Keys to the Game - Oklahoma vs. Texas

By John Harris
October 6, 2011

Oklahoma takes on a youthful Texas team at the Cotton Bowl. Harris is on one side.

Texas (4 – 0), beat Iowa State
Oklahoma (4 – 0), beat Ball State

The Chess Match

When you hear the words “Boise State”, the first things most of you think of are “trick plays” and “blue turf”.  And, there’s no reason for that, but what I tend to think about is versatility.  Versatility within players.  Versatility in the way that a team can win.  Most importantly, versatility within game plans.  That was clearly evident when Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin was calling ball plays for the Broncos.

After a run of success at Boise, Mack Brown asked Harsin to join the Texas staff and the Texas offense has taken on a much-needed makeover.  What I love about what Harsin does is that he’s not afraid to push the boundaries, all the while establishing a mindset of smashing opponents in the mouth.  He’ll throw a myriad of formations and personnel groupings at defenses and force them to adjust to what the Horns are doing, not the other way around.

For example, on the first series of the game last week against Iowa State, he ran the pistol, he ran out of the diamond formation, he had Foswhitt Whittaker in the Wildcat and that was just the first drive of the game.  When he went to the diamond, he had all three of his whippet quick backs in the game – Whittaker, D.J Monroe and Malcolm Brown.  There’s no telling what Harsin was going to call out of that formation, which is a bit different than it is for other teams.  Most other teams will show a distinct tendency with their Diamond formation, but Harsin won’t and doesn’t.

All that said, the OU linebackers will be on the spot, given the way Harsin strings together his play calls.  Travis Lewis, Corey Nelsonand Tom Wortmake up the most athletic group of linebackers that Texas has faced to this point, but Harsin will stretch them “all 53”, i.e from sideline to sideline.  This is a great chess match to watch, no question.  And, for anyone that thought I would mention Greg…nope, not doing to do it.

Rob it Short

Bryan Harsin isn’t the only new play caller on the 40 Acres.  Former Mississippi State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz took over for former DC Will Muschamp and brought his mad scientist kit with him.  Young, aggressive and willing to do just about anything, Diaz has shown opponents a myriad of looks, stunts, disguises, blitzes and coverages.

However, against Iowa State, Diaz played a coverage that could be a huge factor in this game against OU.  As we all know, the Sooners want to play fast and execute in a hurry.  QB Landry Jones wants to get rid of the ball quickly.  He’ll throw short and let his guys “catch and run”, in particular All-American WR Ryan Broyles.  Whether it’s quick outs or quick slants, the Sooners love to hit those throws and will definitely go to that well.  Often.

That said, last week, Diaz showed a look that Jones must be aware of in this game.  The Longhorns “showed” two safeties high pre-snap, which typically indicates a cover two or Tampa two coverage. However, on the snap, the Longhorns ran one safety to the middle of the field, while Blake Gideon the other safety moved forward to the second level to be a “linebacker level” pass defender.  Iowa State QB Steele Jantz, reading the linebackers dropping into coverage, didn’t even see Gideon and threw it right to Gideon as he stepped in front of a Cyclone receiver running an inside slant route.

Essentially, Diaz had all areas on the field covered, but instead of just having linebackers at the second level, Diaz almost treated it like a reverse zone blitz as he dropped the linebackers out of the middle of the field and rolled Gideon forward to play the short, quick routes that give linebackers some issues.  It’s almost like defense against the option - a defense will change the responsibility as to which player will play the dive, the QB and the pitch.

The only difference is that it’s a spread offense “pitch-and-catch” world and not pull, keep or pitch.  However, the philosophy of changing the responsibility to account for the passing game “options” that Jones does have is a necessity.  Fortunately, Diaz has figured it out.

Stills the One

A few weeks back, I made the statement that Oklahoma WR Kenny Stills was one of the top receivers in the nation and I meant it.  Sure, I was smitten with his performance against Florida State, but who wouldn’t have been?  I’m not backing off that statement because I truly think Stills is a special receiver who has next level ability.  Maturity?  That’s still a work in progress, but his gamebreaking deep threat abilities could be a major problem for the Longhorns on Saturday.

Everyone knows that Jones has a synergy with Broyles, but he likes to throw short to Broyles and let his All-American wide receiver make “catch and run” plays.  But, it’s Stills who can break the game wide open getting behind the Texas secondary.  Florida State had the cornerback personnel (Greg Reid) to “tackle” Stills one-on-one but still got beat by Stills.

Texas doesn’t have that type of guy to slow him down, so expect the Longhorns to have to make a difficult decision – roll coverage to help on Broyles or roll over the top of Stills.  I know what I would do.  If you haven’t figured it out by now…just consider what receiver was mentioned as the key.


There have been years when it appeared it was a lock that UT and OU would show up in Dallas undefeated and didn’t.  This didn’t appear to be one of those years, but both teams took care of business to arrive in Dallas with nary a loss.  This is one of the more intriguing matchups in this rivalry in recent history.  The Longhorns have been flying under the radar with two young quarterbacks, three young coordinators and four straight wins.

But, because the wins were against Rice, BYU, UCLA and Iowa State, not many people have been paying attention. So, people will be pleasantly surprised with how aggressive the Horns are on both sides of the ball. This is not a team that will sit back and let the game come to them.  However, the Sooners’ defense is in a different class than any unit that the Horns have faced this year and that’ll be the difference.

The game will be faster and quicker for both Case McCoy and David Ash than it’s been at any point this season and it’ll create turnovers for the Sooners.  Jones will throw for 300 and a pair of touchdowns, while Dominique Whaley and the Sooners will run for 165+, most of them winding down the clock in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma – 33 vs. Texas – 23