It’s championship weekend. The Oklahoma Sooners have a unique opportunity when they face the Texas Longhorns for the Big 12 Championship. The Sooners have the opportunity to avenge their one loss on the season and put itself in position to be in the College Football Playoff. But, this is also Kyler Murray‘s shot at redemption. During his high school career, Murray did not face defeat. And, his only loss as the Oklahoma quarterback was in his first Red River Showdown game. How will this matchup be different for Murray and the Sooners?
Murray places the blame on his shoulders
Many focus on the poor defensive play for the loss in the first game. The defense gave up 48 points in that loss. That dismissal of Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator came thereafter. The 48 points mark the season high in points for the Longhorns. However, Murray placed that loss squarely on his shoulders. He had two turnovers in the game that turned out to be pivotal. He threw an interception deep in Texas territory early in the game while it was tied at seven apiece. Also, while trailing 31-24 he fumbled which opened the floodgates to a 45-24 third quarter deficit.
At the same time, Murray still had a tremendous game that resulted in a furious 21-point fourth quarter rally. In total, he threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns and 92 yards on the ground and one score. He will need to continue his dynamic play as the best dual-threat quarterback in the country for the Sooners to come out victorious.
Does the Heisman race come down to this?
Murray and Tua Tagovailoa have been one and two for the majority of the year in the Heisman race. Tagovailoa has been in the lead for the majority of the season. However, that lead has slowly subsided down the stretch. Looking statistically, Murray actually leads in many of those key categories with the exception of touchdown to interception ratio. Currently, Murray has accounted for 48 total touchdowns on the season and has completed 70.6% of his passes.
Murray and Tagovailoa will have the entire nation watching to afford Heisman voters with a final view. Oklahoma faces Texas at 11:00 AM on ABC while Alabama faces Georgia at 3:00 PM on CBS. Murray has the advantage in terms of the defense that he has to face. However, Tagovailoa has the added advantage of being the leader and will be the last player in voters minds.
It’s getting chippy
In recent years, the Red River Showdown has been a relatively friendly rivalry. However, that’s certainly not the case this week through social media and weekly press conferences. For proper context, we’ll take you back October 6th for a moment. After the game, there was a situation where Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger and Murray did not shake hands upon Ehlinger’s attempt. This week, when asked if Murray respected Ehlinger’s game he had the following to say.
Kyler Murray, on the postgame handshake drama with Sam Ehlinger back in October: "If we would've won the game, I wouldn’t have run up to him in that moment.” Murray was then asked how much he respected Ehlinger’s game. Murray: “I have no comment on that."
— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) November 26, 2018
As a follow up to those war of words, another Longhorn defensive player chimed in. This comment was specific to how emotional Murray was after the game on the field and in the locker room. Who will have the last laugh or the last tear this time around?
— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) November 28, 2018
Horns up or Horns down
As if the Murray versus Ehlinger saga was not enough, there is clearly no love loss between Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman. Early in the week, Herman petitioned the Big 12 conference that should any player flash the down horns sign than it should be an immediate penalty. The conference agreed and Riley confirmed that any time any player performs such an action they will be flagged for 15 yards.
But, it gets better. Now, the Big 12 conference has had a change in heart and is putting more of the onus on the officiating crew. Although it may be silly, this could be an interesting sub-plot in the game. Flashing the horns up gesture as a Texas fan or the horns down sign as an Oklahoma fan has been something that has spilled over to the players for years and years. In a championship game, a 15-yard penalty could make all of the difference in the world.
Big 12 source: Horns down gesture will not be automatically flagged in title game. Context matters. (Can’t be done as a direct taunt, etc.) #Sooners
— Ryan Aber (@ryaber) November 28, 2018
Keys to Victory
1. Stop the Oklahoma running game
With the emergence of Kennedy Brooks, the Sooner running game has been explosive. Oklahoma has run for over 300 yards in all but one game since the previous meeting. If Texas can hold the Sooners under 200 yards on the ground they will have an excellent chance of victory.
2. Limit the big play
Oklahoma has arguably been a better offensive team in 2018 despite the loss of Baker Mayfield and Rodney Anderson. Part of that dynamic has been the big plays coming from the backfield and through the air to Marquise Brown. Limiting those big, chunk plays will be critical to the Longhorn success.
3. Keep on keeping on
Don’t change a thing. Texas was able to achieve a good balance against the Sooners during the last meeting. Slow, methodical drives will be important to keeping the Sooner offense off the field.
1. Keep running the ball
Between the three headed monster of Murray, Brooks, and Trey Sermon Oklahoma has been prolific on the ground. A steady dose of those three to the tune of at least 250 yards on the ground should spell a Sooner victory.
2. Limit Ehlinger
Ehlinger had one of his best performances of his career against Oklahoma. He threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns while accounting for 83 yards and three more scores on the ground. If Oklahoma can limit his total yardage to around 250 yards, that will be important to the defensive success.
3. 3rd down stops
The Sooner defense have struggled all year on third down. Comparitively, Oklahoma has fared better on third and short than third and long. Oklahoma ranks 108th nationally in third down conversion defense. Stopping the scrambiling ability of Ehlinger along with holding down Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson will loom large. Ironically, Texas has not fared much better as they are 103rd in the same category. The team that fares better on third down could very well be crowned the 2018 Big 12 champion on Saturday.