It begs the question: will the cycle be unbroken? We mean this Saturday?
Texas will not face a better offense, a better defense or better special teams all year. But Texas has the offensive firepower to get past the Sooners (that is, if it doesn't commit six turnovers like last year). Texas has a freak of nature at quarterback who relishes the thought of carrying this team on his shoulder pads Saturday. Texas has college football's best-kept secret in TE David Thomas. Texas has its most dominant O-line since 1998. And Texas has a fire-breathing senior RB who not only leads the nation in rushing (186.5 ypg) but who also couldn't be more stoked about the thought of bullying the Evil Empire just once in his career. In fact, beating OU -- and winning a Big 12 title -- is the reason Cedric Benson said he passed up those lucrative NFL dollars to wear the Burnt Orange in 2004.
Defensively, you'd like to believe All-American WLB Derrick Johnson could single-handled will his unit to victory. He may have to. You've got to be losing sleep about OU exploiting Texas' attrition at DE with Sports Illustrated coverboy Adrian Peterson. The other cause for insomnia is that Texas is still suspect at both cornerbacks and at SLB. And how effective will RDT Rodrique Wright be after suffering a high ankle sprain against Rice? Johnson has to elevate his teammates, just as Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson has to know that he was brought here just for this game.
The jury will be out on Robinson until about 3:00 p.m. Saturday. But already we can see the heightened intensity among the first team D that he promised in February, as well as a unit that swarms to the ball. In 27 years of avidly watching Longhorn football, I don't think I'd ever seen so many UT defenders out of position to make the play as many times as I did than last year's debacle. Pursuit angles, shedding blocks and wrapping-up have been the focal point of Robinson's emphasis on fundamentally sound defensive football. Overall, I'm not looking for the defense to dominate as I am hoping it will force some three-and-outs (and that Richmond McGee will punt the ball out of bounds instead of anywhere near PR Antonio Perkins) to at least give the offense a chance in the fourth quarter.
Each of the past three years, Texas has beaten teams that have beaten OU. Texas coaches have dissected game film from Kansas State's and LSU's dominating wins over the Sooners last year. They know it can be done. Or do they?
Much has been said the past couple of years about whether Texas enters this game so intimidated that Oklahoma has notched the 'W' at kickoff. Mack Brown said his coaches have spent considerable time exploring why Texas plays so well after the OU game, rather than during. The argument here is that the answer is more easily found from consulting a sports psychologist than dissecting game film. Texas beats Kansas State, Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M because it expects to whereas Texas has played as if it only hopes to beat OU.
Saturday's game may boil down to how well this team embraces one of the truest Darrell Royal-isms: Trends are bunk. Angry men win football games.
In my opinion, the single-most important thing Texas has to do Saturday is something it hasn't done consistently in any game for the past three years: get to the quarterback.
"He's the key to their offense," Rod Wright said. "He's their leader. He's the head honcho."
He's the Heisman Trophy winner who completed 17-of-21 passes for 290 yards and four TDs who left the game one series into the fourth quarter last year. With his three TD tosses in last Saturday's closer-than-expected win over Texas Tech, White has a career total of 55 TDs, eclipsing Josh Heupel's previous school record of 53.
Texas coaches insist they see no lingering effects from White's surgery on his left knee last spring, but is not the most mobile QB Texas will face this season. For my money, Kansas State and LSU wins those games because they got to White early and often. And they hurt him. White broke a bone in his hand against the Wildcats and broke a toe against LSU.
"He has to be getting up from the ground almost every time he throws the ball," Wright said. "You can't let that guy get into any kind of rhythm. Once he gets into a rhythm, he's like a pitcher. He throws strikes every time. From the get-go, from the first drop-back pass, from the first shotgun, he needs to be getting up from the ground knowing that this is how it's going to be the whole game."
I honestly didn't think White would last the 2003 season. He is obviously tough, mature and has a quick release. But no small part of the reason White performed at a championship level and lived to tell about it (through 12 games, at least) was because of the outstanding protection he got from his O-line. That group returned intact this season. C Vince Carter, a close friend and former teammate of Derrick Johnson's, was a Rimington Award finalist last season.
"They're athletes who really maneuver well," Robinson said. "They're very well coached up front."
WR Mark Clayton established a school record with 190 yards on eight receptions in last year's game. Clayton, the only Biletnikoff finalist returning from last season, is OU's all-time leading receiver with 177 grabs (previous was RB Quentin Griffin's 169). He averages one TD for every 7.1 receptions.
"Mark Clayton may be the best receiver in the country," Brown said. "There's not as much talk about their passing attack but they've been really efficient in throwing the ball."
OU has been extraordinarily effective on third-down conversions (42-of-64, 66 percent) while Texas is 23-of-54 (43 percent) on third-downs. OU's ability to move the chains after three downs is due largely to White, who is 26-of-37 on third down conversions. White has thrown fewer balls than he did this time last year but his percentages are up. (White was 86-of-132 for 1,091 yards, 10 TD, three INT, heading into the Cotton Bowl in 2003; he is currently 67-of-96 for 859 yards, nine TD, 1 INT). That's because OU has a bonafide running game with you-know-who at RB.
"One of the differences in this year's team is they're running the ball really, really well," Brown said. "You have to go into the game concerned about stopping the running game. Adrian Peterson is being mentioned for the Heisman in his first year. It makes it tougher to get to (White). You have to stop the run first and then get to the quarterback."
Freshman Peterson, who logged his first start against Tech on Saturday, is the nation's ninth-leading rusher (136.5 ypg). He is the first player in OU history to rush for 100+ yards in each of his first four games.
"I'm impressed with the way he drives his knees and breaks tackles," Robinson said. "If you arm-tackle him, you're gonna get in trouble."
Oklahoma checks in this week as the nation's No. 12 rushing offense (242.3 ypg) and the nation's 11th-best offense in total yards (470 ypg). Texas will counter not only with the nation's top ranked rushing offense (353.5 ypg) but also the nation's top rusher (187 ypg). Texas is ranked No. 3 this week in total offense (528.5 ypg), trailing only Purdue (549.3 ypg) and California (539 ypg).
"I don't see any soft spots about them in their offense," Johnson said. "I'm gonna do my best. I'm gonna bust my tail out there."
Orangebloods (and Texas coaches) are looking for chinks in the armor of an Oklahoma defense that Sports Illustrated dubbed "so good it's scary" two seasons ago. Many suspect that if there is a soft spot (relatively speaking), it will be found along a front four that has replaced DT Tommie Harris and DT Dusty Dvoracek (whom Stoops booted off the team last month for conduct unbecoming). Others, meanwhile, point to a physical yet (again, relatively) inexperienced linebacking corps as an area Texas might could exploit with a between-the-tackles power running game.
OU's defense is rated No. 38 overall (324.5 ypg) after facing faced three passing teams in their first four games (Texas Tech, Houston, Bowling Green).
DE Dan Cody, one of six finalists for the 2003 Hendricks Award, is used as the extra TE when the Sooners are in their jumbo set. DE Jonathon Jackson tops the team in TFL with five (-25).
"We want to come out and be physical with every team we play," Jackson said. "I believe the physical will is better (than mental will). When you go out and play hard, good things happen."
Senior DT Lynn McGruder has stepped in for Harris while RS-freshman Carl Pendleton was pressed into action following Dvoracek's dismissal. When Pendleton was asked this week how the Cotton Bowl atmosphere compares to previous games, he said, "I'm only a freshman, so I've never been on the field." (In fact, he's never started a game outside of Norman. All four of OU's contests this year have been at home).
MLB Lance Mitchell was the team's top tackler in 2002 (124) but was lost after three games in 2003 with a season-ending knee injury. He paced the defense in OU's home-opening win over Bowling Green with nine stops. WLB Rufus Alexander has started the last three games. SLB Clint Ingram made his first career start against Bowling Green.
"I think their defensive line does a great job of playing at low pad level and trying to free up their linebackers," Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis said. "They want to take the gaps and let their backers be free. And they do a god job of supporting with their secondary."
OU lost Thorpe Award winning CB Derrick Strait (of Austin) and FS Brandon Everage. However, junior FS Brodney Pool led the Sooners last season with seven INT and is currently the team's leading tackler with 36. SS Donte Nicholson is OU's top returning tackler after posting 90 last season as the Big 12's Defensive Newcomer of the Year. CB Eric Bassey started at SS in 2002 and was a backup corner last season. CB Antonio Perkins does most of his damage on special teams
The Sooners base out of a 4-3 but have shown a 4-2-5 look. Senior Brandon Shelby is OU's nickel back and, along with Mitchell, is OU's primary blitzer. Oklahoma blitzes about 30 percent of the time, Davis said.
"Surprisingly, their numbers (of blitzes) fall below our first four opponents," he noted. "I think they do an outstanding job on you when they're in their nickel and dime (packages) with various people coming, and twisting, and involving the line, but they're not what you'd classify as a huge blitz team."
OU's biggest loss may have been when former Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops replaced John Mackovic at Arizona at the end of last season. Arguably, Bob's bro was the best defensive coach ever to direct the Sooner D.
Co-Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables now shares the title with Bo Pelini, a lifelong friend of the Stoops family and the coach that Nebraska should have hired last year when it offered its head coaching job to everyone but Pee Wee Herman. Still, Texas ran for 353 yards last season against Pelini's Cornhusker defense, albeit against different personnel, in a different setting and with (arguably) a different mindset among UT players.
"I think the defense is run by Bob Stoops," Brown said. "He had great defenses at Kansas State and at Florida. The head coach is the one who runs it. And Bo Pelini is a great coach. Brent Venables is still there. They're 4-0 and playing great defense. I don't see any difference in them."
Other than a repeat of last year's debacle, my biggest nightmare is that a tight, third-quarter game slips through Texas' hands with just one Antonio Perkins punt return.
What NCAA record doesn't this kid own? The other AP on the Sooner sideline tied the NCAA record for punt returns for TDs when he registered No. 8 against Houston. He is already the D-I record-holder for punt returns for TD in a single game (three against UCLA in 2003) and in a season (four in 2003). Not surprisingly, Perkins also set the NCAA record for punt return yardage against UCLA (277).
Blake Ferguson is averaging nearly 44 yards per punt but OU hasn't punted enough to qualify him for NCAA consideration. The NCAA requires a minimum of 3.6 punts per game and Ferguson's 11 punts this season are more than three attempts shy. Otherwise, he would be ranked No. 12 nationally.
K Trey DiCarlo is still at OU after setting an NCAA record with 74 PAT last season, although his string of 59 straight PAT was snapped against Bowling Green in the home opener.
FOR THE RECORD
Saturday's 99th renewal of the series marks the third time in four years that both schools enter ranked in the Top Five. Texas leads the overall series, 55-38-5.
With additional seats installed in the Cotton Bowl, a record crowd for this game is anticipated. The new capacity is 75,500 but the attendance figure has been 75,587 every year since 1981. The largest crowd ever to see a Texas-OU game was 76,059 in 1960. Texas won that one, 24-0.