With both Oklahoma State and Texas coming off bye weeks, it looks like a coaching and game planning showdown is bound to unfold on the Oklahoma plains on Saturday.
The No. 12 Longhorns will venture to Boone Pickens Stadium for the first time since 2009 seeking their first victory against the Cowboys since that game.
This FOX nationally-televised contest is being viewed as a statement game for both programs. Oklahoma State is still out to prove it has rebuilt, not reloaded after a dismal showing against Arizona in the desert on Sept. 8. Meanwhile, Texas is trying to show its back in the discussion as a Big 12 title contender after two sub-standard seasons.
What unfolds in Stillwater at 6:50 p.m. on Saturday will go a long way toward answering those questions.
The Cowboys enter ranked No. 22 in the coaches' poll, while UT enters ranked 12th in both the coaches' and AP polls.
OSU is 2-1 with blowout victories (84-0 vs. Savannah State; 65-24 vs. Louisiana) sandwiching a lopsided loss against Arizona (59-38). Texas has handled its schedule with relative ease up to this point, racing out to a 3-0 record. In Texas' most recent outing, it posted an impressive 66-31 road victory against Ole Miss.
As Oklahoma State coaches pointed out earlier in the week, Texas looks very similar to its squads from the previous two seasons with one major difference – the Longhorns are much better.
Texas is still a run-first team with the three-headed monster of tailbacks Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray but the improved decision making of sophomore quarterback David Ash has taken the ‘Horns to a different level offensively. Ash completed just 56.9 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and eight interceptions as a freshman in 2011 but he has improved those numbers tremendously thus far in '12. Ash is completing 76.4 percent with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions through three games.
That will provide a substantial test for a Cowboy defense that has lived up to its much-improved preseason billing in two home wins but was torched on the road in Arizona.
OSU's biggest defensive strengths lie in its linebacking corps of Alex Elkins, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis, as well as, the corner tandem of Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown. Those five native Texans will play a huge role in trying to capture OSU's third-straight victory against their home-state ‘Horns. To have defensive success against this Texas team, Brown, Gilbert and the rest of the secondary has to force Ash into mistakes and make his life difficult without Bill Young needing to commit more bodies to coverage. This would allow the linebackers to stay in their gaps and assist the defensive line in playing assignment football against UT's stout running attack. If OSU can accomplish this, it will prevent Texas from playing its preferred brand of football, which could snowball in a hostile environment.
Adding turnovers back into the mix would certainly provide an added bonus, as well, and that is an area Young has said they have been emphasizing in an effort to recapture last year's penchant for takeaways.
From an offensive standpoint, it's difficult to prognosticate how the Cowboys will fare against arguably the Big 12's best defense. J.W. Walsh will get the start at quarterback for OSU as Wes Lunt continues to rehabilitate from a knee injury suffered in the opening drive against Louisiana.
When Lunt went down the Cowboy offense didn't follow suit, as Walsh led the Pokes to a school-record 742 yards of offense against the Ragin' Cajuns. Walsh's arm strength has been called into question and that will be tested against an elite secondary. It is paramount for the Cowboys' redshirt freshman signal caller to make smart decisions and protect the football for the Pokes to be victorious.
Speaking of paramount, the Cowboys' dynamic running back duo of Jeremy Smith and Joseph Randle will need to shoulder a hefty portion of the load on Saturday. Smith, in particular, has proven he's up to the task after shredding UT for 140 yards and two scores on just seven carries in Austin last season.
One issue the Cowboy backs could run into is Texas will be more equipped to put eight men in the box without having to worry about Weeden2Blackmon torching them down the sidelines. The running lanes will be smaller as a result so the backs and the offensive line will have to be on their A-game against Jackson Jeffcoat, Alex Okafor and Co.
It seems foolish to question OSU's potential to be explosive offensively, as the Pokes rank No. 1 in scoring offense (62.3) and in total offense (686.7). Texas will be unlike any defense the Pokes have faced to date and the keys will lie in execution and turnover prevention.
OSU hasn't beaten Texas in Stillwater since 1997 but times are very different now. OSU has no reason to fear the Longhorns and enter as the defending Big 12 champions and winners of two straight against UT. If OSU can play the game at the pace it prefers and test the Longhorns in the passing game from sideline-to-sideline with Walsh directing the traffic, OSU should be just fine. Texas seems to be the vogue pick for this game but I'll go the other way in a relatively low-scoring affair (for OSU, anyway):
Oklahoma State 37, Texas 31