OU-Texas: Five things to watch

Kyle Phillips/The Norman TranscriptOklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) and Jordan Smallwood celebrate a touchdown during the Sooners’ game against Iowa State last week at Owen Field.

NORMAN — Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State had one positive.

It made the Sooners’ date with the Texas Longhorns must-see television.

OU and Texas (2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN) are trending in opposite directions. Texas’ defense is making plays and OU’s is not.

Who says the Red River Rivalry no longer possesses the national impact it once did? If OU loses, it seems certain the College Football Playoff race will have one less suitor.

OU fans might not blink for three hours. Keep your eyes peeled for these things.

1. Secondary slide: OU’s defensive backs suffered busted coverages against Baylor two weeks ago in a frightful win. It struggled making tackles and critical plays against Iowa State in a frightful loss.

The biggest plays were two long third downs converted by Iowa State star receiver Allen Lazard. Texas receiver Collin Johnson, with just one score, hasn’t reached the end zone like Lazard (four TDs), but has more yards (485) and can be a weapon in that same regard.

• Watch this: OU’s defense has zero interceptions outside of cornerback Parnell Motley’s two picks. Other defensive backs have struggled making plays on the ball. A few more would help curb opposing quarterbacks’ confidence, which has soared lately. Will a Sooner — besides Motley — make such a play?

“You’re not gonna make every single one of ‘em, but we’ve got good players that we’ve got to make more,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said.

2. Underneath: OU’s reliance on home-run passes has inflated its yards-per-play average to 8.7 (last year’s average was 7.5, the second-highest total in school history).

But last week, Iowa State’s drop-eight coverage limited long plays, and the Sooners looked rusty trying to dink and dunk their way into the end zone.

OU has reliable weapons underneath if Texas adopts the Cyclones’ defensive method. Fullback Dimitri Flowers and running back Trey Sermon led the team in receiving against Iowa State, but more help is needed.

Mark Andrews, essentially a tight end playing receiver, had just three catches last week. He can be useful on mid-range routes.

• Watch this: Receivers struggled getting open last week. Might OU increase its offensive tempo and opt for quicker, shorter strikes?

3. Run, run, run: Staying on this topic, if Texas drops back into coverage, could OU dial back its vertical passing attack and force-feed Sermon and Flowers — and starter Abdul Adams, if he’s available — in the run game?

If Adams isn’t healthy yet, Sermon would have to receive a heavy workload in that scenario. When meeting with media Monday, running backs coach Jay Boulware didn’t sound like he had any intention of giving Sermon 30 carries in a game.

• Watch this: A full-on ground assault would match strength on strength. OU’s offensive line is regarded as one of the nation’s best, with a star at left tackle (Orlando Brown) and a budding star at right tackle (Bobby Evans). Texas’ defense allows just 105.2 rushing yards per game, which is 17th in the nation.

4. Riley’s adjustments: Bob Stoops lost back-to-back games his first season as OU’s head coach in 1999, then never did so again, right up to his retirement in June. Adjusting in the aftermath of a loss was among his greatest strengths.

As Riley tries avoiding two straight setbacks his first season, he does so overseeing the offense and calling plays, while keeping another eye on a defense that is barely treading water. With both units struggling last week, Riley will be pulling double duty.

The task of winning at Ohio State aside, this is his first real challenge as a head coach. Outside of Riley’s inner circle, only the birds know how he’s handled these past few days.

• Watch this: Few Big 12 teams succeed by scoring seven second-half points in one game, as OU did last week. Can the Sooners be (much) better after halftime on both sides of the ball? That responsibility, Riley admits, falls directly on him.

5. Starting out: Be alert for starting personnel on the field. Texas released a depth chart Monday with 11 “ors” on it, including at running back and quarterback, and OU has a plethora of injured players whose status is unknown.

Texas could use both its QBs — Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger — during the entire game to keep OU on its toes. It worked for Iowa State last week.

• Watch this: For the Sooners, all eyes are on whether starting running back Adams (lower leg) and receiver CeeDee Lamb (shoulder) are healthy Saturday. There’s also the status of safety Steven Parker, nose guard Matt Romar and Du’Vonta Lampkin.

Riley wisely played it close to the vest and gave no injury announcement Monday, so there is much anticipation surrounding who dresses out and who’s in on the first series. 

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Jeff Cali has been covering sports in the Ada area since the mid-90s. He graduated from Byng High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from East Central University.