Against the explosive Texas Tech Red Raiders last Saturday I saw the Mike Stoops defense I remembered watching as in the early aughts. They brought pressure with their zone-blitz package, managed 2 sacks with their LB corp, and had 3 interceptions as a direct result of the pressure they put on Seth Doege.
They also demonstrated their classic dominance over the Air Raid and held Doege to a 22-36 day for 203 yards and only 5.6 yards per pass attempt. After watching OU's early games I anticipated that they would be hell for spread teams but then I hesitated when they failed to blitz KSU once and were unable to generate any pressure on Klein or stop KSU's empty set attack.
That pressure magically appeared again in Lubbock when they didn't overly concern themselves with keeping the QB in the pocket or losing track of him with a blitz. Bob Stoops said as much in explaining why they didn't pressure Collin Klein but I think the results of that game speak to how that strategy was mistaken.
For OU fans, the upside is that Mike Stoops has not abandoned the aggressiveness that has long characterized the Oklahoma defense but merely tempered it to a more sustainable level than his predecessor.
They're giving up 4.1 yards per carry, largely due to the performance of KSU and UTEP, but only 5.5 yards per pass attempt. As a result, they're only giving up 4.7 yards per play. They only have 18 tackles for loss on the year (Texas has 52) but they are overcoming that by making tackles and keeping the ball in front of them (something Texas as obviously failed to do).
Personnel-wise they bear a slight resemblance to the 2000 defense in that they combine solid DL play with a strong back 7, anchored by a great secondary and dominant Free Safety, Tony Jefferson.
Here are a few ways the Sooner D will scheme to slow down the offense of our Texas Longhorns:
Their 2-read (or Palms) coverage matches running formations by using their safeties as force defenders on the outside while trusting their corners to play over the top of the receivers. They'll mix in more traditional Cover-2 but this coverage forms the backbone of their defense. Jefferson aligns to the boundary and Harris to the field and they are the top two leading tacklers on the team.
"But Nick, if the safeties are making all the tackles, that's good for us, right?"
Sometimes that's a bad sign for the defense, but with Oklahoma it's largely been a result of successfully leveraging running plays into the safety run support cargo net. Jefferson makes stops at the line of scrimmage on a routine basis and his sure tackling is the biggest reason that OU has been successful at limiting big plays.
Obviously when the DL or LB's beat blocks to make stops that's a better formula, but the design of the defense is such that the safeties are often the ones freed up to make the play.
Here's their main change-up and how they'll handle some of our Twin looks:
That's Demontre Hurst at the top of the screen with Aaron Colvin on the no. 2 receiver. They aren't afraid to match good inside receivers with their nickel and dime backs Gabe Lynn and Julian Wilson but the name of the game for Mike Stoops is matching offensive strength and emphasizing sound defense so against 2 receivers they'll keep their corners on the receivers. Here they also have LB up and comer Aaron Franklin on the field rather than their typical nickel package.
They'll play an aggressive form of Cover-3 here, pattern-matching the routes and basically ending up in tight man coverage after about 5 yards.
OU will not hesitate to isolate Colvin and Hurst on our receivers and make us beat them one on one, affording them the ability to bring Harris in against the run, or using field pressures to blow up our sweep packages.
What's dangerous for Texas here is that they can absolutely execute this plan. In my opinion this is actually a better Corner tandem than the Oklahoma State combo, though not by much, and Colvin in particular has been dominant with an athletic pick vs Tech and 6 PBUs on the year.
Their play against the run is usually their lifeblood, this year it's only been decent though trending upwards. They have big Walker back at tackle and they're lining up their DTs in 2i tech's over the guards, looking to occupy interior OL and protect their small LB's from zone combo blocks. This makes it harder for them to get tackles for loss inside but it also means that teams aren't getting much push with Inside Zone or Power.
On the edge, R.J. Washington has not become the dominant DE they hoped for and is splitting time Chuka Ndulue, Former DT David King holds down the other end spot. This is a DL built on Power and bull-rushing, which is unfortunately what Texas is more vulnerable to than speed-rushers.
OU will trust this DL front to string out the Texas run game into their secondary's run support, trusting their corners to not get beat deep.
Against Tech they began to find better solutions for 3rd & long and began doing more of this:
Basically their version of the prowler. Dime personnel with Nelson (no. 7) dancing between potential pass-rusher or shallow zone defender. In this instance they brought 4, got pressure up the middle, and forced a high throw to the receiver on bottom who was smothered by Colvin.
Brent Venables would have looked for ways to eliminate Texas' concepts by bringing pressure based on situational tendency. Last year that was extremely effective because Texas' OL and signal caller were overwhelmed and could not avoid the disastrously negative plays that buried them quickly.
This year that would have been a less sound plan, but it's not the methodology of Mike Stoops. He's going to have the Sooners in the right personnel with base schemes that force Texas to earn their way across the field against tight coverage outside, excellent run-support, and 4-man pressure packages.
The chess match of Harsin trying to find the weak spots in the Oklahoma base defenses vs. Stoops' attempts to present defensive calls that will challenge the Texas offense to execute their main concepts against sound defense will determine this game. Basically strength vs strength.
The weak spots Harsin will need to find will be in the middle of the field in coverage, as they've typically been in this game, and Ash will have to navigate that area carefully.
Additionally, the field-side of the OU defense often finds Javon Harris and nickelback Gabe Lynn, which aren't their stronger players. Committing numbers there to assist them will additionally leave the middle of the field open to assault. Unfortunately, Texas' weapons on offense aren't traditional middle of the field receiving options. It's why Jermichael Finley was able to torch OU for 4 / 154 / 2TDs right down the seam.
Given that the Sooners have undoubtedly spent time in their two bye weeks preparing for this game and have made steady improvements in the front 6sa, I expect that Texas will manage between 20-30 points in this game, probably closer to 20 depending on how well Harsin manages to threaten the middle.
That leaves the game in the hands of the Texas defense vs. the Sooner O. Uh oh.
On this side of the ball you have Offensive Coordinator Josh Heupel trying to balance the various strengths of the Oklahoma personnel. On the one hand, they are surrounding Landry Jones with explosive receiver Kenny Stills, incoming freshmen Trey Meteyor and Sterling Shepard, and Penn St. transfer Justin Brown. There's an obvious case to be made for spreading the ball around with Landry's NFL arm but the Sooners struggled early at the WR position.
Without Broyles keeping a team's top DB occupied, Stills hasn't been as dangerous this year. Normally an excellent pass pro unit, the OL is giving up sacks on 5% of their pass attempts. And Landry has never shaken the habit of throwing picks and making costly mistakes under pressure.
The best course for them involves attacking Texas with formations like these:
Manny Diaz does not have great answers for the Sooners' inside/outside zone plays from pistol sets. Do you play nickel and trust your LB corp to line up right against the no-huddle and beat lead blocks?
How about the diamond formation with Aaron Ripowksi and Trey Millard both in the game? Base defense with 3 linebackers?
It also has to be noted that both the fullback Millard and tailback Damien Williams can run the ball and catch it. Williams torched Tech with 82 receiving yards out of the backfield, so they can attack the Texas linebacker corp in a variety of ways from these sets.
Diaz would have little choice but to outnumber OU's running game with an extra safety and trust 3-deep coverages to not yield big plays deep against Jones' arm. Not an outrageous proposition, but you would much rather attack Landry by alternating between 3-deep pressures and 2-deep prevention calls. You can see Stills suddenly becomes a terror when he's running sideline routes in play-action/pump fake calls.
The stunts and Fire Zones Texas has been using this year are a major risk against the Sooner offense because of their screen game and outside zone which will send Williams right around the pressure with a lead blocker.
You should notice that this is exactly the gameplan WV bludgeoned Texas with and they did so with both an inferior FB, inferior RB, and less athletic OL. Texas needs Hicks to be healthy and starting or else this could get ugly.
Next we have their 4 WR sets:
Heupel can and should bring these formations out and test to see if Diaz responds with Dime personnel and note who lines up over Stills to the boundary. If Diaz stays in Nickel "to stop the run" as he did too often against WVU then there should be major opportunities to attack whichever linebacker is lined up over a WR with slants, outs, run/screen options, and post routes.
The advantage with this formation is that it helps create mismatches in the middle of the field that Landry can exploit with his arm and it puts Sterling Shepard on the field, who is the closest thing to Ryan Broyles they have.
However, if Diaz matches with Dime and Hicks is healthy and ready to man the middle linebacker spot, then suddenly many of the Longhorn deficiencies disappear. OU will need to be careful in deploying this formation and make sure they target whatever LBs are on the field and the young safeties or they risk handing the game to Texas with turnovers.
Finally we have the Belldozer package which to this point has been troubling enough as a next to sure thing in short-yardage and goal line situations, which are often the bane of a spread offense. It's hard to have a "just hold them to field goals" strategy when they can bring this out:
Big WR on the edge to threaten with the fade and slant, double TE goal-line formation with their Fullback Ripowski lined up as a halfback and then Millard next to the 6'6" 254 pound Blake Bell.
They usually run QB Power or QB Outside zone from these formations and they are unmerciful schematically. There is a blocking hat for almost every defender and the chances for the extra man reaching Bell and bringing him down before he goes for 2-4 yards are slim to none.
I can't help but notice that OU has only played 4 games and were fairly vanilla in many of them. Stoops might be tempted to test drive what next year's Belldozer-based offense this week. Consider this possibility:
The defense has several choices to make here. Technically, a nickel defense is badly matched up against the passing threats and to be sound against the outside route combos and bubble screens would require either a dynamic Will linebacker or dime personnel.
However, you cannot reasonably play the run options with Dime personnel. Asking a DB to take on Millard's lead block backed by Belldozer is a problem that bringing numbers against the run won't solve. Then, in addition to the normal QB run plays OU uses there are endless ways to bring triple option or to package runs, screens, and play-action. KSU demonstrates on a regular basis how easy it is to create easy passing options out of formations like this.
I can't fathom why A) OU wouldn't already have expanded Bell's package over the last year in anticipation of Jones' graduation, and B) they wouldn't challenge Texas' linebacker with multiple series of these packages in lieu of UT's failures against similar plays in recent weeks.
If we don't see something like this, there should be loud questioning and criticism in Norman of the Oklahoma gameplan.
To summarize in simplified Matt Millen talking points:
1. Make them earn the right!
2. Let sound execution be the victor!
3. Attack those young linebackers!
Every offensive formation and call should be asking: Can Texas' young linebackers (and possibly recovering Hicks) handle middle of field coverage, run assignments, and the Belldozer in the midst of the Red River madness screaming around them?
This game matches Oklahoma's weakness (lack of offensive identity and feature) with Texas' (poor run defense and linebacker play) in a way that has obvious answers. Barring incompetency by the OU staff, huge progress from the Texas defense, or a 2008-level Texas offensive revelation I see this game playing into the Sooners' hands: 31-24.
Hopefully I'm wrong. How do you see this one playing out?