Spencer Sanders and company look to avenge last year’s overtime loss, but the offense may need to rely on the defense to limit the Longhorns.
Head coach Mike Gundy’s Cowboys come into Saturday’s contest 5-0 for the first time since 2015 and mark the third AP Top 25 team the Longhorns have faced this season.
In last year’s thrilling 41-34 victory in overtime, Texas edge Joseph Ossai single-handedly took over the game to help knock off the then-No. 6 team in the nation.
Ossai is off to the NFL but Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders is still at the helm, looking to win his first game against Texas after losing his first two games against the Horns.
Gundy’s offense comes into Saturday with the lowest-scoring Cowboys attack since 2005, averaging just 25.4 points per game.
Part of that is because Gundy is trying to slow the game down, instead of speed it up, contrary to the prototypical Oklahoma State offenses to which we’re accustomed.
In five games this season, OSU has nearly 100 more rushing attempts than passing attempts yet average a measly 3.5 yards per rush.
On first down this season, OSU has 108 rushing attempts to 48 passing attempts (4.0 yards per carry). On second down, 80 rushing attempts to 40 passing attempts (2.8 ypc).
After Oklahoma’s ability to gash Texas on the ground last week, it’s not rocket science to imagine that Oklahoma State will try and follow suit. Gundy has already been quoted this week saying “I’d prefer to not get into a shootout with [Texas].” That screams to me that Gundy’s game plan will be to rely heavily on the run game and try and dominate the time of possession.
But I’m a bit bullish on the Cowboys offense.
Senior running back Jaylen Warren leads Oklahoma State with 102 yards per game but has received 115 carries, only behind Bijan for most in the Big 12 despite not playing a game last week.
Here’s another stat for you — Oklahoma State only averages 159 yards on the ground per game, ranking seventh in the Big 12. That’s their lowest yards-per-game total since 2015. And they only trail Texas for most rushing attempts in the conference.
Gundy’s obviously committed to the run and with their defense, they haven’t been forced to rely on Sanders to win games for them. That’s where Texas needs to change things up.
The sophomore quarterback has been quietly struggling this season with the team’s 5-0 start masking a lot. Sanders threw three interceptions last week, but the Bears could only muster 14 points in the loss.
Sanders has not developed under Gundy’s staff in his third season with his averages all at a career worst, including completion percentage (58.3), quarterback rating (135.5), and passing yards per game (195). Only KU’s Jason Bean has a lower completion percentage and QBR.
But he did have a career performance against Texas in last season’s overtime loss, throwing for 400 yards and four touchdowns.
He had a similar outing against Kansas State this year when he threw for 344 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In the three other games Sanders, though, he only reached 437 yards passing combined.
Gundy will use a ton of play action and rollouts to get Sanders on the run where he’s most comfortable throwing. He also has the ability to scramble, torching Texas for 109 yards on the ground in 2019.
OSU used Sanders and Warren in the option against Baylor and were able to convert a few big third downs out of it.
I’d like to see Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatowski move away from the two-high safety look and force Sanders to beat them — the Oklahoma State offense has holes in it.
All 31 of their points against Kansas State came in the first half, including a defensive touchdown. Against Boise State, Sanders only completed six passes with Warren rushing for 218 yards in their 21-20 victory.
Of course, you could point back to the 2020 shootout against the Cowboys when the Longhorns held their rushing attack to just 2.5 yards per carry, sacked Sanders five times, but were lit up by Tylan Wallace for 187 yards and two touchdowns.
However, this is not the same Cowboys team as last year.
Running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace are gone and no longer will be able to terrorize the Horns defense.
Instead, keep an eye out for Sanders’ favorite target Tay Martin, his security blanket who leads the team with 21 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns.
ESPN’s SP+ rankings have the OSU offense pegged 78th with Baylor as the only top-50 defense they’ve faced all season.
I’ll close out with one last stat — Oklahoma State ranks 83rd in points per drive with a 1.91 rating. Texas is fifth, averaging 3.72 points per drive. In the end, I think that will be the difference maker for the Horns, but let’s dive deeper into that in the following section.
Every defensive metric you can find loves this Oklahoma State defense. ESPN SP+, FEI, F+ (combination of SP+ and FEI) all rank them inside the top 10.
They give up 4.6 yards per play (15th in the nation) and just 1.29 points per drive (10th in the nation).
They return eight starters on defense this year under fourth-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who slowly has turned this defense around. In his first year as the defensive coordinator, Oklahoma State allowed 452 yards per game. That number is down to 305 this season, behind only Iowa State in the Big 12.
The secondary features a strong pair of safeties in Tre Sterling and first-team Preseason All-Big 12 Kolby Harvell-Peel. They allow 11.6 yards per completion with opponents averaging just 214 yards per game through the air. But what makes this group so tough is their run defense.
They give up just 91 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry — both rank inside the top 12 in the country. That includes only allowing a solid Baylor rushing attack to finish with 107 yards.
However, Bauylor running back Abram Smith averaged 9.7 yards per rush on only 10 touches in the 24-14 loss. And besides Baylor, they haven’t faced a stout ground game. Nor have they seen Bijan Robinson.
All five of their games this season have been close battles, but this defense hasn’t faced an offense like the Longhorns. There’s a reason Mike Gundy doesn’t want this game to turn into a shootout. By the fourth quarter, the Cowboys defense could be worn down and the last thing they want to tackle is No. 5 in burnt orange.
Expect Sark to slam his foot on the gas pedal on Saturday and get the Oklahoma State defense on their heels.
The last four matchups between the Longhorns and Cowboys have been decided by one score. Sanders has thrown three interceptions and fumbled the ball three times in the last two, with Texas winning both of them. If Sanders takes care of the ball, Oklahoma State may be on a six-game winning streak against Texas. Instead, they’ve lost by a combined 13 points in the last two contests.
The Cowboys offense isn’t good enough to hang with Texas, especially if Sanders continues to turn the ball over.
Mike Gundy’s keys to win on Saturday are forcing a lot of Texas three and outs, winning the battle on special teams, and not having to put the game on Sanders.
It might be the best defense in the Mike Gundy era, but he hasn’t coached against a Steve Sarkisian offense before, either — in the matchup between the Texas offense against the Oklahoma State defense, it’s strength against strength.