AUSTIN -- For all of his record-setting statistics, there has been no hiding the fact that Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones struggled in September to get in sync with his young receivers.
But a strong showing in last week's 41-20 victory over Texas Tech might have been the turnaround game Jones needed to get his senior season -- and the Sooners' Big 12 title hopes -- back on track. And just in time for Saturday's Red River Rivalry matchup between No. 13 Oklahoma (3-1, 1-1 in Big 12) and No. 15 Texas (4-1, 1-1) in Dallas.
"I think so," Jones said earlier this week, reflecting on a 259-yard passing performance that included a pair of touchdown passes and no sacks. "I think this is the most in rhythm I have felt in a long, long, long time. Dating back even [to] last year."
The Longhorns noticed, particularly the fact that Jones -- OU's career passing leader with 13,410 yards -- was not sacked for the first time this season. He went down six times in the Sooners' first three games, including a sack-related fumble that turned into a Kansas State touchdown in the sixth-ranked Wildcats' 24-19 victory in Norman, Okla., on Sept. 22.
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Texas coaches and players understand they must pressure Jones on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl or risk letting him continue a two-year roll in which he's completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 603 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions, against the Longhorns. OU won both meetings, including last year's 55-17 rout.
Texas' pass rush is improved this season, with 13 sacks in five games. Last year, the Longhorns logged just seven sacks in the first five games.
"Our goal is to get pressure on the quarterback," said defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, who has four sacks and a team-high nine tackles for losses this season.
Unlike last season, when Texas played this game with two young cornerbacks getting their first career starts in the Red River Rivalry (Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom), the Longhorns can expect more opportunities for coverage sacks this season. That is the assessment of Diggs, a sophomore who is eager to make amends for his performance in Dallas in 2011.
"Landry got the best of us last year," said Diggs, who leads the Longhorns with three interceptions. "That's why I'm excited for this game. It's something that I've thought about for the last year. I wasn't as mentally prepared [last year] as I should have been. Another year in, I should be fine. I'm just ready to go out and show that we're better than we were last year."
So is defensive end Alex Okafor, who leads the Big 12 in sacks (six) and forced two fumbles while sacking West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in last week's 48-45 loss. Jones is less mobile than Smith, which could help the Texas pass rush. But only if the Longhorns cover well enough to force Jones to hold the ball and make multiple reads when the Sooners are in their up-tempo offense.
Among OU's top five receivers, only Kenny Stills caught a pass for the Sooners last season. Jones' lack of continuity with his new receivers created indecision in September and Texas hopes to induce more Saturday.
"We've got to got to throw him off his rhythm a little bit," Okafor said. "That's going to be difficult for us, especially up front, that he's so fine-tuned with the offense."
The past two seasons, it has been an insurmountable challenge. With a victory Saturday, Jones would match Jimmy Harris (1954-56) and Steve Davis (1973-75) as the only quarterbacks in OU history to start in three victories over Texas. A victory also would give Jones his 33rd career victory as an OU starter, breaking the record he shares with Davis (32).
For Texas' pass rushers, the increased comfort level is evident in the team's second season under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. The problem is that Jones, a fifth-year senior, has experience, too.
"This game favors experience," Diaz said. "I'm very excited for the pressure we've gotten. I think Landry Jones is an outstanding quarterback. But, what quarterback doesn't want the time [to throw]? No one plays as well with pressure."
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760