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  • The Big 12 title game won't have the same look or feel of the Red River Showdown, but it may have the same number of points.
By Michael Shapiro
November 27, 2018

While Texas and Oklahoma will battle for a second time this season on Saturday, the circumstances for the bitter rivals’ rematch won’t hold many similarities to their first battle in early October. The winner won’t walk away with the Golden Hat—which remains in Austin for at least the next 10 months—and the glossy confines of AT&T Stadium won’t be split down the middle in dueling seas of crimson and burnt orange. The Cowboys’ monstrous complex is a far cry from the Cotton Bowl 20 miles down the road.

The Big 12 championship game will certainly bring a different aesthetic than the annual Red River Showdown. But what will change in Texas and Oklahoma’s rematch on the field? Both quarterbacks have been excellent and both defenses have been questioned since Oct. 6, so buckle up for a second shootout and another classic chapter in one of college football’s greatest rivalries.

When Oklahoma has the ball

The Sooners were downright electric in the regular season, pacing FBS offenses with 50.3 points per game on the back of quarterback Kyler Murray. Yet for much of the Oct. 6 matchup in Dallas, Texas slowed Oklahoma’s attack better than any team aside from Army, which played keep-away with its triple option. In Dallas, Oklahoma scored just 24 points in the first 51 minutes, Murray committed two turnovers, and aside from an opening-drive score, the high-flying Sooners looked pedestrian for a large chunk of the afternoon.

The Longhorns found their greatest success when keeping Murray inside the hash marks. Texas edge rushers Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu stayed disciplined in their rushing lanes, working to contain Murray in the pocket. The Heisman candidate’s key third-quarter fumble happened because linebacker Gary Johnson held firm on the left edge, forcing Murray back to the middle of the pocket instead of letting him scamper beyond the hash marks. As Murray attempted to squeeze through a crowd and into open space, he lost his footing and the football, too. It was his second turnover of the day.

Texas bottled Murray and the Sooners for most of the opening three quarters in October, but the final 10 minutes of regulation are sure to keep Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando on edge until kickoff. Oklahoma scored three touchdowns in a span of six minutes in the fourth, highlighted by a 67-yard run from Murray with 5:11 remaining. When the Longhorns got the ball back tied 45–45 with 2:38 remaining, the writing was on the wall: Texas would lose in regulation if they suffered another three-and-out.

The Sooners of the final 10 minutes at the Cotton Bowl are more likely to show up in Arlington, and a repeat performance in the takeaways department may be too much to ask. The Longhorns rank 76th in the nation in turnovers forced, and the only ballhawk in the secondary is freshman Caden Sterns.

It’s a testament to the Oklahoma offense that the Sooners struggled for much of the afternoon and still scored 45 points. There’s no scarier quick-strike team in college football.

When Texas has the ball

Murray’s brilliance will prevent Sam Ehlinger from earning first-team All-Big 12 honors this season, but the Austin native has more than held his own in 2018. For much of the past decade, Texas has entered the Red River Showdown with the decidedly inferior quarterback, forced to compensate for matchups such as Jerrod Heard vs. Baker Mayfield and David Ash vs. Landry Jones. Such a disparity won’t occur on Saturday.

Ehlinger registered five of his 34 touchdowns this season against the Sooners, scoring three times on the ground. The performance was Ehlinger at his best: He was a bulldozing presence in the run game. The sophomore isn’t the fleetest of foot—a 40-yard dash with Murray would be laughable—yet he’s shifty and decisive. Ehlinger picked up critical yards by shedding defenders near the line of scrimmage and lowering his head behind blockers in the red zone, keeping Texas out of third-and-long.

Texas’s scoring barrage against Oklahoma was impressive, yet it wasn’t an isolated incident for the Sooners in 2018. Oklahoma enters the Big 12 title game ranked 100th in the country in scoring defense. Over the last four weeks, the situation has gotten worse. The Sooners gave up an average of 47.3 points per game in November, a mark that would have ranked No. 126 of 130 teams if it had held up over the course of the season.

The Longhorns are well-suited to exploit the Sooners’ defense. The dynamic receiver duo of Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson dominated with a combined 15 catches for 214 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the first matchup, providing a balance to Texas’s run-heavy attack. The two players compliment each other well, too. At 6'6", Johnson is one of college football’s preeminent jump ball threats. Humphrey excels inside the numbers, bursting through traffic on slants and bubble screens. Don’t be surprised to see him stretch the field, either. Humphrey’s touchdown snag late in the fourth quarter gave Texas a win at Texas Tech on Nov. 10—reversing the bitter memory of Michael Crabtree’s grab in Lubbock 10 years prior—and the junior actually leads the Longhorns in yards per catch. Texas is well equipped for a shootout.

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