This isn't just another Red River Shootout. Both Texas and Oklahoma have a conference loss heading into the game for the first time since 1997. The team that wins will remain relevant in the Big 12 title race. The other will virtually be eliminated.
The Longhorns still feel the sting from last years' loss. But this certainly isn't the same Texas. And more importantly, this isn't the same Oklahoma.
Texas hasn't been exactly what was expected this year. The defense was supposed to be the best in the Big 12 while the offense was questionable under the inconsistent play of quarterback David Ash. Instead, the defense is struggling to defend the rush and to tackle in the open field. On the other hand, under the revitalized play of Ash, the offense has been one of the best in the nation. He was stellar in the Longhorns' high scoring games against Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
But don't give up on the defense. Although struggling, it still has NFL-quality components at defensive line and its vaunted young secondary has performed well.
Senior defensive end Alex Okafor leads the Big 12 with six sacks, two of which were against Heisman favorite Geno Smith. Junior Jackson Jeffcoat sits at fourth in the conference with three. The Longhorns sacked Smith five times during their loss to West Virginia and they forced him to fumble the ball twice, including one that Jeffcoat recovered for a touchdown.
Landry Jones is no Geno Smith. With a defense that is better than it has shown and an offense that is firing on all cylinders, Texas will defeat a depleted Oklahoma lead by inconsistent quarterbacking.
It's no secret that Jones struggles when under pressure. Watch Texas Tech 2011 and Kansas State 2012. With his lack of speed and footwork, Jeffcoat and Okafor should have a field day.
"That was our goal was to get pressure on Geno Smith, and for this week, again, it's our goal to get pressure on Landry Jones," Jeffcoat said. "You never want to have a quarterback sitting back there comfortable, especially a guy like Landry Jones that can get out there and he can put it in a spot, as well."
The defensive line will be ready to feast on an injury-depleted Oklahoma offensive line. Season ending injuries to Ben Habern (preseason All Big 12) and Tyler Evans make Oklahoma's line very thin. Jones has been sacked eight times this season by the likes of UTEP (five sacks) and Florida A&M. I hope Landry has his running shoes on.
On top of Jones' lack of poise in the pocket, he has limited options downfield. He has not been the same quarterback since Ryan Broyles was hurt last year. Kenny Stills is a serviceable receiver but without Broyles he draws all the attention. Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs is ready for his matchup with Stills. Diggs is ninth in the country in interceptions and has five pass break ups.
On Wednesday, Fresno State transfer wide receiver Jalen Sanders was ruled eligible to play against Texas. Though he was dominant in the Western Athletic Conference, he faced off against lower caliber teams. This is the Big 12 and the Red River Shootout, not quite the competition he's accustomed to.
Texas' defense's achilles heel has been tacking. The Texas defense missed 12 tackles against Oklahoma State and seven against West Virginia. They allowed West Virginia running back Andrew Buie and Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle to gain over 200 yards each.
This is where the Jordan Hicks factor enters the equation. Hicks missed the last two games due to a hip injury. His departure has been costly for the Longhorns. If he plays on Saturday, the defense will have its experienced leader and its leading tackler.
That brings us to Texas' offense. Texas is currently sixth in the country in scoring offense with an average of 46.8 points per game.
Texas is lead by a stable of blue chip underclass running backs. Sophomore Joe Bergeron and freshman Johnathan Gray are putting up big numbers even with the absence of Malcolm Brown. If Brown is back on Saturday, the three will control the game and eat up the clock and yardage against the Oklahoma defense. Oklahoma sits in seventh in rushing defense in the Big 12. The Longhorns have been averaging 209.4 rushing yards per game. Expect Texas to have the ball a lot.
But the biggest difference from last year for Texas is David Ash.
The David Ash that struggled with turnovers in the Red River Shootout last season no longer exists. The sophomore is making strides each game and showed his ability to handle pressure during his game winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes of the Oklahoma State game.
"Well, I've got a lot more experience," Ash said. "I've got a better team around me. I'm one more year into the offense. My team has one more year into the offense, and we've grown as a team one more year together."
He sits at third in passing efficiency in the country, only behind Smith and Oklahoma State's J.W. Walsh. Ash has 11 touchdowns and only one interception so far this season.
Ash has a multitude of weapons downfield. Jaxon Shipley, Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin have all been targets for Ash. In addition, senior D.J. Monroe is having the breakout season we have been waiting for. With Brian Harsin's diverse offensive schemes, the Longhorns wide receivers are hard for defenses to keep track of.
The fickle Oklahoma fans are coming off the high of the win against Texas Tech. But the reality is the only quality opponent that Oklahoma has played is Kansas State and the Sooners struggled. The Longhorns' performances against SEC opponent Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and even the loss to West Virginia proved they are a team to be reckoned with.
This game will come down to two key factors: the Texas offense controlling the game with a balanced attack and getting a lead which will allow the defense to put pressure on Landry Jones. If Jones is forced to play catch-up with his depleted offensive line, the Texas pass rush will make his life very difficult.
Prediction: Texas 31, OU 27
Lauren Giudice covers football at The Daily Texan, the University of Texas' daily student newspaper.
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