NORMAN- The long awaited OU-Texas matchup is finally here. However, the long awaited matchup will look, like most things in 2020, very different this year.
The Texas State Fair has been cancelled and the crowd inside the Cotton Bowl will be limited to 25% capacity.
Lincoln Riley acknowledged the atmosphere would feel eerie before the game even kicked off this year.
Normally, both teams must wind through the twists and turns of the fair grounds, greeted by friendly and hostile faces alike on the bus ride to the stadium. No such entrance will greet the Sooners and the Longhorns this year.
Quarterback battle takes center stage:
The muted fanfare this year could play into the favor of Oklahoma, entering the Cotton Bowl under the leadership of redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler.
The young quarterback enters his first Red River Showdown as the starting quarterback. Historically, first time starters have struggled when taking the field against a more seasoned counterpart.
The past two Oklahoma starters entering their first starts in the Cotton Bowl, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts, had their own struggles.
Both Murray and Hurts surrendered two turnovers, with each losing a fumble and throwing an interception in their first starts against the Longhorns.
Rattler marks the fourth different quarterback Riley has rolled out against Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
Despite his inexperience, Rattler has shown flashes of greatness.He leads the Big 12 with 325 passing yards per game and passing efficiency rating, posting an average passer rating of 187.3.
“He’s rock solid. He is,” Riley said. “He’s a competitor, he knows he belongs in that arena.”
As impressive as Rattler has been, Ehlinger is also one of the conference’s best passers. Ehlinger leads the Big 12 in total offense with 351.3 yards per game, and leads the nation with 14 touchdown passes.
Riley said one of most impressive things about Ehlinger has been his durability during his time at Texas.
“As physical as he’s played the position, the way he’s run the ball, as many shots as he’s taken and delivered over the years, to be able to stay on the field for a majority of those and stay healthy has been a big part I think of him being able to continue to improve,” he said.
Ehlinger is accustomed to the physicality of this rivalry but Rattler has only gotten a glimpse of it from the sidelines.
Dominate the trenches:
As always in the Cotton Bowl, controlling the line of scrimmage will be a big factor in which team wins the game.
With Rhamondre Stevenson still suspended, T.J. Pledger and Seth McGowan will have to continue to carry the load for the Sooners.
Pledger and McGowan’s have shown flashes of big play ability, but the entire Oklahoma rushing attack struggled to get going last Saturday against Iowa State.
Pledger only rushed for 47 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
McGowan logged a season high receiving against the Cyclones, hauling in 3 catches for 42 yards. But he only logged 47 yards on the ground on 12 carries.
Center Creed Humphrey said he has been disappointed with how the offensive line has played so far this season, but there is still plenty of good to build on.
“We’ve had our flashes of really good play and then flashes of bad play,” Humphrey said.
“We’ve just got to become more consistent.”
Defensive woes haunt both sides:
Each defense has been inconsistent and has shown many weaknesses heading into this matchup, leading many to anticipate a shootout on Saturday.
Even if both offenses move the ball, forcing turnovers could provide the spark either team needs to emerge victorious.
However, the Sooners have yet again struggled to force turnovers, logging just one interception in their first game against Missouri State.
Though the Texas defense has allowed plenty of points this season, they have been able to force turnovers, pushing the Longhorns turnover margin plus three takeaways on the year.
Another area of concern for the Sooners is their inadequate tackling.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said the defense is not failing to wrap players up at the point of attack.
“You have to stick to the techniques and fundamentals and you gotta make sure that you’re coming up with a body part,” Grinch said. “That’s one of our chief coaching points.”
Linebacker DaShaun White said his team has shown the ability to tackle well early in the game, so the challenge is to maintain the high level of play shown early across all four quarters of a game.
“Can we get it fixed? Absolutely we can because those guys have proven to do it over an extended period of time,” Grinch said.
‘They did not do it last weekend.”
Since 2000, Oklahoma has lost its game immediately prior to the Red River Showdown just three times, but beat the Longhorns on all three occasions.
Saturday will also mark the third occasion both teams enter the contest fresh off a loss over the same timespan.
With the pressure mounting, Humphrey said success in the Cotton Bowl can be boiled down to one thing- physicality.
“Throughout the history of this game it’s always you know the more physical team wins, the team who can run the ball better and the team who plays more physical defense,” Humphrey said.
With the game representing a potential elimination game, the eyes of the Big 12 will be upon Dallas Saturday morning.
The game will be televised on ABC Saturday, with kickoff scheduled for 11 a.m.