Oklahoma’s defensive failures against Texas last season were encapsulated on a third-and-21 play, starting when Longhorn receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey caught a pass at the line of scrimmage.
He bounced off OU defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles and went deep into the secondary, where a pile of Sooner defenders couldn’t bring him down until he gained 19 yards.
It was one play, OU coach Lincoln Riley says now, in a game where the rivals trade them like boxing blows. But it stil made a lasting impression.
The Sooners struggled against some of Texas’ bigger receivers. In his frustration after the 48-45 loss, cornerback Parnell Motley, who’s enjoying a more consistent senior year, was overflowing with emotion.
“I can say that was one of my lowest points,” Motley said. “Just fired up for these tough games against Texas. Again, it’s historical. We only get to play them once or maybe twice a year. Just glad to be a part of it. I was crunked up last year. I’ll be two times more even crunked up this year just to be a part of this game.
“I’m just pumped to be back on the field.”
Motley and OU’s secondary will get another chance. Eleventh-ranked Texas will once again have plenty of size for the sixth-ranked Sooners to contend with when the teams meet Saturday in Dallas (11 a.m., FOX).
Nine receivers on the Longhorns’ depth chart — including the Y-tight end position — are 6 feet 2 or taller. Seven are taller than 6-4, including wide receivers Collin Johnson (6-6), Malcolm Epps (6-6) and Brennan Eagles (6-4).
Humphrey chipped in 123 of the Texas receiving corps’ 324 yards in the first meeting in 2018. Johnson led them with 177 of the team’s 394 receiving yards in the Big 12 title game rematch.
“We’re not going to magically get taller,” OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “So what you need to do is put yourself in position to be top-down. That’s the magic phrase.”
Ideal “top-down” coverage forces receivers to play through defensive backs. Junior cornerback Tre Brown best describes it with the term “high five” — or proper positioning off a receiver’s upfield shoulder, which enables plays on the ball.
“Make sure you’re not really even running with him or you’re not trailing him,” Brown said. “That’s what high-five is.”
That leverage is even more important this week with Texas’ size advantage in one-on-one matchups.
“If you don’t get high-five and you get even with him, is it really 50-50? Or is it 60-40, where they got the height in their advantage to make a play when the ball is on the air,” Brown said. “That’s why you wanna be high-five so you can stop their momentum, slow them down and make them run a route through you where you’ve got a chance to make a play on the ball.”
Johnson hasn’t made a big impact thus far for the Longhorns due to injury, but is expected to play Saturday. Interestingly, undersized Devin Duvernay (5-11) leads Texas in receiving. He has 45 catches for 463 yards and 4 TDs.
“He’s a different breed,” Brown said. “They’re all pretty physical so it’s gonna be pretty tough trying to maintain and do what we’re supposed to do just because of how physical and how big their bodies are.”
OU’s size conundrum hasn’t changed, but its results against passing offenses have. The Sooners are surrendering 55 fewer yards per game compared to this time last year.
Grinch stressed that OU will be tested vertically often against the Longhorns. That goes for all the defensive backs, not just corners.
“Can you put guys on top of the guy that’s supposed to be on top? Sure you can. Then you’ll be thinner in the run game,” Grinch said. “That’s the difficult challenge in terms of playing defensive football. Is there one specific answer? No. But certainly being a trail position puts you in a real deficit, so we’ve got to make sure we’re staying top-down.”
OU vs. Texas
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Place: Cotton Bowl | Dallas
Records: AP No. 6 OU (5-0, 2-0 Big 12); AP No. 11 Texas (4-1, 2-0)
Line: OU (-10.5)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7