- The Sooners have been scoring at will, but in the past two years at Houston and Texas, Todd Orlando has had an answer for Oklahoma's explosive offense. Will Texas's defense do enough to lift the Longhorns to an upset?
Lincoln Riley and Todd Orlando are well acquainted.
Riley is known for his success with agile, Heisman Trophy–caliber quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, while Orlando is known for developing physical defenses that turn those guys into one-dimensional players. The coaches have crossed each other in each of the last two years, splitting the meetings. In 2016 Houston (with Orlando as defensive coordinator) upset Oklahoma (with Riley as offensive coordinator); last year Oklahoma beat Texas 29–24 in the first year for Riley as Sooners head coach and for Orlando as the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator under Tom Herman. The rubber match arrives Saturday when No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 19 Texas meet in the annual Red River Showdown.
With both teams ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2012 (yes, it has been that long), this matchup has more national juice to it than in recent years. That didn’t deter Orlando’s defense from keeping things tight last season. The Sooners arrived at the Cotton Bowl as an overwhelming favorite, ranked No. 12 in the country but coming off a shocking loss at home to Iowa State. Baker Mayfield was in the midst of one of the best college seasons by a quarterback ever on the way to winning the Heisman, being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and ultimately winning the starting job with the Cleveland Browns before the end of September. But in this game a year ago, Orlando’s defense held him in check: Mayfield completed a season-low 63% of his passes that day, the Longhorns held Oklahoma to a season-low in points (29), below its total yard average (518, compared to a season-long 579.6 yards per game clip), and to five of 15 on third-down conversion attempts.
Murray is one of the most exciting players in college football this year. He has a quarterback rating of 231.65, second in the nation only to the other most exciting player in college football, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. In five games, Murray has passed for 1,460 yards with 17 touchdowns to two interceptions and is completing 70.6% of his passes. His top target, receiver Marquise Brown, leads the country with 11 receptions of at least 50 yards, dating back to last season. And if he or receiver CeeDee Lamb aren’t available, Murray runs.
“This isn’t some kind of luck that Oklahoma has had the best offense in the country for the last four years,” Orlando told reporters this week. “This is scheme and players and a play-caller that’s dynamic. Lincoln Riley is a dynamic play-caller, and when he gets you on the ropes, he can finish you.”
However, Murray and the Sooners haven’t seen a defense as good as Texas yet this season. Orlando has the No. 2 unit in the Big 12 (333.2 yards per game) behind TCU, led by proven talents linebacker Gary Johnson and cornerback Kris Boyd and impressive newcomer defensive backs Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster. The Longhorns lost top linebacker Malcolm Roach (foot) against USC, but they’ve remained a proud and stingy group.
This is only Orlando’s second Red River experience, but his record shows he’s capable of getting players ready to face these types of high-powered offenses.
Over two years as Tom Herman’s defensive coordinator at Houston, Orlando had become a known commodity as a top defensive strategist. He built an impressively dominant unit that finished third nationally in rush defense in 2016 and led the nation in forced turnovers in ’15. In the 2015 Peach Bowl against Florida State, Houston’s defense held star tailback Dalvin Cook (now with the Minnesota Vikings) to 33 rushing yards on 18 carries in a 38–24 win. The following season, Orlando’s defense played a vital role in Houston’s victories over explosive offenses from Oklahoma and Louisville.
When Herman was hired at Texas, there was no question who his defensive coordinator would be. In his first season in Austin in 2017, Orlando took a defense that was among the worst in the country (allowing 448.4 yards per game in Charlie Strong’s final year in charge) and made it a top-40 unit, No. 2 in the Big 12, with 10 of the same 11 players. For this he was rewarded with a bump in pay, boosting him to a $1.7 million salary, the highest in Texas history for an assistant, which landed him among the top three highest paid assistants in the country.
The defense wasn’t ready to play in Texas’s season-opening loss to Maryland, allowing the Terrapins to rack up 407 yards on 80 plays. After that, it regrouped and limited explosive plays against USC and TCU, although Kansas State was allowed to score 14 points in a second-half surge last week.
Oklahoma represents the biggest test yet. With a win, Texas would take a huge step forward in proving it’s making progress, and the program would have its first five-game winning streak since 2013, Mack Brown’s final season. The Longhorns will need to move the ball effectively on offense and score points. As a freshman last year, quarterback Sam Ehlinger led Texas back from a 20-point deficit with 278 yards passing and 106 rushing in a losing effort. This season he has passed for 1,185 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. But whether the Big 12 race gets broken wide open or not this weekend will come down to Orlando’s success or failure in stifling Murray.
“We have to have fanatical effort to get to the football because that’s how they get all their explosive plays,” Orlando said this week. “They get guys in one-on-ones and once they make the first guy miss—and probably 90% of the time they do that—the ball is down the sidelines. So we got to do a great job of using our speed and getting to the football.”
Orlando has had success doing it before. Now, can he and his players do it again?