Ten reasons OU-Texas will be different in 2023

Ten reasons OU-Texas will be different in 2023

The Sooners and Longhorns meet Saturday 364 days after last season’s beatdown. Much has changed, for both teams.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 2, 2023, 12:04pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 2, 2023, 12:04pm CDT

Editor’s Note: Sellout Crowd’s Coverage of the Oklahoma-Texas game in Dallas is Sponsored by Modelo – The Official Beer of Fans with the Fighting Spirit (https://www.modelousa.com)

Just before the Sooners kicked off with Iowa State, Bob Stoops grabbed a microphone and addressed the 84,371 on hand Saturday at Owen Field.

Within the rousing pregame speech, there was a line echoing the championship aspiration Brent Venables has set out for the Sooners in 2023.

“You know the road to the Big 12 Championship always runs through Norman, Oklahoma,” Stoops exclaimed.

That road takes a detour this week to Dallas and the Cotton Bowl, where the Sooners meet Texas for the 119th time in series history and the last in the Big 12 era.

This edition of Red River arrives exactly 364 days after the Longhorns routed OU, 49-0, the Sooners’ worst defeat in series history. They collide at 11 a.m. Saturday as vastly improved 5-0 teams operating under heightened national expectations.

Here are 10 reasons OU-Texas will be different in 2023.

Dillon Gabriel’s presence: Gabriel wasn’t available the last time. The concussion he suffered the week before at TCU meant Pitt transfer Davis Beville got the start. Five OU passers accounted for 39 yards on 17 total attempts in the loss.

Gabriel steps into this OU-Texas game healthy and statistically among the top quarterbacks in the country after his 366-yard, five-score performance against Iowa State. He ranks fifth nationally in completion percentage (75.5) and passing touchdowns (15). His 1,593 aerial yards trail only six other passers across the country.

He meets the Longhorns in the midst of the hottest run of play in his college career.

Texas is better this year: We may not know for certain if Texas is back, but the Longhorns are much further along from a year ago when a 5-2 start turned into an 8-5 finish.

Texas’ hits Dallas with an average margin of victory of 23.2, up from 15.4 ahead of the Red River rivalry last year. Steve Sarkisian’s defense is better against the pass and stopping the run at about the same rate. The run game hasn’t dipped without Bijjan Robinson and Quinn Ewers is operating more efficiently, gaining 661 yards Saturday against Kansas. 

There was some distance between these teams in 2023. This Texas team is even better.

OU’s defense is better this year, too: An improved Sooners defense has passed the eye test. The stats support what we’re seeing.

A few numbers that stick out when you compare OU’s defense through five games in 2022 and 2023:

  • 2022: 25.2 PPG and 423.0 YPG; 2023: 10.8 PPG, 219.0 YPG
  • 2022: 198.2 rushing YPG; 2023: 106.2 rushing YPG
  • 2022: 40.5% on third-down (32-of-79); 2023: 27.6% on third-down (21-of-76)
  • 2022: +3 turnover margin; 2023: +8 turnover margin

The Sooners are a long way from the defense Texas hung 49 points on last October. 

Venables shot to go 1-1: Bud Wilkinson won his first two Red River games. Gomer Jones, Chuck Fairbanks and Gary Gibbs each started 0-2. Jim Mackenzie and Howard Schnellenberger only coached once against the Longhorns.

The three previous OU coaches began 1-1 against Texas. 

John Blake’s Sooners eked out a three-point win in 1996 before taking a three-point loss the next fall. Stoops dropped his 1999 Red River debut before stomping the Longhorns 63-14 in his national title season. Lincoln Riley opened 1-0, then came out on the losing end of a 48-45 shootout in 2018.

So by those trends and absolutely nothing else, Venables is due to walk out of the Cotton Bowl victorious Saturday.

Gap in the run game: Oklahoma entered this game last fall 13th in the nation on the ground at 220.8 rushing yards per game. Through five games in 2023, it sits 66th at 157.6 yards.

Texas, meanwhile, enters 35th nationally (191.8 YPG) on the heels of a 336-yard rushing effort against KU, led by sophomore Jonathon Brooks, who has found the end zone four times in the last two weeks.

The team that wins the rushing battle has won all but two of the last 25 OU-Texas games. Advantage Longhorns. 

Ewers improved: Lost in last season’s 49-0 rout is just how much worse it might have been if Ewers had been a tad more accurate. 

The Texas quarterback went 21-for-31 for 289 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. With a few sharper downfield throws and better reads, he could have doubled that.

Ewers is back this fall completing passes at a better rate (66.0% vs 58.1) and playing to an improved touchdown-to-interception ratio (10/1 vs 2.5/1). To date, only Gabriel and TCU’s Chandler Morris have more passing yards than Ewers’ 1,358.

The Sooners’ secondary has taken a jump since last fall (212.8 YPG). So has Ewers.

Texas back-to-back? Not since 2009 have the Longhorns won consecutive games over OU. Venables was still OU’s defensive coordinator then. 

Sarkisian was in his first season as head coach at Washington and Ewers was in first grade.

The Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow” was the No. 1 in America and Kevin Durant had only played 74 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The point is, it was a long time ago. 

Can Texas finally do the double here in 2023? The Sooners are 10-4 in this game since 2009. 

Both teams are better equipped to manage big moments: OU and Texas left the Cotton Bowl and fell off in the back half of the season 2022. Both teams appear much sturdier and more trustworthy.

In wins over SMU, Cincinnati and Iowa State, and through the program’s broader progression, OU has already proven a stronger temperament.

Texas is a month removed from going to Tuscaloosa and manhandling Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Not many better tests than that. 

Higher stakes:  There’s a bit more on the line this time.

OU enters knocking on the door of the top 10. Beat Texas and the Sooners hit their bye atop the Big 12 with a place in the College Football Playoff conversation.

Texas is working on a serious CFP resume that’ll only look better with its second win over OU since 2018.

The last time OU-Texas played before a conference switch… This won’t be the first Red River played before a change in conference affiliation.

The Sooners and Longhorns met on Oct. 14, 1995, in the final season before the Big 8 turned into the Big 12. Texas opened a 21-0, first-quarter lead. OU pulled it back. One of the ugliest editions of the rivalry game ended in a 24-24 tie after the teams combined to score zero points on six combined possessions that reached enemy territory over the final 20 minutes.

Pretty seldom all 92,000 leave the Cotton Bowl unhappy. It happened in 1995. 

Just what might Red River 2023 have in store.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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