Texas vs. Oklahoma: Longhorns' pass D, running could win the Red River Rivalry

Wesley Hitt - Getty Images

In the Red River Rivalry, the defenses hold the advantage on both sides of the ball; but Texas' ability to move the ball on the ground good give the 'Horns the edge.

Outliers happen. After just half a season, you are going to see some odd numbers, especially in a relatively volatile measure like my S&P+. Undefeated Rutgers is No. 79? BYU is seventh? Fresno State is 20th? Kansas State is 34th? How do you explain that? With two words: "It's early." (I'll lean on that answer as long as possible.)

Some teams are still benefiting from some completely dominant performances against awful teams (No. 17 Texas Tech). Some are benefiting from the simple fact that they moved the ball for a possession against immovable Alabama (No. 23 Ole Miss). With preseason projections having been almost completely phased out, the numbers are still in the process of figuring out what the hell to make of a season that has seen lots of great defensive teams with mediocre-to-awful offenses (BYU, LSU, Michigan State), and lots of great offenses with mediocre defenses (West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Nebraska). It's early, and it's messy.

That said … even with the phasing out of favorable preseason projections, in the latest S&P+ rankings Oklahoma stands at eighth (29th in Off. S&P+) despite a seemingly poor offense, and Texas stands at 10th (12th in Def. S&P+) despite allowing 1,036 yards and 84 points in the last two weeks. In F/+, the combination of S&P+ and Brian Fremeau's FEI, Oklahoma is seventh, Texas eighth. What gives? First of all, the other units involved in this game (Oklahoma's defense, Texas' offense) have improved dramatically in 2012. At the same time, Oklahoma's offense has at least been competent, if less than elite, and Texas' defense has simply had to face perhaps the two best offenses in the country in back-to-back weeks.

Oklahoma averaged a healthy 5.5 yards per play against solid Kansas State and Texas Tech defenses; the problem against KSU was, as it always is against the Wildcats, situational. Oklahoma gained 386 yards and reached Kansas State's red zone on five of 10 possessions; but the Sooners lost a fumble at the KSU 6, had to settle for a field goal on another possession, and lost two devastating turnovers deep in their own territory. Against Tech, OU lost another deep fumble but scored on six other red zone trips and won easily.

Against mortal offenses, meanwhile, the Longhorns have been not only fine, but good. Opponent adjustments help Texas significantly -- the 'Horns are 95th in raw, unadjusted S&P but 12th in opponent-adjusted S&P+. That results in a bit of a leap of faith: it feels like Texas' defense isn't very good because of what our eyeballs have seen, but the eyeballs will be more impressed when the 'Horns face actually mortal offenses. Everybody outside of probably Tuscaloosa would allow silly yardage and point totals to Oklahoma State and West Virginia, and while I expected a Top 5 performance out of Texas' defense this season, not Top 12, there will be plenty of opportunities to show improvement, starting with this Saturday.

(By the way … don't like S&P+? Create your own measure! No, seriously, please, create your own measure. I can help.)

So what can we expect when these seemingly overrated and underrated teams face off on the Texas State Fairgrounds on Saturday?

The game will turn on third-and-7

In recent years, Oklahoma's approach to play-calling has been rather simple: Attempt balance on standard downs, then air it out on passing downs. Attempt to establish the run, but put the ball in your quarterback's hands and tell him to make a play on second- or third-and-long. With receivers like Ryan Broyles on your side, that makes some amount of sense; but when Broyles went down late last season, leaving in his place a group of interesting but untrustworthy receivers, things fell apart quickly. Quarterback Landry Jones faced more pressure, dealt with more drops from his receiving corps and, generally speaking, had no idea where to go with the ball. And with running back Dom Whaley also hurt, offensive co-coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell didn't have the option of leaning on the run.

Heading into 2012, then, it was easy to be curious about this year's play-calling approach. Whaley was back and would share the backfield with interesting junior college transfer Damien Williams, but they would be running behind a line that suffered some serious attrition with the loss of two 2011 starters and the loss of two projected 2012 starters (center Ben Habern, guard Tyler Evans) to injury. To fend off the stress caused by an iffy offensive line, some coordinators might go a little unconventional, throwing more on standard downs to take pressure off of the running game and running more on passing downs to take pressure off of the quarterback.

However, Heupel has gone about things exactly the same way as he has in the past. Oklahoma is running the ball 56 percent of the time on standard downs, slightly below the national average. On passing downs, however, despite an almost entirely new receiving corps, the Sooners are passing 84 percent of the time, more than any team in the country not coached by Mike Leach.

To no one's surprise, the results have been mixed. Oklahoma is both running and passing at an acceptable, but less than elite, level. On the ground, Williams erupted versus UTEP and Florida A&M (20 carries, 259 yards, five touchdowns) but has been slowed in conference play (24 carries, 82 yards versus Kansas State and Texas Tech). Whaley looked tentative in the season opener but has done well in reserve duty of late (11 carries for 73 yards in the last two games).

Meanwhile, despite the pressure that comes with throwing a disproportionate number of your passes on passing downs, Landry Jones is at least surviving with his patchwork line and green receiving corps. He is completing 64 percent of his passes in conference play for 558 yards, three touchdowns and just one pick, and he has found a semi-reliable No. 1 target in Kenny Stills (344 yards, 7.8 per target, 66 percent catch rate). Newcomers like freshman Sterling Shepard (197 yards, 11.6 per target) and Penn State transfer Justin Brown (154 yards, 8.1 per target) are beginning to improve, and at the very least Oklahoma is playing decent, Top 30- or 40-caliber football on offense.

That said, Jones and Stills are bailing out the Sooners quite a bit. Oklahoma's offense ranks just 33rd on standard downs but seventh on passing downs. Whereas the ball is at least somewhat evenly distributed on standard downs (16 targets for Stills, 15 for freshman Trey Metoyer, eight for Brown, six for Shepard), Stills is both the No. 1 and No. 2 target on passing downs. He has caught 11 of 17 passes for 209 yards on passing downs, while nobody else has been targeted more than six times.

One can see how this might be an issue against Texas. Despite what West Virginia's Andrew Buie did to them last week, the Longhorns have the best defensive line Oklahoma has faced thus far, and moving the ball on the ground will be a rather iffy proposition. Unless the Sooners are able to carve out decent first-down gains through the air, the odds are good that Jones will be facing quite a few second- and third-and-longs. (Did I mention that Texas is second in the country in passing downs defense?) Stills will likely have to win a series of battles against outstanding cornerback Quandre Diggs (16.0 tackles, three interceptions, five passes broken up) if the Sooners are going to move the ball consistently. That, or Jones is going to have to start trusting other receivers as much as the coaches trust him. (Perhaps Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders, who was suddenly deemed eligible this week, could make an impact here.)

Texas will be able to run the ball

In defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' first year back in Norman, he has drastically improved Oklahoma's pass defense. The Sooners picked off Texas Tech's Seth Doege three times in Lubbock last Saturday, turning a potentially tight game into a 41-20 blowout. Opponents are completing just 54 percent of their passes despite a rather ordinary pass rush. Cornerback Aaron Colvin is a ball-hawk, having picked off one pass and broken up six others in four games. The Sooners tackle well, play sound and aggressive when the ball is in the air, and rank second in the country in Passing S&P+.

The problem for this Saturday is that Texas isn't going to throw the ball if the Sooners cannot first stop the run. And Oklahoma has been only solid, not spectacular, on the ground. The Sooners rank 30th in Rushing S&P+ and couldn't stop Kansas State's ground game when they needed to. KSU running back John Hubert rushed for 135 yards in 23 carries, and quarterback Collin Klein added 84 on 17 carries. And in the season opener, UTEP's Nathan Jeffery rushed for 177 yards in 21 carries; Jeffery has gained only 210 yards in 55 carries since then.

Though still limited in must-pass situations, Texas' offense has improved considerably in 2012, primarily because of an excellent running game. The 'Horns rank fifth in Rushing S&P+; diverse backs Joe Bergeron, Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown have combined to gain 789 yards in 156 carries (31.2 carries per game), and offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin has mixed in some changes of pace as well: quarterback David Ash has gained 94 yards in 14 carries, while receivers Marquise Goodwin and Jaxon Shipley and hybrids Daje Johnson and D.J. Monroe have gained 212 yards in 20 carries. There are quite a few different ways to move the ball on the ground, and Texas will try them all. And it will probably work pretty well.

As with Oklahoma, the key for Texas' offense could be performance on passing downs. But the reasons are different. Oklahoma is good at converting them and will face a lot of them. Texas, on the other hand, is not particularly strong in this regard (12th on standard downs, 44th on passing downs) but won't face as many either. Ash distributes the ball evenly when he has to pass on passing downs -- he has targeted Jaxon Shipley 10 times (eight catches for 82 yards), Mike Davis eight times (five for 100), Jeremy Hills six times (five for 46), Bergeron five times (four for 47) and D.J. Grant four times (three for 51). He has no particular tendencies in such downs, which is probably good; he will test the depth of Oklahoma's secondary in a quest for good matchups, but the Sooners might be deep and strong enough to shut things down when Texas falls behind schedule.

Through six weeks, both Oklahoma and Texas have proven that they are both improving in a lot of areas and still rather flawed. Oklahoma will likely struggle to run the ball, which will put a lot of pressure on Landry Jones. Texas, meanwhile, should run the ball pretty well but is more likely to fail in the passing downs it does face.

On a neutral field, the F/+ rankings give the slightest of advantages to Oklahoma (it has the Sooners winning by 0.4 points); Vegas does the same: Oklahoma -3. However, Oklahoma doesn't have Oklahoma State's or West Virginia's offense, and I think Texas' ability to consistently run the ball could give the 'Horns the edge. The numbers don't quite know what to make of these teams yet, but despite our tendency to seize on the opportunity to call historical powers "overrated," both Oklahoma and Texas are probably stronger than you think and should put on a pretty good, if flawed, show on Saturday.

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