Like much of last year, our offense never gave the defense a chance and this defense needed all the help they could get.
Statistically, our performance was poor, even without the offense gifting scores and field position (21 points without the defense on the field, another 6 to 10 pretty much guaranteed based on field position). The Sooners compiled 453 yards at 6.4 yards per play and though the yardage was something I'd assumed we'd concede, the efficiency with which OU achieved it, the lack of turnovers, and our inability to stop them on 3rd down (8 of 15 for the game, 6 of 10 in first half, including a 3rd and 25 conversion) all proved to be our undoing. The early red zone stops were encouraging, but as the waves of turnovers and compromised field position continued, the defense broke down in the pivotal 2nd quarter (28-7, Sooners).
There's no question in my mind that we played defense well enough to win in the 2nd half, but it was far too little, too late.
OU's rough game plan was to not allow any inside pressure, put any outside late pressure on LJ's internal clock and quick release, run the ball symbolically, and throw balls to spots with anticipation rather than try to move the pocket or attempt longer drops. It was a great, simple game plan - perfect for this sort of emotional rivalry game and proof how much they now trust Uncle Rico at QB. Its effectiveness eroded as the game went on, but by that point, the game was out of hand and our offense was still slitting the D's throat.
I mentioned in my game preview that I didn't think OU would be able to run on us and that was true save for the inexplicable bust on Whaley's 64 yard touchdown run. I think the Sooners were a little surprised that play went given that Oklahoma's other 18 carries were for 22 yards with a longest run of 8 and included 5 tackles for loss. Much of the credit for that goes to our DL - Randall, Okafor, and Jeffcoat all inflicted negative plays in the run game and held up well at the point of attack. OU committed to throwing the ball when they realized our ability to rush the passer was negligible. The Sooners will continue to struggle running the ball against quality fronts, but their passing game will cover up that deficiency against 90% of college football.
As well as the DL played the run, they were largely non-factors in the passing game. Calvin Howell had a sack, we had a couple of pressures, but OU either had the right call on (on one play we bring Acho up the A gap untouched and Jones calmly drops the ball into the vacated spot on a middle screen - the perfect call) or they just protected well inside-out and Jones obeyed the clock in his head to get the ball out with anticipation and pace to frustrate our rushers. When Jones did extend the play, our pass rushers looked as if they were expecting a three step drop.
Alex Okafor is a technically sound DE, but he doesn't have a first step and though Jackson Jeffcoat really showed at times against the run game in space, he had zero impact as a pass rusher (0 QB hits). He's actually less effective than as a true freshman. On the inside, Howell and Randall gave us consistently good snaps, but offered little in terms of pass rushing consistency and couldn't collapse the pocket against Oklahoma's tight pinch OL schemes. Ashton Dorsey appears to not have a single pass rushing move in his arsenal beyond trying to shoot a gap that isn't there.
OU made us take at least one of them off of the field to play nickel. Acho and Robinson generally played the run well inside the tackles, but Hicks found himself sprinting the wrong direction entirely on Whaley's TD run. In a game where we needed them to shine wreaking some havoc in space with pressure on the QB, hawking turnovers, or delivering big hits on receivers in the short game or on crossing routes, they basically showed up and played like solid cogs in the machine. No value-added. Not what we need from senior leaders.
These guys by far drew the toughest assignment on the field.
We're still in a learning phase here and finally showed our youth against schemes executed by top level athletes with a QB who can deliver the ball with accuracy to any point on the field. Our zones were soft and not reacting quickly enough to pattern matching and man coverage was doomed more often than not with the lack of pressure. You could see our guys get more comfortable as the game progressed and OU's passing game efficiency eroded, but by then it was too little, too late. Although OU's passing game was a manageable 31 of 52 for 367, that only works when it's partnered with some forced turnovers, better 3rd down efficiency, sacks, and some big hits on OU's skill players. Just didn't happen. It's that missing element to the defense that really sank us. Basically, OU ran a clean, risk-less passing game. We did nothing to make them uncomfortable.
I praised Blake Gideon for his play against Iowa St and it's a reminder how contextual football can be. Oklahoma has a NFL quality QB throwing to multiple WRs who can hurt you and that forces every man in your secondary to cover, run, and operate in space. No one can play a one man deep zone on every play. Gideon was consistently targeted - either as part of OU's game plan or by simple QB recognition - and OU exploited him at will both in zone and man coverages. OSU will do the same. There is no solution and no place to hide.
Kenny Vaccaro is our best DB, but the game plan had little for him. Blitzing him off the edge late with the expectation that Landry Jones would take a deep drop got old - he's not getting there, Manny - and he seemed tentative trying to balance keeping his fingers in the dam of our zone coverage, taking on OU WR's individually, and supporting against the run. He had two pass break ups and a TFL, but this is a game where we really needed him to unload on an OU WR to set the tone. It felt like he hit the wall of Diaz's assignment expectations.
Quandre Diggs is a true freshman and his time in Dallas played out like David Ash's on the other side of the ball. He's a promising raw player who just isn't prepared for this kind of game. The blow-by-blow is unnecessary.
I suspect I'll get some disagreement here, but after re-watching the game, Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips gave us winning performances. No one is going to go against OU's WRs with little pass rush and emerge unscathed, but Byndom won a hell of a lot of battles and Phillips was active throughout. Both guys hung in there, stayed competitive and feisty, and gave a good account of themselves even when they made mistakes.
Christian Scott gave us some physical and active snaps (6 tackles, including a forced fumble) but he is a coverage liability in space. Very difficult to play him with Gideon against an offense that spreads you out.
Still not great on kick coverage and won't be until we get more leg from the kicker, but punting and kick return were clear wins (thanks, Fozzy - you showed up big time) and we won this battle overall. Unfortunately, special teams play and hidden yards become negligible factors when the offensive unit keeps flipping field position, giving up defensive scores, and is generally overwhelmed by the ineptitude of the complementary units.
I now proclaim this unit a juggernaut.
You win a game like this on defense by conceding some plays and yards, but by being tough on 3rd down, forcing some turnovers, inflicting some big hits and negative plays at opportune moments, and playing hard all game. We did play hard all game and no one quit, but OU ran a clean passing game and we did very little to take away their momentum in the first half.
I also think Manny Diaz had his first experience against a top level QB playing in a true spread passing game. The SEC plays the best football in the country, but you don't see the passing game executed as cleanly as it can be by some Big 12 teams, particularly ones where the #2 and #3 WRs can hurt you almost as badly as the #1. I hope he learned what's going to fly and what isn't. He'd better apply it to the OSU game plan, because the problems they pose are nearly identical to OU.
There are some layers of complexity to what Diaz teaches and in a big game where things are going against you early, it's easy to paralyze your defense with over-thinking. It's pretty clear OU's defense came in with a pretty simple plan that they were all comfortable with and they cut it loose and played fast. Of course, they drew an easy assignment too. It looked a lot like a defense still thinking through what they're seeing that eventually played its way into comfort. The difference between six months in a scheme and six years, I suppose.
We knew youth and inexperience would be an issue at DB so if you want to have a good cry about that, certainly feel free, but these young guys are good players. If I have any concerns about their long term development, it's more along the lines of Akina's ability to teach zone rather than their talent, effort level, or toughness (which Duane always maximizes).
The DL's inability to pressure the passer in a game where they could finally cut loose is concerning and doesn't bode well for Oklahoma State.
Our LBs are proving to be more workmanlike than difference making. We're five games into the season and the hardest hits I've seen from this unit are from freshman Steve Edmond. We can talk scheme all we want - and it's vital - but knocking an offensive player out sends a message.
This Oklahoma State game will tell us a lot about our week-to-week development against first rate offenses because, without breaking into the finer details (more WR screen game for one thing), the problems posed by the Cowboy offense and the things they want to do will be almost identical to the Sooners.
Check out PB's take here.