This might be the most obvious and important matchup of the game. The Longhorns offensively need to run the ball, both to set up the pass and to help protect quarterback Garrett Gilbert. The Longhorns don't want to be throwing the ball 35-40 times per game, and when they do throw, they would like to put Gilbert in positive situations. In order to do so, the Longhorn offensive line will have to create holes against a huge BYU defensive line that averages 299.2 pounds per man among their five-man rotation. Simply put: if Texas can run the ball, the Longhorns probably win. If Texas can't run the ball, that's where it gets more interesting.
This might be the flip side of the above matchup. The Cougars have a physical offensive line, yet struggled somewhat to create holes against Ole Miss. BYU runs to open up the pass, but if the Longhorns can pressure Heaps in the passing game, the running game will be that much easier to stop. It's also important to get off the field early on drives so that the defense doesn't get worn down by BYU's superior size. Okafor and Jeffcoat didn't really get a chance to rush the passer against a quick-hitting Rice squad determined not to allow a big defensive play. That changes this week, when both will be tested by Reynolds, one of the better tackles in the country. Reynolds only allowed one sack last year.
Texas receivers versus the BYU cornerbacks
The Longhorns were pleased with the performance of their receivers in Week One. Mike Davis showed up as a deep threat, Jaxon Shipley showed himself to be an impact freshman and others like John Harris showed their worth as well. They'll go against a BYU cornerback group that had a strong first week as well. JUCO transfers Preston Hadley and Joe Sampson really helped to beef up what was considered to be a potential problem position for the Cougars. At 5-foot-8 and 173 pounds, Corby Eason will often find himself against a bigger outside receiver, be it Davis (6-2), Harris (6-3), White (6-3) or Onyegbule (6-4).
This was an important matchup heading into last week, and Rice chose largely to take the ball out of Taylor McHargue's hands rather than have him try to read the looks and pressure Diaz's defense supplies. But the Cougars are likely to let Heaps, an accurate thrower and strong decision-maker, have more rein. Heaps showed what he could do in a strong second half against Ole Miss, completing 13-for-16 for 151 yards. Keeping him off balance with a number of looks, and getting pressure to him before he can find holes in the Longhorn defense will be absolutely huge.
Texas running backs versus BYU linebackers
If we learned one thing from Week One, it's that offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin's running game puts stress on opposing linebackers. The BYU group, led by outstanding SAM linebacker Jordan Pendleton, will have to stand up to power plays with pulling linemen on one play, then adjust to counters run to fast players on others. It's certainly a unique skill set: having the physical fortitude to hold up at the point of attack, while also being able to read and flow quickly to misdirection.
X-Factor: Texas speed
Texas linebacker Emmanuel Acho was asked this week how Texas would be able to counter the fact that they'd be playing an older, more mature team. The primary factor that Acho listed was speed, not because the Cougars are older, but because the Longhorns feel like they have a number of players who can run. Especially on offense, that could be the key. If Texas can get the ball to players like D.J. Monroe, or recent returnee Marquise Goodwin, in space, or find ways to get them isolated one-on-one, the Longhorns have the speed to make big plays. A long score or two would certainly make things easier in a battle against what has been a very tough defense of late.
This will be a stiff challenge for the Longhorns, one that will test their ability to hit their run fits and be physical on defense. And Jake Heaps and a strong receiving corps could test a young Longhorn cornerback group. On the surface, it would appear that the Cougars are a really rough matchup, a team that excels at stopping the run versus a team that wants to run the ball. But Harsin has shown that he won't beat his head against a wall needlessly. If Texas isn't bulling BYU off the ball, he'll find ways to creatively run the ball, and never discount his ability to call trick plays. In what figures to be a tight game, one or two big plays could be the difference, and I expect Texas to make those plays.
Texas — 24
BYU — 14