Here are five key matchups in the Texas-Oklahoma game to keep your eye on Saturday:
1. Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray vs. Texas’ Breckyn Hager
Minutes after Texas’ win over Iowa State on Nov. 17, Hager blasted the Sooners from afar when he said “but OU has no defense.” There’s nothing Oklahoma’s defense can actually do about the Longhorns’ linebacker. But Murray can. A smart, aggressive move for OU would be for Murray to engineer run-pass option plays straight at Hager and make him earn it. The UT senior averages 2.5 tackles per game. If he cannot help keep Murray contained to the pocket, the Sooners quarterback will run wild. Murray averages 71.1 rushing yards per game. When he bursts out into the open field, that’s when things can go badly for Texas.
2. Texas’ Sam Ehlinger vs. his shoulder injury
When Ehlinger first injured his right throwing shoulder against Baylor on Oct. 13, he had two weeks to get ready for Oklahoma State. He came out firing in Stillwater and finished with 283 yards. But he aggravated the injury against Iowa State and then didn’t look right after getting blasted early against Kansas. “It definitely isn’t 100 percent, but it’s getting a lot better as the season progresses,” Ehlinger said Tuesday. The sophomore has waited his whole life for this chance. To beat Oklahoma and lead Texas to a Big 12 title? No way Ehlinger is missing this one. Duct tape it and go.
3. Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks vs. Texas’ Gary Johnson
Brooks has been sensational the last three weeks, piling up an average of 172.7 rushing yards against Oklahoma State, Kansas and West Virginia. Texas’ run defense now ranks second in the Big 12. The Longhorns are allowing just 136.5 yards per game. Neither Brooks nor Trey Sermon got much of anything going in the Cotton Bowl. Safety Brandon Jones did a ton of work that day for Texas, getting nine tackles. But he’s been slowed by an ankle injury. Johnson was OK in that game — he had three stops and one fumble recovery. Johnson was suspended last week against Kansas, so he should be anxious to play.
4. Texas’ fourth-down gambles vs. OU’s fourth-down gambles
Kicking field goals is not a winning strategy. In a game where the winner may need to score 50 points, both coaches will have to roll the dice at various points. Texas’ Tom Herman has taken playful grief at times for consulting his color-coded binder about when to go for it on fourth down. For the most part, he’s been right. Texas is 9 for 12 (75 percent) on converting fourth downs. OU’s Lincoln Riley isn’t too far behind; the Sooners are 8 for 12 (66.7 percent). Here’s betting this game comes down a Roll Left type of moment — a critical fourth-down late that seals the deal.
5. OU’s long-term vision vs. Texas’ carefree attitude
The 14th-ranked Longhorns have nothing to lose. Absolutely nothing. This is a team many expected to win only seven or eight games, not reach the Big 12 championship. Whatever happens from this point on is gravy. You could tell by their attitude on Tuesday with reporters that the Horns are jacked. Meanwhile, the Sooners believe they are likely to jump into the CFP’s Final Four with a victory. They were more low key this week, trying to treat this like a normal game. This is anything but a normal game, though. “Whatever happens is what’s supposed to happen,” UT defensive end Charles Omenihu said. Indeed.
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