Oklahoma football: A Red River preview

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 14: Kris Boyd #2 of the Texas Longhorns pursues Marquise Brown #5 of the Oklahoma Sooners in the second half of a football game at the Cotton Bowl on October 14, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 14: Kris Boyd #2 of the Texas Longhorns pursues Marquise Brown #5 of the Oklahoma Sooners in the second half of a football game at the Cotton Bowl on October 14, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

It’s that time of year. The Sooners are heading south to storm the Texas State Fair and take on the Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl.

So how do the Sooners put tears in the eyes of Texas Saturday? What does Oklahoma have to do to continue its dominance this decade (6-2 since 2010) and century (12-6 since 2000)? Here are some keys to the game.

Cover the big wide receivers

The Sooners got a dry run for what to expect against Texas last week when they played Baylor. While Oklahoma did limit big plays (there were no passes over 30 yards in the game for the Bears), there were still moments the physical Baylor wide receivers got the better of the smaller OU cornerbacks. Both Denzel Mims and Jalen Hurd finished with at least nine catches for over 100 yards.

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Enter Texas’ Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Colin Johnson. Like Mims and Hurd, each stand over 6-foot-4. With deep threat Devin Duvernay in the middle of the field drawing safety attention, it will often be up to cornerbacks Tre Norwood, Tre Brown and Parnell Motley to cover their much bigger opponents 1-on-1. Norwood was the first OU player in the Lincoln Riley era to record four pass breakups last week coming off the bench. Don’t be surprised if he gets the start over Norwood this week, but expect all three to play extensively.

Pressure the quarterback

Texas’ quarterback protection has been mediocre at best so far this year. Sam Ehlinger has been sacked 1.8 times per game, which ranks 60th in the country coming into the game. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will have to dial up some pressure on blitzes, but the Sooners have to be able to get pressure with their front four at times as well. It’s something they have done well with the defensive end combo of Kenneth Mann (who may still be out injured) and Ronnie Perkins. That position will likely line up over graduate transfer Calvin Anderson for Texas.

Anderson was recruited heavily by Oklahoma in the offseason, but ultimately the Austin Westlake High School product chose to stay close to home and go to Texas. Now it’s time for Perkins and (hopefully) Mann to make him regret that decision Saturday.

Oklahoma is 19th in the country in sacks on defense. This is a good matchup for the Sooners and an advantage they will have to exploit in order to win this game.

Stop the running game

Texas isn’t particularly good at running the football. They rank 91st in the country at 153.2 yards per game. Oklahoma on the other hand has been decent at stopping the run. The Sooners come into the game giving up just 3.22 yards per rush.

This defense has taken a ton of heat in the media and among fans, but this is the kind of game where the Sooners can turn around the national narrative. Oklahoma must come out and establish the line of scrimmage on early downs and force Texas into third-and-longs. The Longhorns want to play ball control and keep the OU offense off the field. In order to do that, they will have to be able to run the ball with at least a moderate amount of success.

Freshman running back Keaontay Ingram is the Longhorns biggest threat behind Ehlinger himself. Sooner fans remember the Texas quarterback rushing for over 100 yards on them a year ago and you can bet Oklahoma defensive players remember it as well. The key stat will be 150 yards. If the Sooners can hold Texas under that number Oklahoma will have a good chance to win.

Protecting the quarterback

The Texas defense is probably the best the Sooners have seen to this point (one could make an argument that Iowa State is better), but the Longhorns haven’t exactly dialed up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Longhorns rank 105th in the country in team sacks with just 1.4 per game. Oklahoma is ranked 25th in sacks allowed, giving up just 1.2 per game. This feels like a trench advantage the Sooners have to exploit.

If Oklahoma can stay steady and keep Kyler Murray’s jersey clean, that will tilt the matchup between the Sooners talented wide receivers and the stellar Texas secondary into Oklahoma’s favor. Murray with time to throw the ball and this receiving corps is a deadly combination.

Finding the running game

The Sooners aren’t bad at running the ball this year. They rank in the middle of the pack at 39th in the country, but the problem has been finding the kind of production the Sooners are used to from the running backs.

Rodney Anderson’s injury certainly hurt the Sooners, but there are plenty of talented backs behind him on the depth chart that have yet to have their breakout game.

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One could argue Kennedy Brooks had a big fourth quarter against Baylor with a pair of long touchdown runs, but Oklahoma needs first half production from someone to keep opposing defenses (especially ones like Texas) honest. If the Sooners can’t get the running game going and Murray has to attempt more than 40 passes, that cuts the playbook in half. Lincoln Riley can beat Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando in a football chess match, but he can’t do it with only half the pieces.

Texas is going to work to stop Kyler Murray running and passing. Oklahoma must block well enough at the point of attack and get the kind of running back production that can hurt the Longhorns’ defense and keep them honest.

Special teams

Both of these teams are much improved on special teams. The Sooners and Longhorns have each have a touchdown in the return game and have blocked a kick for a score already in this still-young season. Both teams run starters onto the field for special teams and take them very seriously.

Red River Rivalry games tend to have big special teams plays. From Jordan Shipley’s kick return in 2008 to Alex Ross’ in 2014, a special teams touchdown increases your chance of winning this game exponentially.

The Sooners must win this phase of the game and limit big plays from Texas. A wash in this category would be considered an OU advantage, but a big play from the Sooners would certainly be a welcome sight.

Bold prediction

The stats tilt in Oklahoma’s favor in this game, but it’s also the Red River Showdown. To use an old cringy cliche, you have to throw the records out the window. This game always comes down to two things, winning the line of scrimmage and the turnover battle.

The Sooners have done a decent job of taking care of the football so far this year, while Ehlinger has an m.o. for throwing interceptions in key situations (see Oklahoma State last year, Maryland this season).

I see the Sooners offense having a productive day, but maybe not quite as explosive as some of the previous games.

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The Texas defense forces a couple of red zone field goals in the first half and its offense hits a big play or two to keep things within a touchdown at halftime, but the Sooners’ come up with their first defensive toucdown of the season in the second half when Ehlinger hangs a pass out in the flat too long in front of Tre Brown.  That play turns the tide and gives Oklahoma a hard-fought 34-21 win in the Cotton Bowl.