Thursday, October 9, 2008

Game of the Week: Oklahoma vs. Texas

THE ANNUAL showdown between the fifth-ranked Texas Longhorns (5-0, 1-0 Big 12) and the No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners (5-0, 1-0 Big 12), also known as the Red River Rivalry, goes all the way back to 1900. Texas leads the all-time series (57-40-5), although the Bob Stoops-led Sooners have reversed the trend in recent times by winning six of the last eight contests. This year’s game will be held at the neutral site of the Cotton Bowl, as it has been since 1929. While OU is routinely dominating opponents with a quick-strike, no-huddle offense that puts up points in very rapid fashion, Texas features a stifling defense that has surrendered only five touchdowns so far this season. Something simply has to give.

When the ‘Horns Have the Ball

FOLLOWING A sub-par season in 2007, former Big 12 offensive freshman of the year, quarterback Colt McCoy, has bounced back in grand style this seaso, passing for 1,280 yards along with 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions. In many ways, McCoy has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Vince Young, in the way he seemingly pulls victory from the jaws of defeat. The junior already has already registered five fourth-quarter and three second-half comebacks in his career. In addition to being visibly stronger than last season, McCoy is also showing improved mobility along with better judgment by curtailing his tendency to throw into coverage. Vondrell McGee, Cody Johnson, Chris Ogbonnaya and Foswhitt “Fozzy” Whittaker form the Longhorns’ four-headed rushing attack. Ogbonnaya—the senior of the group—is the team’s designated third-down specialist and best blocker. In last week’s 38-14 trouncing of Colorado, the 6’1”, 225 lb. back had his best day as a collegiate, scoring twice while gaining 71 rushing yards on nine carries along with 116 receiving yards on six receptions. Although none of the quartet offers the game breaking skills of last year’s lead man, Jamaal Charles, they all do their share to contribute. McGee, in particular, shows signs of being a complete back that runs with balance, good speed and cut-back ability. The only knock on him is his less-than-ideal size at 205 lbs. At wide out, seniors Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley are a dynamic duo that have combined to catch 56 passes for 784 yards and 10 touchdowns less than halfway through the year. Cosby is a paragon of consistency, who has recorded a least one reception through 36 consec-utive games. The 25-year-old former minor-league baseball player is an acrobatic deep threat, who also serves as a dynamic kick returner. His counterpart, Shipley, is a top-notch route runner with solid run-after-catch ability out of the slot position. The offensive line is led by fifth-year guard Cedric Dockery, who’s strong, physical and quite athletic for a 320-pounder.

OVERLOOKED BY many during the off-season, OU’s linebacking corps has taken the college world by storm with the exceptional play of Ryan Reynolds, Travis Lewis and Keenan Clayton. As the leader of this unit, Reynolds has made a quantum leap, becoming an omnipresent force in the tackling department. In his past two games, the physical defender has racked up 24 tackles while maintaining perfect technique and lining up his two partners in crime. Clayton is just oozing with potential thanks to the former safety’s instincts and speed utilized to track down ball carriers. Weakside backer Lewis is a former running back with 4.3 speed, who’s using his remarkable athleticism to mask his inexperience at his new position. The 6’2”, 232 lb. San Antonio native has really come on as one of the team’s best pass rushers. Defensive end Jeremy Beal is a weapon that coordinator Brent Venables enjoys using as a chess piece by lining him up in a three-point stance, as well as dropping him in underneath coverage. Beal’s versatility poses a myriad of problems for opposing teams in their pre-snap reads. Defensive end Auston English is another Sooner that can rush the quarterback, as evidenced by his 2.5 sacks in the season opener versus Chattanooga. At the tackle position, Gerald McCoy is an invaluable component despite not putting up big numbers. His effectiveness in tying up blockers and freeing up teammates has drawn comparisons to former Sooner and current Chicago Bear Tommie Harris. In the secondary, the 6’3” Nic Harris is a king-sized strong safety blessed with the speed and intelligence to constantly be around the ball. Overall, the Sooner defense has surprised many with the way they’re generating pressure with four linemen, all of which have played a key role in preventing the secondary from getting torched so far this season.

When Boomer Sooner Has the Ball

THE SOONERS’ high-octane attack has been nothing short of a nightmare for defenses. Due to their high-flying passing game, this big red machine churns out 49.6 points-per-game. The general of this point-scoring brigade is signal caller Sam Bradford. The soon-to-be 21-year-old is a tall passer (6’5”) that can not only put extraordinary power behind his throws, but also provide excellent touch. His uncanny method of reading defenses makes him a superior decision maker, and the Heisman Trophy candidate is second in the nation in passer rating. OU’s fantastic four at receiver are Juaquin Iglesias, Manuel Johnson, Ryan Broyles and Quentin Chaney. Among the wide outs, Iglesias’ star has shone the brightest. If his sure-handedness wasn’t enough, the senior is also very quick off the line of scrimmage, but doesn’t shy away from making catches in traffic. His do-whatever-it-takes work ethic combined with his field-stretching speed make him one of top receivers in the country. The shifty Broyles has tremendous running skills after the catch and does a fine job of making people miss. If that weren’t enough, tight end Jermaine Gresham is arguably the best player at his position. The pass-catching phenom is averaging 29.5 yards per touchdown. The scary thing is, OU’s offense would be even more terrifying to opposing defenses is they had a fully healthy DeMarco Murray. The speedy tailback has yet to fully recover from off-season knee surgery, and his breakaway speed and ability to cut on a dime, while still impressive, are only going to increase as the season goes on. Chris Brown is the short-yardage back with the requisite toughness and vision to gain tough yards in crucial moments. The Sooner offensive line is a physical group featuring four seniors that average 6’5”, 311 lbs. Guard Duke Robinson is the best lineman in the Big 12, the classic road grater. Left tackle Phil Loadholt is a massive individual with long arms and powerful hands that make him a force in the run game. Steady, center Jon Cooper leads the team with 55 takedowns.

BROUGHT IN to inject life into a moribund defensive unit, coordinator Will Muschamp has infused his players with a new attitude. The antics of the animated 37-year-old have had an especially profound effect on the Longhorns’ defensive line, which is one of the most aggressive fronts in the country. Nose tackle Roy Miller along with ends Brian Orakpo and Henry Melton form an athletic bunch that do an excellent job of shutting down the run. The extremely powerful Miller is the one who holds the point of attack. In addition to benching 500 lbs., the senior is extraordinarily quick and disruptive. The explosive Orakpo is the team’s workout warrior, who started his collegiate career at 210 lbs. and has since added 50 lbs. of muscle while maintaining eight percent body fat. “Rak” uses his brute upper-body strength and lethal first step to wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield. Orakpo has registered six sacks in his first five games, as well as 14 pressures. Melton is a technically sound lineman, who’s also an impressive athlete in his own right. Roddrick Muckelroy is the face of Texas’ linebacker corps. This year, the 6’2”, 230 lb. has come of age in terms of leadership and performance. In addition to leading the team in tackles with 40, the determined defender has also strung together dominant performances. UT’s secondary remains the weakest part of this unit. Corners Ryan Palmer and Chykie Brown have held their own, but have never faced the level of receivers they’re about to encounter. They will occasionally be left in man-free coverage on blitzes, which places the onus on safeties Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon to cover the deep middle, an area which Bradford will likely look to exploit.

Final analysis

UT’S SECONDARY will not be able to account for Oklahoma’s plethora of targets in the passing game. Iglesias, Johnson, Broyles, Chaney and Gresham will be too much to handle with Bradford at the controls behind an impenetrable offensive line. The Sooners may not jump out to one of their typical fast starts, but in the end they’ll force enough breakdowns in coverage to walk away with the win.

Prediction: Oklahoma 34 Texas 22

Photo Credit:
OU Athletics Department, University of Texas Athletics