearly as much as Kansas State’s 22 total yards. Texas will be the best defense that Oklahoma has seen this year by far, and might be the best one they see all year.
For all of the success that Kyler Murray has achieved during his magical season, he hasn’t faced a secondary with the kind of talent that Texas has. He hasn’t had to deal with a shutdown corner like Kris Boyd, an active playmaker like Brandon Jones, nor a tenacious ball hawk like Caden Sterns. Texas also has the team speed to limit Murray’s opportunities to scramble, which is an essential part of his game as a shorter quarterback. To make matters worse, Oklahoma has lost their All-American running back Rodney Anderson for the season, and has so far been unable to replace him. Texas has the ability to make Oklahoma one-dimensional, and if that happens the Sooners will have a difficult time moving the ball against the Longhorns defense.
As Alabama has proven year after year during the Nick Saban era, great defense and a strong running game are the keys to consistent victory in football. Flashy spread offenses often get all the accolades, but there is something to be said for teams that can grind out wins. Texas does not have a flashy running game. In fact, it seems well below average, gaining only a paltry 3.7 yards per carry. Yet Texas has proven this season that they can pound teams into submission. The offensive line is big, strong, and powerful, and can wear down the Oklahoma front over the course of the game. Texas has three backs of varying abilities that they can mix-and-match by situation.
Freshman Keontay Ingram is a shifty, slippery runner, while the bruising Daniel Young is a punishing power runner. Cal transfer Tre Watson is a combination of the two, a physical, slashing runner with remarkable acceleration. With fresh legs running behind a relentless wall of an offensive line, the Sooners will have a hard time keeping their own legs under them, while the Longhorns can chew up clock and keep the game close. Texas also has a secret weapon in Ehlinger, who at 230 pounds is tough to tackle, and will challenge and wear down the Oklahoma defense with planned runs and scrambles.
A win for Oklahoma in this game opens the door for a possible playoff appearance and a shot at the national title. A win for Texas could allow the program to turn the corner and would give them the inside track to the Big 12 championship. It’s a huge game for both teams, but these Longhorns have the right stuff to upset the favored Sooners and finally gain a toehold toward restoring the glory of a bygone era.
The Red River Shootout takes place tomorrow at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas at 10:00 a.m. CST.