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The Red River Shootout has traditionally been a battle to see who would win the Big 12, but this year the two arch-rivals are playing to stave off elimination in the conference title race.
The Red River Shootout has long been the annual contest for conference and regional dominance. Texas and OU have combined to win over half (9 of 17) of the Big 12 championships, with the winner of the annual Cotton Bowl game claiming 7 of those crowns.
Bob Stoops took over the head coaching position at Oklahoma only 1 year after Mack Brown did at Texas. In their collective era, the Sooners have dominated with an 8-5 record, including 3 blowouts and 7 Big 12 championships.
However, this year both teams are struggling to maintain leverage in a conference of teams that have utilized the spread offense, the increase in quarterbacks produced by Texas high schools and increasing TV revenues to thin the margin between the Red River contestants and the rest of the pack.
For the second time in as many years, Oklahoma dropped a game at home in Norman, as their 39-game home winning streak from most of the last decade continues to fade away. In 2012, they dropped it to conference contender Kansas St. after a bye week in a game that revealed an Oklahoma offense devoid of clear identity or overwhelming weapons.
Their defensively dominant road victory over Texas Tech could offer the Sooners a chance at recovering momentum, running the table and hoping no Big 12 team is capable of escaping the round-robin scheduling format without a loss. Of course, that chance only exists if OU can win on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Texas took down last year's champion Oklahoma State behind a career changing performance from David Ash but followed Oklahoma in committing the cardinal sin of losing a home game to a fellow conference contender the next week.
Texas presented a unique challenge for West Virginia: future NFL draft picks at defensive end who were able to sack Geno Smith four times and strip him twice. The talented secondary took advantage and held West Virginia to 7.7 yards per pass attempt. Yet all this amounted to nothing as Texas' horrendous run defense yielded 8.7 yards per rush and consequently surrendered 48 points and the game.
In their three contests with BCS conference opponents, the Longhorns are giving up 7.7 yards per carry and have presented a huge red target for an Oklahoma offense with identity issues but a loaded backfield.
It remains now to be seen how far Bob Stoops is willing to go to attack the Longhorns porous run defense. Might he try and expand the Belldozer package into a 1st down offense to throw more run game variety at Texas? Or will he rely on oft-criticized Landry Jones to position the Sooner offense where the Belldozer can finish drives with touchdowns?
Should Oklahoma offensive coordinator resist the temptations of using a talented senior quarterback and look to incorporate their powerhouse running back, bevvy of great fullbacks, and emerging tailback talent, they can both win this game and develop a running identity that will ease pressure off of Landry Jones.
Because Manny Diaz's attempts to schematically transform the Texas defense took them from being a sturdy wall to a reenactment of the Maginot Line on running downs, the Horns have found their hopes of victory increasingly focused in the most unlikely of places: David Ash and the Texas passing game.
Last year, this was the target of the Oklahoma game plan and the Sooner D's pressure obliterated Texas with eight sacks, two interceptions, and three defensive touchdowns. But this is a different offense, against the same three BCS conference opponents that murdered the Texas run defense, David Ash completed 80% of his passes at 10 yards per pass attempt with 10 touchdowns and one interception.
There is no greater reason for Texas 2-1 record in those games than the effectiveness of the true sophomore.
The Oklahoma defense presents the challenge of a team that will bend without breaking, zero in on tendencies with well-prepared schemes and bring pressure with only 4 rushers coming from a variety of angles. They are anchored by their secondary which features FS and leading tackler Tony Jefferson as well as a dominant CB in Aaron Colvin. The duo combines to make long scoring plays against Oklahoma rare.
For the Texas offense to score enough points to offset their weak defense, they will need to create multiple stress points for the Sooner secondary, particularly the safeties, so that Mike Stoops' bunch is finally bent to the breaking point.
Unfortunately, the Sooner defensive ends and linebackers are too sturdy to accomplish enough in the running game with Texas' current cast of tight ends and fullbacks, nor do they offer much as weapons to attack the traditionally soft spot in the middle of the Oklahoma pass defense. Therefore, Harsin will have to take a leaf from Greg Davis' old playbook and hit Oklahoma with three and four wide receiver spread formations.
From these formations, Texas can field players in the slot like Daje Johnson, Jordan Shipley, and Marquise Goodwin who can command the attention of the Sooner safeties and prevent them from selling out to kill the run lest they see a track star fly past them for an easy pitch and catch touchdown.
To run the ball from these sets, Texas can utilize their Power-Read play, lead draw, and other QB option plays and take advantage of Ash's running skills, the speed of the Texas receivers, and small personnel in the nickel and dime OU defensive responses.
Utilizing these tactics, Mack has a chance to score early and possibly force Oklahoma to throw the ball against Texas' pass rush and secondary rather than running through the gaping holes in the run defense. Otherwise, they invite a grind it out war with a team that doesn't posses as glaring a weakness.
Until Diaz can get his linebackers in place on 1st and 2nd down, this quickly developing Texas team is Superman fighting in a metropolis where kryptonite weapons are on sale at Walmart. In the meantime, there's a chance that Ash can be the Red Sun that fuels Texas past their weak spot.
The advantages are there for Oklahoma to seize but Texas' improving offense and still talented defense guarantee that the game will be fiercely contested. The stakes are high and whoever is knocked down probably won't get another shot at the belt in 2012, just as it should be.