Texas vs Oklahoma is inevitably the most important game for UT’s regular season every year. Games later in the season like the 2008 showdown in Lubbock or the 2013 “Big 12 championship game” in Waco only hold serious meaning for Texas if the Sooners are first subdued.
Last season, I saw very little chance for a Texas victory over the Sooners, despite a few late trends that ended up being key in a Longhorns victory such as the injuries to the middle of OU’s defense. However, I did some deep thinking and concocted what I deemed to be the best plausible path to victory for Texas. It proved to be the path Texas took in a surprising blowout victory.
We’ll attempt to do this again in 2014, a year in which a Longhorns victory seems doubtful but would have huge implications for the Charlie Strong era and the future of Texas football.
Oklahoma had a stretch from 2009-2013 in the Landry Jones era in which they got away from the running game that produced two 1,000-yard RBs in 2008 and carried them to the national title game.
The Sooners struggled to find TEs to put on the field and made do with that versatile Sasquatch, Trey Millard, occupying the backfield, a lot of spread formations, and some 50 pass-attempt games from Jones.
They still won the Big 12 twice (2010, 2012) but they’ve gone back to their former love with this team. The 2014 Oklahoma Sooners are primarily defined by a 21 personnel package and running the dang football with a deep stable of backs that includes 5-foot-11, 243-pound freshman phenom, Samaje Perine.
From the various formations they’ll make with this personnel, primarily out of the pistol, they can threaten a defense in a variety of ways. They love to run split zone to the right side, where 6-foot-6, 329-pound right tackle Daryl Williams can be found, and with vicious 6-foot-1, 257-pound fullback Aaron Ripkowksi clearing out the backside contain defender to set up a cutback lane for Perine.
They’ll also run power and outside zone with similar ferocity and adept skill in each scheme. Their TE in these sets is the 6-foot-6, 259-pound Blake Bell and the offensive line goes 336-339-286-343-329 as a unit. Despite being the only sub-300 pounder on the team, center Ty Darlington is a savage in his own right who dominated West Virginia’s nose tackles without much double team help in Morgantown.
Perhaps even more terrifying, Oklahoma has started packaging its downhill running game with POP plays in which Knight has a choice to either hand off on one of these devastating runs or uncork a deep fade or post route to a receiver like Sterling Shephard.
Trevor Knight’s accuracy comes and goes but he’s generally very good either rolling out in OU’s play-action game or making the quick reads and throws in their POP concepts. In particular, he’s developed a good feel for throwing fades up for Shepard down the sideline.
Unlike his counterpart Tyrone Swoopes’ teammates, Oklahoma can regularly set him up to make those reads and throws off the run game rather than having to sit back in the pocket and go through progressions as Landry did before him.
It all comes together in terrifying fashion on POP concepts such as this one:
When Oklahoma plays both receivers to the same side of the field, Texas has the advantage of sliding Diggs over in the slot since he’s already used to playing there in the nickel packages. Then Texas can play a safety on the opposite edge where teams like to attack with these types of formations. The play of that safety, probably senior Mykkele Thompson, will be key in stopping Oklahoma.
It’ll also be key that Texas’ deep safety is triggering quickly and accurately to help Edmond and the linebackers with the quick throws available to Knight over the middle. Finally, to get the numbers in the box they need to stop the Oklahoma running game will require that Texas play Sterling Shephard in man coverage without safety help, a duty that will probably go to Duke Thomas.
Because of Oklahoma’s play-action and POP passing game that consistently gets him running routes against isolated cornerbacks in open spaces, Shephard is absolutely shredding opposing teams and is on pace for an absurd 1500-yard season.
If the Sooners didn’t have massive and effective blockers all over the field, it might be possible to keep safeties back to help limit Shephard’s damage but their power-run game and the way they complement it with their vertical passing game make it exceptionally difficult to get extra help everywhere. You just have to beat them honestly.
There’s no easy answers for Texas except for the cornerback on Sterling Shephard to have an exceptional game, the coaches to mix up who supports against the run and where that support comes from, and for all the players to have an intimate knowledge of the Oklahoma playbook.
If Oklahoma finds a soft spot in Texas run fits or are able to consistently give Knight clear one-read post snap decisions then they will blow the doors off the Texas defense.
Get Oklahoma in some passing situations and then murky the waters for Knight with diverse play calls? Then things could get interesting.
Scoring on the Sooner defense
Oklahoma has adopted Saban’s 3-4 defensive front, except that while Alabama will shift into a 4-2-5 front against the spread, the Sooners stay in their base 3-4 and play Eric Striker as the nickelback. The design of their front is to control the line of scrimmage, keep things inside of the outside linebackers, and allow the linebackers to play in a broom closet.
If a runner does manage to get outside it usually comes after running into a pile and then attempting to bounce the ball outside where the OU defensive backfield is flowing. Save for runners with absurd acceleration, there’s rarely any room to run the ball against this front.
Out on the edge, Stoops plays strong safety Quentin Hayes, a coverage specialist, behind the mobile and versatile Striker like this:
From here Oklahoma has three main options to throw at Texas. The first is to bring Striker off the edge, perhaps with fellow outside linebacker Grissom coming off the opposite edge, and Hayes covering the slot receiver in man coverage:
This has to be concern No. 1 for Texas, the occasions in which Oklahoma brings both of their pass-rushers off the edge. There’s no rollout or escape route for Swoopes in these circumstances, he’ll just have to recognize the blitz and do his work from the pocket. If he thinks he can roll out and escape Striker, Tapper, and Grissom in open spaces this game will go terribly wrong for Texas.
The next concern from this look is OU’s safety blitz, a nefarious scheme in which they bring Striker off the edge but then also bring Hayes behind him:
Hayes has already collected several sacks and some forced fumbles this season from this blitz. When an OL is already very concerned with handling Striker’s speed off the edge it becomes pretty easy for Hayes to come off his hip completely unblocked and take QBs out.
Last but not least, there are the times when Oklahoma plays Cover-4 behind this and drops both Hayes and Striker into coverage while still bringing Grissom off the opposite edge:
If Hayes and Striker show blitz off the edge here, it could be very easy for Swoopes to panic and get locked in on trying to throw the ball out quick against the grain of the anticipated blitz…right into Hayes’ waiting hands. Or perhaps, Swoopes realizes his mistake late, gets caught without a plan and is then sacked by Grissom coming unexpectedly off the opposite edge.
Now, the Oklahoma defense does have some weaknesses. It’s hard to run the ball on this front but its corners can be beat over the top, its free safety doesn’t have enough range to help out on the sidelines, and an accurate QB with a cannon like Swoopes can find throwing windows underneath the 3-deep DB umbrella that OU prefers as a base defense. OU’s linebackers are rangy but some of them keep its eyes on the QB and can be manipulated by a savvy QB.
The key is that Swoopes has to recognize the different Oklahoma blitzes, the OL has to be able to give him some time, and Texas receivers need to damage with the ball after the catch. Texas also has to find some ways to give Swoopes a shot at beating the Oklahoma CBs over the top, neither of them have the recovery speed to consistently handle Marcus Johnson in isolation.
Texas is going to have to run the ball, but the only way to anticipate the Longhorns pulling that off is if Swoopes first proves that an aggressive run front will result in Oklahoma’s secondary getting ripped apart with precision strikes.
If Texas can force Oklahoma to leave Hayes deep to help stop the passing game, perhaps the run game can get going. Here’s the only catch; Texas can’t do this by going spread. There’s simply no chance that Texas manages to protect Swoopes from 4-receiver sets against the myriad of blitzes Oklahoma can bring from its nickel defense.
Oklahoma has built a 2014 team that excels at running the ball with a massive OL and a loaded backfield and excels at stopping the run with a physical DL and very athletic LB corp. The Oklahoma nose tackle is probably the best in the conference and his effectiveness is demonstrated in the fact that the Sooners’ top four tacklers are linebackers.
Neither the Oklahoma passing game nor passing defense are elite, BUT they have perfectly schemed their offense to milk their running game into a devastating passing attack. They are also milking their defensive front’s ability to bring destructive blitzes and protecting their DBs from getting targeted by a QB sitting comfortably in the pocket.
It’s more than a little unfortunate that Texas has to play this game after facing Baylor as the path to victory will involve mastering both a complicated game plan as well as understanding Oklahoma on a deep level as the Texas players clearly did in 2013.
Of course, with attentive film study, a diverse game plan, and some lucky breaks, there’s always the chance that Texas’ athleticism comes out and allows them to hang around with the Sooners.
Next up are the sidebar/player spotlights we discussed via email:
The importance of Eric Striker
Texas has a very young and inexperienced OL supporting a very young and inexperienced QB. As it happens, Mike Stoops has the perfect tool for exploiting these shortcomings in the hyper-versatile linebacker Eric Striker.
Striker has been compared to Roy Williams, another Texas-killer, due to his ability to play in space and terrorize the edge like a wild demon. The Sooners prefer to play Striker in open spaces but he could theoretically line up just about anywhere. That means that Oklahoma will fire him at whichever parts of the OL they feel are most vulnerable, and possibly in conjunction with some of their other great pass-rushers.
Texas is going to have to account for Striker on every passing down and make sure that Oklahoma beats them with another player. They very well might, but Texas can’t allow Striker to complete the evil Roy resurrection with another superman play that squeezes the life out of a Texas effort.
The importance of Tyrone Swoopes
Swoopes’ ability to put the ball in tight windows all over the field is Texas’ one great advantage on offense in 2014. As it happens, it’s probably what Oklahoma is most vulnerable to, provided that you can block their pass rush.
Texas needs Swoopes to make big throws from the pocket, to get out on the run and fire deep balls ala the 2013 Alamo Bowl, and to place the ball in places to allow Texas’ receivers to become play makers in the open field with the ball in their hands.
If Texas beats Oklahoma in the 2014 Red River Shootout, it will be because Swoopes seized control of the future of the program with a breakout performance and made plays in the passing game that put Texas on the scoreboard.