Key plays of 2020 in the Big 12: Austin Stogner owns the middle in the Cotton Bowl

Ian Boyd

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It's hard to imagine a worse start for Oklahoma in 2020 than what unfolded in the late summer and opening two games of the Big 12 season. Up until late in the process it appeared Lincoln Riley thought the season either shouldn't happen or wasn't going to happen. The Sooners were very transparent with COVID numbers up until the season was clearly going to take place, at which point they made it all proprietary. COVID infections and contact tracing then wrecked their fall camp and practices.

Finally, they lost the season opener against Kansas State after holding a massive lead in the second half. Then, rather than rebounding with a win as Oklahoma fans have been accustomed to seeing for the last two decades, they dropped a second consecutive game against Iowa State. Both contests ended with first year starting quarterback Spencer Rattler getting cracks at late heroic drives and throwing picks trying to force the ball down the field.

Heading into the Red River Shootout 0-2 in Big 12 play was concerning for Oklahoma, deeply concerning. The Longhorns were only 1-1 themselves with a narrow overtime victory over Texas Tech managed via Sam Ehlinger heroics and an onside kick recovery, and then a narrow defeat to TCU managed via a first and goal fumble by Keaontay Ingram when he carelessly reached the ball for the marker when the need was to eat clock and score a touchdown. So the opponent wasn't particularly terrifying, but the game had a lot of stakes.

It started out poorly for Oklahoma with Rattler failing to find DeMarvion Overshown lurking backside on a fire zone blitz and hitting him in the chest for an interception deeper in Sooner territory. After a later fumble by Rattler, Riley pulled the quarterback for Tanner Mordecai in order to try and settle him down. Later in the game when the Sooners needed it, Rattler managed consecutive third quarter drives to give the Sooners a big lead they'd later blow which enabled overtime, and then a few overtime drives which secured victory.

Red zone rescue

Oklahoma ran the ball early and often against Texas in the 2020 Red River Shootout, leaning on the inexperience of the Texas linebackers in their run fits and the fact Joseph Ossai couldn't play every snap of the game. Their crucial, game-winning plays also targeted the linebackers but with middle of the field throws into zones left vacant by Texas' lack of depth in their linebacker drops.

Iowa State would end Texas' season with similar tactics.

Outside of a couple of big plays throwing leak routes to the slot receivers Texas failed to cover though, the Sooners had to get to the goal line by converting red zone opportunities. Their run game chewed up clock and gobbled up yardage but they still needed to turn all those yards and possessions into touchdowns in order to get the win. They did so largely thanks to the toughness and skill of tight end Austin Stogner.


In example one, they run a counter play-action scheme which freezes the linebackers and Stogner is allowed to go free over the middle. Chris Brown chops him down at the goal line and Stogner hit the ground hard and stayed there for a while, but his work for the day wasn't done even if Oklahoma had no further need for him to finish the drive.

In example two the Sooners are in nub trips and Stogner is matched up on cornerback Jalen Green. Stogner basically just posts him up in the end zone and brings down a contested catch to tie things up.

Example three it's nub trips again and he makes an in cut over the always vacant middle of the field. Texas shaded safety Chris Brown to the trips side and of course the linebackers aren't there to contest the windows over the middle.

Somehow on the year Stogner caught only three touchdown passes, overall he had 26 catches for 422 yards while playing in just eight games due to injury. His skill in breaking open in the middle of the field was immensely valuable to Oklahoma and Rattler was often able to find him for crucial pick-ups. When he wasn't there for the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship it made life harder.

The expectation for the 2020 Sooners was to be an overwhelming power run/play-action team. Instead their receiving corps took several blows with injuries and suspensions, Rattler proved erratic while trying to push the ball down the field, and the run game wasn't as consistent as expected. They beat Texas by landing body blows all game and getting some big, situational catches from Stogner.

Once Texas was vanquished, Oklahoma was able to launch their predictable surge, winning the rest of their Big 12 games and securing yet another Big 12 Championship. They needed Stogner to give freshman Rattler a security blanket in the middle of the field in Dallas though or else everything could have unraveled.

The Sooners' 2021 conundrum

Everyone is back for Oklahoma in 2020 in terms of the skill talent. They get their cadre of blue chip wide receivers healthy and available for a full offseason with Rattler (Jadon Haselwood, Trejan Bridges, Theo Wease), return freshman star Marvin Mims, ever-dependable Drake Stoops, and then the fullback/tight end combination of Jeremiah Hall and Austin Stogner along with exciting freshman H-back Mikey Henderson.

They'll have to play a running back as well and will likely be pretty excited about returning Kennedy Brooks there to work alongside Seth McGowan.

The real trick is inside, where Austin Stogner returns along with Jeremiah Hall and slot receivers Marvin Mims and Drake Stoops. Those are four very reliable and very good players who only have two spots available. Compounding the issue is Spencer Rattler's running ability, or lack thereof. He's a capable runner, from time to time, but the Sooners nearly got themselves into trouble last year running Rattler in the red zone. He appears to be about 6-0, 190 pounds and while he isn't overly heroic about taking damage when he can avoid it, he can't always avoid it.

Oklahoma is much better off with a tight end or fullback on the field to help block nickel fronts, ideally Hall who's the best ancillary blocker on the roster by a fair margin. To get six blockers for a six man box against a nickel defense the Sooners in the past have often used the quarterback run game to even out the numbers, but this will be a better task for the next OU signal-caller (Caleb Williams) than Rattler.

So there's one of two inside "receiver" slots occupied.

Now you need to figure out whether Marvin Mims, Drake Stoops, or Austin Stogner is serving as the primary "Y" slot receiver. The case for Stogner is his reliability working in the middle of the field, flexibility in blocking and helping punish defenses for their personnel choices like Mark Andrews did in 2016 and 2017, and the fact Rattler really seemed to rely on him at times. The case for Marvin Mims is he was the most explosive receiver on the team last year, leading the team with catches (37), yards (610), and touchdowns (nine). Mims made the Y-leak plays extra explosive, as well as some of the slot fade and dig-post inside patterns OU connected on a few times in crucial moments.

You could move Mims outside, but now you have to remove one of your blue chip receivers who are finally getting a good, full offseason to realize their potential.

Then there's Drake Stoops, whom everyone will easily dismiss to the bench because he's a walk-on and a legacy who obviously won't transfer if his playing time is cut. Just know, Stoops made a lot of tough catches, some crucial blocks, and knows where to be on the field.

It's the sort of problem every Big 12 team would like to have, but it's still a problem. The biggest issue is the question of how Oklahoma can form a dominant identity if they are constantly shuffling through concepts and personnel packages from possession to possession or down to down? Then beyond those concerns of practice time allocation, can you get the guys who don't end up being go-to weapons to buy in on waiting for their turn and being great role players like Drake Stoops was in 2020?

I suspect Austin Stogner will need to see the field more often than not in 2021 because of his ability to be a big target for Rattler who can bring in contested catches. The Sooners will want this dimension when they face teams who drop safeties back to deny the easy, over the top plays and match up underneath in man coverage. The 2017 Oklahoma offense relied on Andrews heavily in such moments and forced Georgia to start loading up the middle of the field, leading to opportunities outside for a freshman CeeDee Lamb Riley wasn't comfortable attacking. This year the Sooners will have the weapons outside to attack 1-on-1 matchups, they will probably need to lean on Stogner to control the middle of the field and have some hard conversations with a few receivers this offseason about the extent of their roles in the offense in a season where the program is aiming for a National Championship.
 

stilesbbq

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Notice the hit Chris Brown put on Stogner in the first GIF. Stogner has said that he cant remember catching the GW TD because of concussions during the game


I have no clue how PK is gonna defend that guy
 

Ian Boyd

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Notice the hit Chris Brown put on Stogner in the first GIF. Stogner has said that he cant remember catching the GW TD because of concussions during the game


I have no clue how PK is gonna defend that guy
Stogner said he was concussed during the game? PK, much like Chris Beard, has a bit of a no middle philosophy on defense.
 

sherf1

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Notice the hit Chris Brown put on Stogner in the first GIF. Stogner has said that he cant remember catching the GW TD because of concussions during the game


I have no clue how PK is gonna defend that guy
I think you more or less did what we did last year and live with the consequences. Dude had 6 catches for 56 yards and a score, which came in overtime. That probably saved the game for them, but guys making tough contested catches isn't what keeps you up at night as a DC IMO.
 

patentjt

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Geezus, the gooners looked stacked this upcoming season.

Do u think it's better than their 2018 team with Murray as QB?
 

cavesl

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Geezus, the gooners looked stacked this upcoming season.

Do u think it's better than their 2018 team with Murray as QB?
Yes. Not as good on offense. But way better on defense. Better all around team.