Texas vs. Oregon State, 2012 Alamo Bowl preview: Which Horns show up?

Scott Olmos-US PRESSWIRE

The skill position battles could be outstanding, but this game might come down to whether a good or bad Texas quarterback takes the field. Dec. 29, 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN.

5 Players To Watch

Scott Crichton (DE, Oregon State, So.). At times, Oregon State has struggled to corral good run games, and as a result the Beavers rank just 41st on standard downs. But they rank sixth in the country on passing downs because of a pair of super-aggressive cornerbacks (Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds have combined for 10 interceptions and 20 passes broken up) and Crichton. Crichton basically is the Beavers' pass rush, having logged nine of OSU's 26 sacks on the season. He also racked up a total of 17 tackles for loss, broke up three passes and forced one fumble and recovered two. The sophomore from Tacoma is one of the more exciting pass rushers in the country, and if Texas is unable to stay out of passing downs, Texas' quarterback of choice will likely be quite acquainted with him by the end of the game.

Brandin Cooks (WR, Oregon State, So.) and Markus Wheaton (WR, Oregon State, Sr.). Oregon State is one of my favorite teams in the country to watch, primarily because of these two. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf goes to great lengths to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. As a result, Cooks and Wheaton are targeted with about 19 passes per game but also carry the ball about three times; meanwhile, running backs Storm Woods, Terron Ward and Malcolm Agnew average about 25 carries and 5-6 targets per game. But the stars are Cooks and Wheaton, each of whom are one of the nation's 10-15 best receivers. Wheaton caught 87 of 133 passes for 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season and became the school's all-time leading receiver this fall; Cooks, meanwhile, is in the mold of Carolina Panthers great Steve Smith, bouncy and elusive in short passes and capable of burning your best corner on a go route. Texas, meanwhile, has corners capable of keeping up with either or both; Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom have all the potential in the world, even if both had questionable moments at times in 2012. This will be a fantastic matchup(s) to watch.

Alex Okafor (DE, Texas, Sr.). For the first half of 2012, the end combination of Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat was the brightest spot for an otherwise disappointing defense. Jeffcoat was lost for the season after six games, however, leaving Okafor lined up opposite any number of former blue-chip recruits who are still figuring out the college game. Junior Reggie Wilson, sophomore Cedric Reed and freshman Shiro Davis combined for eight tackles for loss and two sacks (Jeffcoat had 11 TFLs and four sacks in half a season), but Okafor has continued to produce, with 12 TFLs, eight sacks, 18 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. The rest of the Texas defense may have been frustrating and inconsistent, but Okafor is still great.

Texas' Quarterback, Whoever He May Be. David Ash alternated between clear growth and frustrating setbacks in 2012; in any given game, it was unclear which Ash would show up. Against Oklahoma State and West Virginia, he completed 52 of 66 passes for 573 yards, four touchdowns and one pick. Against Kansas and TCU, he completed 18 of 37 passes for 167 yards, no scores, and four picks. As a result, his season-long stat line was outstanding (68 percent completion rate, 17 touchdowns to seven interceptions) ... and he has still been demoted to, at best, a soft No. 2 behind junior Case McCoy, who started the regular season finale against Kansas State and showed a combination of efficiency (26-for-34 passing), questionable decision-making (two picks) and a potential lack of mobility (four sacks). He was simultaneously better and worse than Ash, leaving Mack Brown with an impossible decision heading into both the bowl game and 2013. If either Ash or McCoy get a hot hand, Texas might score 30 or 40 points. If neither do, the 'Horns might score 10.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Oregon State's offense is unique and entertaining. Here's what I said about Oregon State in mid-October:

Few FBS offenses have a better idea of what they want to be than Oregon State's does. For years, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has crafted an offense willing to get the ball into playmakers' hands by any means necessary: jet sweeps to receivers, screens to halfbacks, et cetera. Wheaton and Cooks have carried the ball 19 times in six games, while running back Storm Woods has been targeted by 27 passes (he has 19 catches for 147 yards). Of the 26 passes quarterback Cody Vaz (starting in place of the injured Sean Mannion) threw against Utah on Saturday, five were screens and 13 were thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Oregon State's run-pass ratios tend to skew quite pass-heavy, but their passing game really is the epitome of "extension of the running game." And when you've got players this fast and elusive, the approach is perfect. Of those 13 short passes, Vaz completed 11 of them for a total of 96 yards: 12 in the air and 84 after the catch. The offense was far from amazing against a solid Utah defense -- 4.2 yards per play, 3.4 yards per carry, only one scoring drive longer than 16 yards -- but once the Beavers were able to convert two short touchdown drives (both based on Utah turnovers), the Beavers neither had to do much nor tried. Vaz attempted just five passes longer than 13 yards and threw just once to Cooks. With a lead and a defensive advantage, OSU was content to take few chances and run out the clock.

Oregon State is adept at finding what works and wringing out every ounce of advantage from it. Texas has suffered from missed tackles at times in 2012, and if the Longhorns cannot consistently bring Wheaton or (especially) Cooks down near the line of scrimmage, either or both could be targeted up to about 15 times on Saturday. Regardless, Oregon State is tactically exciting, and this is your last chance to watch the Beavers for nine months.

2. It is fun to watch Texas either succeed or fail. When everything is clicking, Texas is standing up to blocks on defense, flowing to the ball and infiltrating the line of scrimmage. The Longhorns have 101 tackles for loss in 2012, and that isn't a fluke. Meanwhile, the offense occasionally shows serious signs of Boise State-esque precision, motion and timing. (Now-former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who has become Arkansas State's head coach since the end of the regular season, was Chris Petersen's O.C. at Boise State for six years.) They are capable of playing brutal, beautiful football.

Of course, they quite frequently don't play beautiful football. The offense falls apart in a sea of passing downs and turnovers, and the defense misses more tackles than you can count. It has been a high-ceiling, low-floor season for Texas, and honestly, both the ceiling and the floor are pretty entertaining.

3. This is one of the year's first bowls to feature two truly strong teams. Oregon State is ranked 13th in the BCS standings, Texas is 23rd. Oregon State ranks 18th in the F/+ rankings, Texas 24th. These are two strong, if flawed teams, and after a steady diet of mid-majors and 6-6 teams, the Alamo Bowl might mark, for some, the true beginning of bowl season.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Sean Mannion vs. Alex Okafor. Or, to put it another way, Oregon State's offense on passing downs. OSU is incredibly pass-heavy, especially on second- or third-and-long, entrusting starting quarterback Mannion to make a smart decision and move the chains. Meanwhile, most of Texas' struggles this season have come on standard downs; the Longhorns still have a Top 20 defense on passing downs. It is Mannion, Wheaton and Cooks versus Okafor, Diggs and Byndom when the Beavers fall behind schedule. Can Oregon State extend drives?

2. It's Johnathan Gray's time to shine. The Texas run game might have a stellar opportunity to get rolling against an aggressive Oregon State defense that can be pushed around (or fall victim to over-pursuit) at times. Texas runs 64 percent of the time on standard downs, but that percentage might be higher against Oregon State. Longhorn receivers Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley could occasionally beat Poyer and Reynolds, but Texas' biggest potential advantage is between the tackles. Gray, a five-star freshman, has had a decent year (683 yards, 4.8 per carry) in a crowded backfield that also features sophomores Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, but a great performance in San Antonio could ratchet up Texas' fans optimism for 2013 a bit, even if some have given up hope on a return to elite form under Mack Brown.

3. Which David Ash/Case McCoy? Even if the running game is clicking, Texas will still need decent play from its quarterback(s). And your guess is as good as mine regarding how Ash or McCoy might play.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Oregon State by 4.2.
Bill's Pick: Texas by 4. I like the Longhorns' slight advantages in the trenches (not to mention a bit of a home-field edge), and since I have no idea what to expect in the skill position battles, we'll go with that.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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