Commentary

Texas-Oklahoma: Six keys to winning

Updated: October 16, 2009, 6:19 PM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- Texas and Oklahoma have had a week of practice and a week of answering questions about what has once again become one of the biggest games in the country since Mack Brown and Bob Stoops arrived at their respective schools.

So let's take a look at a six-pack of things to keep an eye on as No. 3 Texas takes on No. 20 Oklahoma on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl.

1. OU's Sam Bradford vs. UT's Colt McCoy

Naturally, all eyes will be on the quarterbacks Saturday, as the Heisman Trophy winner (Bradford) faces the guy who finished second. Both played well in this game last year -- Bradford threw for 387 yards and five TDs; McCoy was 28-of-35 for 277 yards and a touchdown.

Sam Bradford
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesOn his way to winning the Heisman Trophy, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford threw for 387 yards and five touchdowns against the Longhorns last year.

McCoy has been burdened with lofty expectations this season, and he has yet to put up the numbers expected of him by fans and media. But in the past 2½ games, McCoy has completed 82.6 percent of his passes and has five touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Bradford returned last week from a sprained shoulder joint suffered in the season opener and didn't look rusty at all. His receivers dropped 10 passes versus Baylor, but Bradford still threw for 389 yards and a touchdown. There's no question how critical Bradford's presence is to the entire Oklahoma offense.

In a game with two great defenses, this game may not come down to which quarterback plays better. Both, though, know legends are cemented in games such as this

McCoy wants to win for the second straight year and keep Texas moving toward a Big 12 championship. Bradford would like to erase the sting of his team's two losses and give the Sooners the inside track on the league title.

2. Oklahoma's offensive line

It was the biggest question facing the Sooners as they entered the season. Why? Because four new starters joined the line and the Sooners had to replace NFL draft picks Phil Loadholt (tackle) and Duke Robinson (guard). The line had a total of 62 career starts, 11th in the Big 12 in that category.

And with left guard Brian Simmons out with a knee injury, the line is again a question. Don't be surprised if three guys - Stephen Good, Tavaris Jeffries and Tyler Evans -- get more playing time.

That line will have to protect Bradford and create holes for the running game. They did a better job of both last week against Baylor. We'll see if an inexperienced line can play like a veteran one.

3. The running game

Want to know how important it is to run the ball in this game? Since Mack Brown and Bob Stoops started facing each other in this rivalry, Stoops' teams are 6-0 when they outrush the Longhorns. Brown's teams are 3-0 when they gain more yards on the ground. The teams both rushed for 124 yards in 2006, but Texas prevailed.

Texas
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesTexas' Vondrell McGee has a left shoulder injury, and his status for Saturday's game is still in question.

Both teams will face challenges against defenses that are among the nation's best at stopping the run.

And both teams have had difficulties at times running the football. With injuries to Tre' Newton (mild concussion) and Vondrell McGee (left shoulder), Fozzy Whittaker reportedly will get the start for Texas.

Texas managed just 46 yards on 25 carries against Colorado last week, the worst rushing game for UT since Oct. 2002. They know that won't get it done Saturday.

Oklahoma's tailback tandem of DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown didn't really get going until the second half last week. Baylor committed to stopping the run and did so for 2.5 quarters, holding Oklahoma to 53 yards before the Sooners wore them down and finished with a season-high 197 yards on the ground. Murray was a key to OU's win over Texas in 2007, rushing for 128 yards.

Don't mess with history. Watch the running backs and offensive lines. Whichever team controls the ground game should win this game.

4. Special teams

Special teams helped the Longhorns in last year's game with Oklahoma. Jordan Shipley had a 96-yard kickoff return in the second quarter to cut the deficit to 14-10 and generate momentum for the Longhorns. Texas averaged 11 yards more on punts than Oklahoma and made three field goals in the game.

[+] EnlargeJordan Shipley
Tim Heitman/US PresswireJordan Shipley, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against OU last year, has two punt returns for scores this season. He will again return kicks against the Sooners, teaming with D.J. Monroe (who also has two returns for TDs this season).

This season, Shipley has two punt returns for touchdowns, including a 74-yard sprint last week against Colorado. Texas put him on kickoff returns for the first time this season against Colorado as well. He joins D.J. Monroe, who has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. That makes it tough for opponents to decide which player to kick the ball to. Texas also blocked a Colorado punt and returned it for a touchdown.

Oklahoma has Dominique Franks, who has the speed to break a long return at any time. He's had a punt return of at least 50 yards in each of the last two games.

In a game with two good defenses, special teams could be the X factor.

5. Defensive pressure

Texas (4th) and Oklahoma (9th) are both in the top 10 nationally in total defense. Both also are ranked in the top three against the run (UT is No. 1; OU 3).

So if both teams struggle to run the ball, it could come down to which team gets pressure on the opposing quarterback. Oklahoma is averaging 3.6 sacks per game, good enough to rank among the top five in the country. The Sooners are led by defensive end/linebacker Jeremy Beal from Carrollton. He has 6.5 sacks, all in the past three games. He's the first player in school history to record three sacks in a game twice in the same season.

The loss of Brian Orakpo (11.5 sacks in 2008) certainly hurt Texas' ability to put pressure on the quarterback as the season began. Dallas' Sergio Kindle had 10 sacks last season, but just two in 2009. Sam Acho has asserted himself and has five sacks through five games this season.

Last year, Orakpo and Kindle got to Bradford and made him hurry some throws. The Longhorns need to find a way to do that again.

Look for Oklahoma to blitz and put more pressure on McCoy. Oklahoma middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds could be a big part of that. He can clog up the middle and get some pressure. He had to watch the second half of last year's game from the sidelines with a torn knee ligament.

6. Oklahoma's wide receivers

The return of Ryan Broyles from a broken shoulder blade will have a huge impact for Oklahoma. However, the rest of the Oklahoma receiving corps still must step up. With Broyles out, Sooners receivers had 11 drops against Baylor, three in the red zone.

Tight end Jermaine Gresham's absence takes an important target away from Bradford. That means others have an opportunity to step up on the big stage Saturday. Junior Brandon Caleb caught a team-high seven passes for 139 yards last week. Sophomore Dejuan Miller had five catches for 67 yards and freshman Jaz Reynolds added three catches for 39 yards.

It's a young group that must find a way to stay calm in a big game and make plays.

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail richard.durrett@espn3.com.

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