The Oklahoma Sooners aren't yet a bad football team. In fact, for some stretches they have been quite good this year. And we've learn to give early season Sooner swoons the benefit of the doubt. They've managed to consistently field strong squads that would bully non-elite teams and have secured seven Big 12 Championships in 13 years since Stoops arrived in Norman.
You all probably overheard about 72 times this week that Oklahoma has only lost three games in Norman under that stretch and none of them came against ranked teams.
It's a pretty simple formula for success ... beat up your rival (8-5), dominate at home, find yourself on top at season's end and do more (four championship game appearances) or less (7-6 bowl record) with the post-season opportunities afforded by winning the league.
They are having all kinds of identity problems this year that we'll dive into but I still must stress that the Kansas State Wildcats' achievement in winning this game is a mark of elite status. Beating a team this talented on the road makes you a conference front-runner on my poll.
More than anything else, this KSU team is defined by top to bottom quality and consistency. They don't have a roster loaded with future NFL stars but they don't have many weaknesses either. Everyone that gets important snaps is playing quality football and the aggregate result is a crushing weight on the shoulders of their foes.
In my preview of this contest I highlighted four lessons that we could hope to learn from the game.
1) Can Oklahoma run the football?
They didn't do it particularly well (27 carries, 88 yards, 3.3 ypc), but also didn't make much of an effort. Heupel had them in 4 WR sets for most of the game in hopes of abusing the KSU secondary as they had last year when Jones rung them up for a school record 510 yards.
Considering that they kept their two fullbacks on the bench for much of the game, I'm going to give them an incomplete grade here.
I somewhat understand the hesitancy to test the Wildcat run defense, since KSU gets good run defense from their corner Chapman, their DT's hold the line of scrimmage, and LB Arthur Brown is one of the best players in the league. That said, Oklahoma should be willing to challenge everyone with their running game if they want to get back to national contender status. They did it with Peterson and Murray but nobody has taken over that position capably since Demarco left.
Also, this Oklahoma offense is simply not built to be a 4 WR spread passing team and there are several problems that come up when Heupel tries to utilize these players that way. For starters, the OL has a ton of inexperience, despite being athletic. For another, those formations leave fullback Millard on the bench and he's probably one of their 3 best offensive players.
Finally, Kenny Stills is not that dangerous in the slot nor is he as reliable as you need someone to be to throw the ball over the middle. You may not guess from looking at him but he plays like a prima donna and his musical stylings lean towards pre-madonna. He doesn't always run routes with much enthusiasm, he is less than fearless going over the middle, and he isn't especially interested in accumulating yards after contact or catch. But when he gets behind a DB and Jones has a clean pocket, it usually adds up to six and an endzone celebration he'll later regret.
Half of what made Broyles so phenomenal was his yards after catch. Now, OU has a young slot receiver named Sterling Shepard who is everything Stills is not. As the game wore on he became more of a focal point:
Stills is the no. 2 receiver on the top of the screen. When they were lined up on the hash, they would place Stills in the boundary so that he would be covered by the Weakside linebacker. Shepard is the no. 2 receiver on the bottom of the screen.
On this play, they run the Inside Zone/Bubble screen packaged concept you've heard so much about.
The OL is run blocking here, giving the linebackers a low-hat read, which means "attack the line of scrimmage!" On the bottom, KSU's Will backer Jarell Childs is doing exactly that, but Shepard is breaking outside.
By the time Landry is delivering the ball, Shepard is all alone in the flat. They ran this play at least twice for big gains in the game. One key here is that Shepard also does things like this at the end of runs:
His leap over Nigel Malone absolutely made the difference between a nice 9 yard gain and a first down. He had 7 catches for 108 yards and a touchdown on the game. On his touchdown catch, he split KSU defenders and fought his way across the goal line to save precious time (this was their last TD drive) that would have been used up running BellDozer plays to get the needed score.
Oklahoma specifically schemed their 4 WR sets to get Stills isolated on linebackers with Shepard going against the KSU nickel back and Shepard still completely out-performed the frosted-tipped clown.
Kenny Still is explosive down the sideline, and I would move him there immediately if I were on the OU staff and leave the middle of the field to Shepard and the OU running game. If he can't beat out Justin Brown or Trey Meteyor for playing time then I wouldn't worry about it.
Oklahoma's obviously hoped to attack the seams of the KSU pass defense with Shepard and Stills but they had too many incompletions and the KSU safeties kept them in front so that Landry's better passes never yielded a TD or any completion longer than 27 yards.
2) Can Oklahoma stop the run?
Not really. KSU ran 44 times for 213 yards (4.4 ypc) with 2 touchdowns. The Oklahoma DL is getting a ton of criticism right now and deservedly so. The team managed two tackles for loss in this game...TWO. They relied on their safeties to clean everything up (26 combined tackles) and dared KSU to sustain drives.
Mike Stoops has transformed Oklahoma from a feast or famine (usually feast) pressure team under Brent Venables into an ultra-conservative "bend don't break" team like we've see in Manhattan or Ames.
What's problematic is that they lack dominant defensive tackles to dictate blocking schemes and get penetration up the middle. They're just asking these guys to clog the middle and try to keep guards off their linebackers so they can spill plays outside for Harris and Jefferson.
It can still be an effective defense against average offenses, but they aren't really dictating terms to the offense anymore.
They blitzed 0 times against Kansas St. Zero. Not once. I could repeat this for about 100 words because it's remarkable. It's hard to get KSU off the field if you don't get them behind the chains and indeed KSU held the ball for over 34 minutes.
Maybe the biggest development here though was the play of John Hubert. He managed 130 yards on 23 carries and channeled Darren Sproles all night. I don't remember him utilizing the same shiftiness between the tackles last year but he was excellent against the Sooners. His improvement and usage will certainly help keep Optimus Klein going all year, he came out of this game last year with probably a handful of scrapes and bruises and one of Frank Alexander's cleat spikes lodged in his ribs.
3) Klein the Passer
Collin Klein dropped back to pass on 3rd down situations 12 times throughout the game. He completed 7 passes. 6 of them gained first downs, the 7th came a half-yard short and Klein simply picked it up on a 4th down QB sneak. That's not going to work if you want to play bend don't break.
There are two things going on here that we'll need to examine. First of all is the Urban Meyer-inspired spread attack that KSU used in these situations:
When KSU needed to convert on 3rd and medium-long they lined up empty sets like this. For the defense there are multiple stress points. There are numerous vertical threats and passing plays that could be used here but there is also the potential for Klein to run a QB draw or Power up the middle. Generally, OU widened out and took the chance that their back 7 could tackle well enough to keep Klein from beating them.
The play begins and you can see Oklahoma in a 2-deep defense. They played 2-deep the entire game with Cover-3 as a change-up or alternate response to certain formations. Oklahoma also tended to keep their nickelback, safeties, and occasionally the corners and linebackers in deep alignments.
The play is basically a version of Urban Meyer's H-option, which you could compare to an isolation play in basketball. They used different inside receivers, usually Thompson or Lockett, and the goal is to create a short throw across the middle for Klein. Florida used to line up Percy Harvin inside and allow him to school middle linebackers all day, it's a perfect high-percentage spread play.
Thompson starts to break outside vs. Wort here, leading Wort to commit which is a mistake because Thompson is quicker. He's never been the same since blowing out his knee.
With Wort committed to the outside break, Thompson cuts back in giving Klein an easy toss over the middle. The safeties can't help because they are playing over the top of the #2 receivers and the other linebacker is absent because he's chasing an out route at the bottom of the screen.
First down, Wildcats! Almost every 3rd down play looked exactly like this save for one, when the Wildcats needed to execute a 3rd down and 12 on a drive that would help seal the game:
Same Cover-2/Palms look from Oklahoma vs. the same 3x2 empty formation from Kansas State. More often than not, they've victimized Wort playing alone over the middle.
This time, the #3 receiver to the bottom breaks outside and the #2 receiver breaks in. Wort is aware and is looking to deny the pass to the receiver breaking in and Javon Harris is also flying down to deny that as well. Even the nickelback, #9 Lynn, has his eye on the inside route.
Wort is well positioned to defend that pass and Lynn is now over the top of the #1 receiver (who is confusingly the player with a #3 on his jersey) as is Colvin who is off screen. But no one is in the flat.
Klein completes the easy pass to Thompson who gains the first down and more. Lynn should have had an eye on the flat and blew his assignment reading the Wildcats tendency after having yielded so many 3rd down completions over the middle already.
The Wildcats made use of some good bootleg concepts as well as these spread plays allow Klein to make easy reads and throws that burned a very talented defensive back 7. However, that's just part of the equation.
Again we have to note, Oklahoma never blitzed in this game. Never, not once. Compare this play with how the Sooners handled this in the National Championship game against Florida:
Same defensive look pre-snap. Indeed, the Mike Stoops 2012 defense is basically a super-reduced version of what they've been running for the last decade. Empty formation from Florida, they try to get Hernandez (#2 receiver to the bottom) isolated inside against the Oklahoma linebackers.
The Sooners drop both defensive tackles into shallow coverage AND drop the boundary safety down to bump Hernandez on his way to the middle of the field. Tebow would end up throwing an interception to Gerald McCoy, whom you can see beginning his drop on the black line of scrimmage.
Collin Klein was never once forced to deal with anything as confusing or complicated as that while repeatedly spilling crimson blood all over the field. This isn't a particularly risky defensive concept here either, there are only 4 pass rushers with 7 dropped back into coverage.
Besides not getting any tackles for loss against the KSU running game, Oklahoma absolutely failed to get any pressure on Klein. Watch all his 3rd down completions and you'll see him coolly standing in the pocket, waiting for the dark wizard's isolation of choice to result in an easy pitch and catch.
I predicted last week that OU would torch the spread offenses on their schedule because their corners are excellent, Harris and Jefferson have looked strong, their LB's play zone very well, and David King is a fantastic interior pass-rusher.
But they left King at end on 3rd down, generated zero pass-rush, called zero zone or man blitzes, left pass rushing/open field terror Corey Nelson on the bench on 3rd down, and allowed Wort to be picked apart.
It was a remarkably terrible coaching effort on the day for everyone on the Oklahoma staff. They paired an aggressive offensive strategy designed to throw down the middle repeatedly with a defensive gameplan even more vanilla and conservative than what KSU utilized.
They waited for Collin Klein to make mistakes and hoped he made more of them while throwing short passes and running read-option than Landry Jones would make while throwing 48 passes and trying to beat coverage. Amazing. OU fans are right to be furious.
4) Kansas State pass defense
We'll just break down one more play that illustrates how you can play conservative defense against the spread and come out okay.
It's 3rd and 13 - obvious passing down. KSU brings out a 3-4 defensive front with their defensive ends outside of the OT's and then strongside backer Justin Tuggle lined up as an extra rusher on the top. They have two pass rushers lined up against the Oklahoma Right Tackle, whom you can usually assume is the weaker of the two tackles in protection.
Tuggle "blitzes" outside as the 4th rusher while the end stunts inside. The right tackle has to make sure the end doesn't break inside of him and then adjust to get outside of Tuggle. The running back stays in to help in pass protection. KSU sends Arthur Brown out to go match up with the #3 receiver. On the bottom they are pattern matching whereas on top they are playing Cover-2 man with the corner in press coverage and the safety helping over the top.
Childs, the weakside linebacker is reading the running back. If he stays in to protect, Childs can rush Landry. At the top, the corner is locked up on the receiver and funneling him into the safety.
On bottom, you can see Brown mauling the inside receiver and re-routing him outside. Number 23, the nickelback Milo, is reading the flat and comes off the receiver so he can match that route, much like Lynn failed to do on the 3rd and 12 conversion by Klein. The outside receiver is still underneath both the corner Malone and the safety.
There are no good options for Landry because of how the KSU backfield has successfully matched the Sooner routes and presented a man/zone coverage combo. Childs is now entering the fray as a 5th pass-rusher.
The Right Tackle managed to steer Tuggle outside but Landry is now running away from Childs because Whaley failed to pick him up and the tackle failed to finish his block and take Tuggle to the ground. Both Tuggle and Childs are now converging on Landry and you probably remember the result. Tuggle strips him from behind and Childs scoops up the fumble for the defensive touchdown.
So what have we learned?
Despite playing extremely vanilla and managing zero pass-rush, Oklahoma's defense only gave up 362 yards and 17 points. One of the Kansas State touchdowns was set up by a Landry Jones interception that gave them the ball at the OU 40.
Snyder's 'cats are like a conservative poker player. You can bluff all day and try and steal blinds but he's going to fold rubbish and he's going to wait you out until he can punish your attempt to steal his blind with pocket rockets. He doesn't make mistakes and he only very selectively bluffs.
They pinned Oklahoma inside their own 20 yard line with punts 5 times throughout the game. The Sooners never had good field position and had to methodically attack a KSU defense that doesn't have any glaring weaknesses and isn't giving up big plays. Arthur Brown is one of the best linebackers in the league and the standout star, everyone else just does their job well and keeps the ball in front of them.
Oklahoma has a serious identity crisis and they have another bye week to work out what kind of football team they are going to be
Josh Heupel is trying to call plays for this team as though they were the 2000 crew and he was at the helm. That obviously isn't the case. He's operating Kevin Wilson's "spread to run" system like Greg Davis did here in Austin, with the running game treated like a constraint except he actually has the personnel to build around the running game if he so desired.
Classic Oklahoma would have had some situational blitzes dialed up to create opportunities for the offense, avoided mistakes early, and buried KSU early with the no-huddle. This team does not play with the aggression and confidence of previous teams and it flows from their schemes and play-calling which doesn't allow them to pound the run or attack an offense with pressure.
If they don't figure it out, they'll have ceded control of the conference to the Wildcats or perhaps us or West Virginia. If they do, they can still run the table and possibly still finish on top. In the meantime, it seems like a good time to review the league's tiebreaker rules with round-robin scheduling.