Before the 2012 season started, most thought that the weaknesses of Texas would be on the offensive side of the ball, particularly the passing game. Through three games, however, the offense has been effective at moving the ball down the field and getting into the end zone both on the ground and through the air.
Instead, it's been the defense that has caused more concern. It hasn't been bad, exactly. But it has been sloppy, and cleaning that up was a focus of the bye week.
"We are giving up too many big plays. It happened some to us early in the season last year," coach Mack Brown said. "We still have some tackling concerns. I think the front is playing really well. But we've missed tackles at linebacker and in the secondary. We can't continue to do that with this league, the way that people score. We just have to keep working on it."
That came to a head in the Ole Miss game, when Brown went over to his defense and, er, encouraged them to step up their level of play.
"I was really disappointed when we had, like Wyoming, two or three opportunities to get the game over, put guys in earlier. Twenty-eight points now is not a lot in college football, the way people are playing," Brown said. "I thought that really kept some guys out of the game. We've told them, 'It's your responsibility to get your buddies in the game. It's not ours. You're taking snaps away from guys that are your buddies. Buddies, don't gripe at us, gripe at your teammates.'"
Turnovers have helped make up for some of that. The Longhorns have only turned the ball over once this season, a fumble in the opener, and have 42 points off of opponents' turnovers. But Brown isn't counting on that continuing.
"When you get better competition, the numbers usually don't stay as good," the coach said.
Oklahoma State would qualify as better competition. Though the Longhorns dominated the series for years, the Cowboys enter the week in the Top 25 with two victories in a row over Texas. And like the Longhorns, they've had a bye week to correct mistakes heading into this weekend.
• Quarterback David Ash has gotten off to a great start this season, but one issue that has come up has been his tendency to underthrow deep balls, requiring the receiver to hold up or come back to catch them. That hasn't hurt the team yet, however, and Mack Brown doesn't seem to be worried.
"If you underthrow it, you've got a great chance to get it. And usually the wide receivers come back and get it," Brown said. "We've been encouraging him to let the guys catch it and been challenging the receivers to catch it. Overthrown balls are punts: you don't have a chance to catch them. When the receiver is turning and running back, and the defensive back is running with his back to you, you'll see the underthrown ball caught most of the times by the receivers-very seldom by the defensive backs."
• The Longhorns are a young team, and they're getting younger every week as Mack Brown keeps leaning on his freshmen. Fourteen of the 26 true frosh on the roster have already played and more may see action in the coming weeks, given Brown's concern about having enough available depth to make it through the Big 12 schedule.
• Because of the bye week, Texas had some extra time to focus on a game plan for Oklahoma State. However, Brown didn't emphasize that in practice during the extra sessions, choosing to focus on correcting weaknesses found in previous games rather than looking ahead too early, and he said as he entered the bye week that the preparation wouldn't change much.
"We told the kids, we will actually look at cleaning us up and we're going to look at what we need to do to improve. We're not going to mention Oklahoma State to the kids until Sunday because we feel like in our past, if you're not careful, you can start playing games too early. If you start on them now, you talk about them all week, it's kind of old news when they get back for next week. We're going to wait," he said.
Scouting The Oklahoma State Offense: Without injured QB Wes Lunt, the Cowboys could be a tougher to defend. QB J.W. Walsh offers a more diverse set of skills as someone who can bolt the pocket at any time and gain yards with his feet. Walsh is not as skilled a passer, though, which negates some of the effectiveness the Cowboys gain on the short, precise routes they run out of their hurry-up attack. The Texas defense will present a much more difficult task. RB Joseph Randle needs to get some yardage out of the run game to open up throwing lanes. The Cowboys have scored at least 30 points in 21 consecutive games.
Scouting The Oklahoma State Defense: The return of coordinator Bill Young against Louisiana-Lafayette saw the Cowboys respond with a first-half shutout defensively. The unit still is best in the back end, where experienced linebackers and defensive backs reduce any confusion in coverage. The Cowboys have yet, however, to capitalize on the takeaways that saved them so often last season when they led the nation by forcing 44 turnovers. Rest assured, with Young cleared medically and back at practice, he is concentrating heavily on strip and pick drills.
-- Sports Xchange
THREE COWBOYS TO WATCH
QB J.W. Walsh-Brought on in relief duty against Louisiana-Lafayette, Walsh responded with a superb game as he led the Cowboys to a school-record 742 yards in total offense. Walsh threw for 347 yards and rushed for 73, accounting for five touchdowns.
WR Josh Stewart-After catching 19 passes all of last season, Stewart stepped into a featured role and has responded with 19 receptions through three games. A high school teammate of Walsh, Stewart set career bests with nine catches for 104 yards against Louisiana-Lafayette.
OT Daniel Koenig-One of three new starters in the OSU offensive line, Koenig and the rest of the linemen must be ready to battle a tough Texas defensive front. The Cowboys have yet to allow a sack and are averaging 6.95 yards per rush, which ranks second nationally.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Continue the trend - Texas ranks sixth nationally with a +6 turnover margin through just three games. In a contest that figures to be close, whoever protects the football could very well wind up on top at the end of the night.
2. Get 'em on the ground - It's been talked about all season, but the Texas defense needs to do a much better job of tackling. If Ole Miss and Wyoming were able to break off big plays, it's scary to think what OSU can do if Texas doesn't improve in this area.
3. Grind - Texas may not turn in the types of big offensive plays that it did against Ole Miss, but the ground game should be able to have some success. Texas needs its backs to make yards after contact and move the chains for some long, clock-eating drives.