OSU Preview: Heading 'em Off at the Pass

Texas' annual trap door game against traditionally overlooked Oklahoma State has arguably become the most high-profile of the Horns' three-game stretch to conclude a topsy-turvy regular season.

Then again, nearly every Saturday has been a trapdoor game for a 7-2 Texas team that looks to parlay three straight wins on ABC-Sports into a New Year's Day destination, or best-case-scenario -- an at-large BCS berth in the Sugar Bowl (Representatives from the Sugar Bowl and Gator Bowl were in the press box Saturday for the Nebraska game). Then again, the Cowboys now entertain legitimate BCS aspirations.

Oklahoma State, at 3-1, is tied with in-state rival Oklahoma atop the Big 12 Conference standings. The Cowboy's only conference loss was a one-pointer at Texas A&M, but only after blowing a 17-point halftime lead and losing starting QB Zac Robinson to injury.

Both teams are in the Top 20 for total offense; both are averaging approximately 34 points. Saturday's affair promises to be a shootout at the OK. (State) corral, pitting an up-and-coming club with one of college football's most storied programs (Texas is now just four games behind Notre Dame as the NCAA's s second most-winning program, trailing only Michigan). Add to the mix Cowboy coach Mike Gundy, a YouTube poster child following his post-Texas Tech tirade, and the fact that this series has recently produced plenty of Maalox moments for both sidelines, and you've got an afternoon of must-see college football for even the most objective of viewers.

A recent trip down Memory Lane is not for the faint of heart. We can start with Kris Stockton's game-winning ricochet FG, following three timeouts, on the final play in 1998. Texas would face a 10-point deficit in Stillwater in 2001 during Cedric Benson's first start at RB before outscoring the Cowboys, 45-7. In 2002, the Cowboys had a chance to tie Texas with 4:04 left, but CB Rod Babers stopped the two-point conversion attempt at the goal line. The 17-15 Texas win also required a Babers INT less than two minutes later in Longhorn territory. Then there was the nine-point second-quarter deficit at Stillwater in 2003 before Texas reeled-off 48 straight. That would pale compared to the early 28-point hole the following year in Austin before the Longhorns' rallied with 49 unanswered points. Even the 2005 National Champions stared down a 19-point deficit at Stillwater before responding with 38 unanswered.

What do the Horns expect at Stillwater Saturday? For starters, Texas players typically speak first of the tendency of Cowboy fans to get up close-and-personal while crammed into Boone Pickens Stadium.

Said WR Nate Jones: "The fans are right beside you. You're only two or three feet from them. If you walk down the sideline, they could hit you on the back on the head."

Said RB Jamaal Charles. "The crowd is mean and they get after us. You aren't used to playing in that environment."

Said Co-Defensive Coordinator Duane Akina, "They say some clever things."

Otherwise, OSU has the worst pass defense that that current herd of Horns have ever faced. But 6-4 Oklahoma State WR Darius Bowman has a five-inch height advantage on every Longhorn CB. It's shaping up as game where, ultimately, both teams will try to head the other off at the pass.

There should be plenty of footballs in the air, but Saturday's shootout matches the Big 12's top two RBs. OSU's Dantrell Savage leads the league with 124.3 ypg while Jamaal Charles is right behind at 112.4 ypg. Charles will find tougher sledding against OSU than he did Nebraska's woeful run defense, while Longhorn defenders will face one of the most balanced attacks in the country. In fact, Okie State is just one of three schools nationally (Oregon, Houston) to average 230+ yards rushing and 230+ passing.

Despite OSU's u-g-l-y outing at Troy, the big switch offensively ironically occurred during that 41-23 upset on September 14. Robinson added two INTs to his team's three fumbles that night in southern Alabama but has never looked back. Following their second loss in three games, Cowboy coach Mike Gundy drew a line in the sand that night and told his squad to decide the direction of the season. He also replaced Bobby Reid as starting QB.

At the risk of inciting the third-year head OSU coach and 40-year old man, injuries aren't the primary reason Reid isn't running this show. Reid was a deer caught in the headlights in Austin last season. Not once, but twice, did the besieged and frustrated Reid throw the ball into the stands. Robinson comes closer to possessing the proverbial 'it' and is his team's emotional leader. Robinson will come at Texas with options, draws, nakeds and sprints. More than that, the dual-threat Robinson has helped open the running lanes for Savage. The Cowboys boast the nation's No. 5 ground game (256.6 ypg), while the running back tandem of Savage and 5-8 freshman Kendall Hunter (206.2 rushing ypg) trails only Arkansas' combination of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones (232.2 ypg).

"You have to get your safeties involved in stopping the run," Texas coach Mack Brown said, "and then they'll put those big, tall receivers on your corners,"

Bowman is a poor man's Roy Williams but will be making plenty of cha-ching on Sundays next fall. He is an undersized CBs biggest nightmare on fades, but Texas' biggest concern may be containing Bowman on slants across the middle. Including his two seasons at North Carolina, Bowman's 18.1 ypr is best among all active NCAA players. Since arriving in Stillwater, the senior has posted 110 catches for 1,983 receiving yards (No. 4 all-time in school history).

Junior TE Brandon Pettigrew is a beast at 6-6, 260 pounds. He's averaging 45.2 ypg on 19 receptions while notching the game-winning grab in the 49-45 comeback against Texas Tech (a 54-yarder 1:37 remaining).

"That guy is huge and he can run," Brown said.

The O-line leads the Big 12 (during league play) with just one sack allowed, but a running QB may have more to do with that stat as the big uglies up front. The line is young (three sophomores) and slightly undersized (averaging 293 pounds along the front). The anchor is senior LG David Koenig, who leads the team with 35 starts.

Let's start with the number that lassos you: Okie State has the worst pass defense Texas will face all year. The Cowboys boast a generally solid run defense (122.7 ypg, NCAA No. 33) but are giving up 308 ypg through the air (No. 116).

Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said those stats are skewed because the Cowboys have already endured Texas Tech's NCAA-leading passing attack. The Cowboys' were torched for 446 yards against the air Raiders, but even the Aggies passed on the Pokes (218 yards). So did Sam Houston State (270). So did Troy (388).

"They've given up some big plays," Davis acknowledged.

It's quite an understatement. OSU's pass defense has given up more miles to frequent fliers than Delta.

It's no small part of the reason why they, literally, blitz have the time. Nearly every team Texas has faced in the post-Vince Young era have blitzed more than they do all year. OSU's back seven have experienced some growing pains (there are seven sophomores in the two-deep chart among linebackers and DBs). The Cowboys may get a boost this week with the return of Texarkana product Chris Collins at MLB (following his September 22 injury at Tech).

Sophomore OLB Patrick Lavine is the team-leader with 56 tackles. Senior DE Nathan Peterson was a preseason candidate for conference awards and came up against Tech with two sacks and fumble recovery. Finally, the Cowboys are still not out of the Woods. Journeyman Donovan Woods is the third Woods brother to start for OSU. The senior began his career as starting QB, then moved to safety and finishes as the captain of the defense at linebacker.

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