Oklahoma football: Previewing an OU-Texas rivalry game like few others

Oklahoma football finds itself in unfamiliar territory as it heads south down I-35 on Friday for the annual Red River Showdown with Texas.

You’ve probably heard head coaches refer to the next game as the biggest game on the schedule. Well, in the case of the 116th edition of the Red River Showdown between the Sooners and Longhorns, it is the next game on the schedule and it also happens to be the biggest game every year for these two bitter rivals, but no more so than this season.

This is only the third time in the 2000s that both teams have entered the regular-season game having lost the week before. It’s also the first time since 2005 that Oklahoma is unranked coming into the game and the first time since 2009 that Texas has been ranked higher than the Sooners the week of the Red River Showdown.

This will also be the fourth straight year that Oklahoma has featured someone different as the starting quarterback. At the same time, this will be Texas starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s fourth consecutive Red River rivalry game and fifth time facing the Sooners. He is 1-3 in his previous four games against Oklahoma.

Texas leads the overall series with Oklahoma with a record of 62-48-5. Since 1971, however, the Sooners are 27-20-1 against the Longhorns and own a 14-7 advantage in the 2000s.

Six of the last seven meetings between Oklahoma and Texas have been decided by seven or fewer points. The Sooners won last year’s game 34-27 with Jalen Hurts at quarterback.

The game will kickoff at 11 a.m. on Saturday and will be televised nationally on FOX. Gus Johnson, the announcer who coined the nickname “Hollywood” for former Sooner receiver Marquise Brown, will do the play by play, with Joel Klatt providing color commentary.

Oklahoma is the designated home team for this year’s game, although it will hardly have the feel or look of a home game.

Keys to a Texas Longhorn victory

This will be quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s fourth regular-season Red River Showdown appearance against Oklahoma. He is just 1-2 in his three previous regular-season games against the Sooners, but he has always played well against OU and his dual-threat capability has caused problems for the Sooners in the past.

Ehlinger leads the Big 12 and ranks sixth nationally in total offense, averaging 331.0 yards per game, and his 14 touchdown passes in three games is the best in the country. But where he has hurt the Sooners the most over the years is his ability to run the ball. He’s big and strong and is particularly dangerous in short-yardage situations. In 2017 and 2018, he picked up close to 100 yards on the ground both years, but last season, the OU defense held him to minus-nine net yards rushing.

The Longhorns have more than just Ehlinger, though, as offensive weapons and playmakers. Texas will try to balance its offense between run and pass in an effort to keep the suspect Oklahoma defense guessing and on their heels. When the Horns run the ball, Keaontay Ingram is the main threat, averaging close to 60 yards per game and 5.4 yards per rush. Although Roschon Johnson and Ehlinger are also rushing threats. The Longhorns average 191 rushing yards per game, second best in the Big 12.

When Ehlinger puts the ball in the air, he has a cadre of receivers over 6-feet tall, led by 6-foot, 1-inch Joshua Moore, who averages four catches and nearly 70 yards per game and has four TD receptions this season.

Defensively, Texas has had some problems early this season. But the Longhorns have been able to make up for it with an offense that averages a nation-best 51.0 points a game.

Texas is allowing opponents 377 yards per game, which is actually worse statistically than the Sooners. The Longhorns will look to apply pressure on young OU quarterback Spencer Rattler, making him uncomfortable and forcing him into freshman mistakes in his first Red River game appearance. They want to shut down Oklahoma’s ability to run the ball and force the young Rattler to beat them through the air.

Keys to an Oklahoma Sooner victory

First and foremost, it is imperative that Oklahoma plays hard and aggressively on both sides of the ball for a full four quarters. The Sooners also must avoid the costly mental mistakes and turnovers that have largely contributed to their two losses.

Spencer Rattler needs to fight through the natural jitters and early adrenaline rush that comes with being a first-time quarterback starter in this big rivalry game. He needs to stay calm, play within himself and make good decisions with the ball. If he is able to do that, his natural skills will do the rest.

Rattler leads the Big 12 in passing offense (325.7 yards per game) and passing efficiency rating (187.3), and ranks in the top-10 nationally in both categories.

The Sooners need to do a better job running the football. The run game has been inconsistent in their back-to-back losses, and that is due in large part to problems on the offensive line, which was believed to be one of the team’s strength areas coming into this season.

Rattler’s three main receiving targets are redshirt-junior Charleston Rambo and true freshman Marvin Mims along with sophomore tight end Austin Stogner. Those three, who have combined for 41 percent of the OU pass receptions and 45 percent of the receiving touchdowns this season, need to be big contributors if the Sooners are going to win in Dallas for a second straight year.

Keeping the chains moving on offense, playing ball control and keeping Sam Ehlinger off the field is the best way to neutralize the Longhorns’ high-scoring offense.

On defense, Alex Grinch’s unit needs to stop or slow down the Texas running game, get off the field on third down and do a much better job than in the two recent games preventing big plays, especially the deep throws by Sam Ehlinger trying to take advantage of size mismatches in the Sooner secondary. Keeping pressure on Ehlinger, like in last year’s OU win, will be a key in preventing big downfield throws.

Defensive end Ronnie Perkins returns from a four-game suspension, which will be a big boost to Oklahoma’s pass rush and to the Sooners’ front seven.

With seven of the last eight games with Texas being decided by seven or less points, field goals could play an important role in the outcome of this year’s game. Oklahoma has one of the best in the Big 12 in redshirt-sophomore Gabe Brkic. Brkic is three for four in field-goal tries this season and is 20 for 21 the past two seasons, with a long of 51 yards, which he kicked last week at Iowa State.

Key matchup

Texas’ rushing offense, second best in the Big 12 (191.3 yards per game) against the Big 12’s No. 1 rushing defense. Oklahoma is allowing opponents an average of 81.7 rushing yards per game through three games. And when you take away the Missouri State game, the Sooners are still surrendering just over 100 yards per game.

Bottom line

Most of the college football experts and pundits who are offering a prediction on this year’s game are siding with the experience factor at the quarterback position.

Texas’ Sam Ehlinger has been in this game three times. This is Spencer Rattler’s first Red River Showdown game. Since 1990, the team with the quarterback who has the most experience in this game is 14-3-1 against the team with a quarterback making his first start in the Red River game.

Before you get too worked up, though, over the senior versus freshman quarterback disparity, let me share a counter argument. OU football historian Mike Brooks has come up with this interesting fact: Five redshirt freshman have started at quarterback for Oklahoma in the Red River rivalry game since World War II. Rattler is the sixth. The Sooners won two of the games (Justin Fuente in 1996 and Sam Bradford in 2007), the Longhorns prevailed twice (Tink Collins in 1989 and Rhett Bomar in 2005), and one game ended in a tie (Eric Moore in 1995).

Oklahoma breaks the fourth-quarter curse and rallies for a close win late and a fourth win in six games over head coach Tom Herman of Texas.

Oklahoma 34, Texas 31