Food tastes better, the suns shines brighter, and irritability to slights are magnified one thousandfold. Both fanbases - despite any degree of outward confidence - will be nursing ulcers by Wednesday. Over the next six days, I will mentally review scenarios in which Texas is blown out, we blow OU out, we win a tight defensive contest, we lose in a shootout, both teams brawl in the tunnel for so long that the game is canceled, Jermaine Gresham scores four touchdown on jump balls....and so on.
The only cure is the reality of the game itself. The sound of both teams in the tunnel and the fervor of the crowd. Then, at that moment, whatever your doubts, you're absolutely sure that WE ARE GOING TO KICK THEIR ASS.
Texas is fairly accustomed to being the game other teams have circled on their schedule. We derive a certain arrogant satisfaction from that. Even when we lose, it's done with an exchange of knowing glances and eye rolling as Team X storms the field and their coach gets an immediate contract extension. Boy, this really means a lot to you, we think.
Forget all of that. That all goes out of the window in Dallas. OU is the only game where we're humbled and placed on equal psychological footing with our opponent because we need this every bit as badly as they do. Any Texas fan who states otherwise is a fucking liar or a contrarian to the point of masturbating idiocy. If you believe Texas A&M is our true football rival, then you have no conception of what the word means. It took Mack Brown a long time to understand that and I'm not completely sure if he still does. I'm willing to guess that Will Muschamp will understand it the moment he walks out on the field and wants to puke up his guts from the circulating adrenaline.
So how do you handicap a game in which upsets are the norm and scholarship space eaters routinely become legend?
First, let's talk about how you don't do it. Any attempt at transitive extrapolation in this game is almost meaningless when both teams are strong and improving. I don't particularly care what Florida Atlantic did to us or what Brian Kelly and the Bearkats did to them. If you've paid any attention to either team, you see two teams getting better each week. The two teams you'll be writing about no longer exist. So you have to look for persistent trends that are hard-wired in each team.
Nor does it make sense to take last year's game, blame it on a fumble as the difference, see that we're clearly better this year and then predict victory. That doesn't hold water on about fourteen different logical levels.
What you're left with is what you matters in any game: matchups, tendency, personnel, and some attempt to quantify the unquantifiable.
Their OL is strong in pass protection and overrated in run blocking. They are not the run game maulers they are portrayed as, but rather a very large, fairly cohesive group that does a nice job of keeping Sam Bradford's jersey clean. They are immovable objects, not unstoppable forces. They hold their ground. Yes, we all know we average more yards rushing per game than they do, but what they can do that we cannot is confidently convert 3rd and short and punish your defense if you try to play their run shorthanded. Their runs might not go for 40, but they can get 8. They're also capable of pounding the ball in inside the 10. So if I write about OU having an advantage in the running game, I'm talking about that. Retorting that we average more yards per game because of Colt's running misses the point entirely.
At RB, DeMarco Murray's knee twinge has transformed him from a home run threat to a reliable banger. He still has his skills and his vision, but the body isn't always willing to go where the mind tells it. Chris Brown is very solid and I wouldn't be shocked to see him get equal carries. If Bradford gouges us early and we have to play a dime to contend with their passing game, I think the OU RB's become a factor. Otherwise, I'm not deeply concerned.
QB, WR & TE is where we run into trouble.
Sam Bradford is a great player. His accuracy down the field is freakish and our defensive back's margin for error is none. We'll see a number of plays where our guy has excellent coverage and Bradford places it in the receiver's arms through a six inch window like a newborn. The beauty of Bradford - and a difference from last year - is his willingness to use every receiver and not pre-determine what he wants to do before the snap. I have no doubt we'll show him different looks and force him to think, but we're not a zone team - all of our rivers end up in the same lake of man coverage. He'll sniff that out and make some plays downfield. We have to be resilient. When he's on and getting protection, it's basically a guy running a Google search on 'Open Wide Receiver' and then scanning the results to see where he wants to click.
Look at Bradford's receiver mix.
Johnson 26 468 18.0 5td
Iglesias 23 401 17.4 5td
Gresham 16 278 17.4 4td
Broyles 13 256 19.7 3td
This is a problem. Look at the yards per reception, the touchdown distribution, and the catch distribution. It will shock no one if any one of those four have a 100 yard receiving day against us. It will shock everyone if any Texas receiver other than Shipley, Cosby or possibly Ogbonnaya has more than 40. The implications of this are pretty clear: Oklahoma has the luxury of rolling out four legitimate threats and picking on the matchups that suit them. Iglesias on Palmer, Gresham on a safety or LB. If we choose to help our weakest links with a safety, we're placing a guy like Chykie Brown on an island and flipping coins with Manuel Johnson. Johnson only needs to win 1/3 of those matchups to cue up Boomer Sooner.
Their CB play has been better than I thought it would be (Brian Jackson specifically) and I fully expect them to walk up on Cosby and Shipley with safety help over the top and dare us to beat them. Colorado certainly had some success doing so. Nic Harris is a very physical safety, but I'm not sure he's a guy OU wants running stride for stride with a wide receiver. So they'll protect him and let him bang on people in front of him. I don't think OU feels they need to outnumber our running game unless they're just being sadistic.
OU's LBs are ranked 1, 2, 3 in total tackles. OLBs Keenan Clayton and Travis Lewis can both run and that's more important to the Sooners in this match-up than their ability to take on an OT with leverage and hold their ground. Lewis has been a great move to LB - he dominated the TCU game. They're not huge guys, but our running game develops laterally - not downhill. They're at no disadvantage. Further, we'll look to make our big plays off-schedule - with Ogbonnaya in the flat, Colt scrambling - and two guys who can run are exactly what you want. Ryan Reynolds isn't really exploitable from our perspective - he's safe in the middle and his job will be to bang on the run and blitz to create one-on-one matchups inside for OU's DTs on our guards. Maybe we can isolate Peter Ullman on him on a crossing route! Sigh.
Much of OU's defensive effectiveness in this rivalry is predicated on OU's defensive coaches being able to isolate tendency and give their guys a reasonable hunch where the ball is headed based on a tell. That's how you end up with nine OU defenders running to a gap before the ball has reached the RB's hands and them famously calling out our plays before the snap. And why they can be pantsed if you show that tendency and do something completely different. Greg Davis has coached 40 quarters of Red River Rivalry. At least half of those have been from a fetal position. So I make no promises.
OU's DL is very good. I think Gerald McCoy is the second best pure run stopper in the league behind Roy Miller. He and Granger should combine to give our interior OL fits. Auston English isn't putting up gaudy pass rush stats this year, but he and Jeremy Beal are effective at fulfilling their role and they've opened up a lot of opportunity for Travis Lewis (3.5 sacks) and Keenan Clayton (2.0 sacks) to come on stunts. The story of the game will be their DTs ability to collapse the pocket and their edge player's ability to handle Colt when he scrambles. If they can make that play, cue up The Greg Davis Cotton Bowl Experience.
OU's kick off return game is robust, but the rest of their kicking game is a bit of a disgrace. Punter Mike Knall should be good for a Red River shank. Opponents have also had some success in their return games against the Sooners, but we're not really set up for that. Could some of their ST issues turn the tide in a defensive struggle? You bet. But it's first necessary to have a defensive struggle. So let's cross that bridge when it's 14-13 in the late 3rd quarter.
If I could boil this game down to three areas, it would be:
1. Red Zone Scoring
2. Colt vs. OU's Containment
3. Our ability to pressure Bradford
This is the ballgame. For both teams. We're 23 of 26 on the year scoring TDs in the red zone, 25 of 26 scoring overall. Our defense is holding teams to 4 of 15 TDs and 8 of 15 scoring overall. Very encouraging. However, OU has scored on every trip into the red zone, with TDs on 23 of 24 trips. Their defense hasn't been quite as resilient as ours, allowing TDs in half of their red zone tries (7 of 14) and scores in 9 of 14. Still, that's salty and it's pretty clear that both teams are accustomed to imposing their will on their opponents inside the 20 on both sides of the ball. How will each react to failure and the step up in competition?
We will have our opportunities and we have to get 6 instead of 3. OU must do the same. If OU moves up and down the field early but ends each drive in 3, the sound of OU fans shifting uncomfortably in their seats will be perceptible. Of course, they might just try to slice through this dynamic by scoring from 50 yards out. Something we're less likely to accomplish.
I'm not confident in our ability to pound the ball in from 1st and goal from the 9 yard line. We're going to spread the field, line up with an empty backfield, and Colt will count OU defenders inside the box. If it's low, we're running a QB draw. If it's high, we're throwing it up to Buckner or Shipley. We saw that QB draw play against Arkansas for a reason. We'll see it again when it counts.
Unfortunately for us, OU has multifaceted red zone options. Unlike Rice, Colorado, or UTEP. They can go Jumbo package and pound, they can exploit Gresham on a jump ball off of play action, they can spread us out and isolate Ryan Palmer in the flat, or they can make us worry about all the aforementioned and throw a little swing pass to their RB to test our discipline and assignment overload. We've been dynamite in the red zone to date and that owes a lot to Will Muschamp and the heart of our players, but we haven't faced an offense this mulifaceted. We'll have no ability to load up on any one key. We'll just need to win straight up.
Colt vs. OU's containment
Pretty straightforward. If we're going to make plays down the field or convert 3rd and 9 with some regularity, it's going to be off of Colt's improvisation. This isn't just a matter of team speed for OU, it's also a matter of discipline and finishing the tackle. Colt is a hell of a lot stronger in his hips and legs than defenders think. Similarly, OU can't just stand there in dumb containment. They have to pressure, but with care. If Colt can repeatedly extend the play, our receivers increase their chances for a coverage bust tenfold. If OU does a nice job of containment, you're counting on us driving systematically down the field on a diet of 6 yard hitches and 2 yard runs. Good luck.
Our DL's ability to pressure Bradford
It's going to be a game of chicken. Walk up our corners and dare Bradford to hold on to the ball and pray the pass rush gets there before the wagon gets pulled around by ponies. Miller, Houston, Lewis need to have the games of their lives inside and Orakpo, Kindle, Melton and Acho will need to play like demons. Bradford isn't a running threat, so we'll play a lot of games on our DL and not really sweat contain. If we win here, the dominos start to fall our way.
Right now, I'm not prepared to make a solid score prediction, but the tea leaves read for an OU victory.