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The 2020 season is clearly pretty unique with its own place in history due to COVID and the abnormal scheduling. The Red River Shootout should also be bizarre and interesting due to the limited seating and of course the precarious state of affairs for both teams going into the game.
Each team can fill 12.5% of the seats in the stadium, which means the normal state of affairs in which either side of the arena will roar with excitement as the game swings back and forth may be different. This game is normally like a street fight every kid in the school knows about and shows up for, but this time it’ll be different and it’s hard to gauge how decreased attendance will impact the environment. No bands, no “Smokey” or Oklahoma pop guns, just two desperate teams slugging it out.
Beyond their need to stay above .500 in Big 12 play and get their talented team on track for the rest of the season, Texas’ biggest opportunity here is to create margin for the inevitable tiebreaker craziness at the end of the year. If they can beat the young Sooners now in the Cotton Bowl, there’s a solid chance they won’t have to beat them later in Jerry World should they make the Big 12 title game. The Sooners will be 0-3 with tiebreaker disadvantages against Texas, Iowa State, and Kansas State and Bedlam still looming on the schedule. Lincoln Riley has yet to be confronted by so a difficult path while a head coach.
While Oklahoma is talented, they’ve managed to shoot themselves in the foot badly enough to where the Longhorn season may come down to how well they handle games like their trips to Stillwater and Manhattan later in the year… if they can put down the Sooners now. Naturally, Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma will be fighting like mad to prevent that from happening.
Scouting the Sooners
Like Texas, the Sooners can claim to be potentially the league’s best team, even if it’s not been the case in reality thus far. They have a lot of very good players and plays but have yet to put it all together in a Big 12 game.
The formula they seem best equipped to follow is to be overwhelming on offense and good enough to get by on defense, but they haven’t been overwhelming on offense yet, nor good enough to get by on defense. Starting a redshirt freshman quarterback is one obvious problem area for them, and both of Oklahoma’s losses were cemented by overzealous Spencer Rattler interceptions late in the game, but there are deeper problems here.
Oklahoma came into the year with tight end Austin Stogner, fullback Jeremiah Hall, four returning starters on the offensive line that propelled Jalen Hurts and Kennedy Brooks to 1,000 yard seasons in 2019, and speed outside with Charleston Rambo and some youngsters. Pairing those pieces with young, strong-armed Spencer Rattler seemed to point to an obvious offensive identity. Play in 21 personnel regularly, run the football down opponents’ throats, and set up play-action for the strong-armed Rattler and their fleet-footed receiving corps. But against both Kansas State and Iowa State the Sooners mixed in a lot of 10 and 11 personnel sets from which they failed to run the ball effectively or consistently overstress those Midwestern secondaries. Their top four receivers by catches are, in order, Charleston Rambo (13-171, two touchdowns), Austin Stogner (11-174), Marvin Mims (11-144, three touchdowns), and Jeremiah Hall (8-90, three touchdowns).
Stogner is usually Rattler’s go to target on third downs, occasionally Hall also serves this role because defenses consistently underestimate his ability as a flexed out receiver at 6-1, 252 pounds. The Sooners also regularly play Drake Stoops (yes, Bob’s son), transfers Theo Howard and Obi Obialo, and 5-star sophomore Theo Wease. Stoops is a reliable slot but the others haven’t really moved the needle for them. This team is much more dangerous creating matchups with the fullback and tight end and throwing to burners Rambo and Mims on play-action.
The offensive line hasn’t been very good. Despite returning four starters, they look like they spent the offseason waiting for the season to be cancelled rather than maintaining and improving their craft as blockers. But when they line up in 21 personnel with Hall and Stogner on the field, freshman running back Seth McGowan in the backfield, freshman left tackle Anton Harrison in for Erik Swenson at left tackle, and run GT counter?
Now they look more like normal Oklahoma. Really like 2017 Oklahoma back when they were running people over with a dozen variations of GT counter from 21 personnel while Baker Mayfield threw bombs to a freshman CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown.
If I’m noticing how much more effective they are from 21 personnel then you can be pretty confident Lincoln Riley will also settle on the same conclusion in time for the Red River Shootout.
On defense there aren’t such easy answers. Oklahoma doesn’t have obvious young personnel settling in and the pain inflicted by Iowa State and Kansas State haven’t been paired with many useful lessons. Oklahoma’s defensive personnel is deficient and Alex Grinch’s scheme has always been a risky venture in the Big 12 conference. The flaws were evident in their battle with LSU and have become more stark now they don’t have NFL athletes at all three defensive line positions.
Replacing Kenneth Murray at linebacker hasn’t been as big of an issue as replacing Parnell Motley at cornerback, and the defensive backfield in general is pretty weak. As the broadcast crew in the Iowa State game regularly pointed out, the Sooner secondary is pretty small with 5-9 players at both cornerback positions and nickel, and a pair of 5-10 guys at safety in Patrick Fields and Dellarin Turner-Yell. They’re fast and are all in year two of the system now but rather than carrying water for the defense they’re being exposed. Opponents are attacking them and without the fierce pass rush in front of them or the security of facing fewer spread sets they are not holding up.
Beating the Sooners
There are generally two consistent themes to beating Oklahoma under Lincoln Riley. One is to play aggressively on offense with the mindset going in that you need to win in a shootout. While a shootout seems to play into the Sooners’ hands, it’s comparable to the strategies teams typically use to knock out the James Harden Houston Rockets. You don’t try to bully their stocky, undersized players like PJ Tucker with big lineups. You out-small ball them and make their stocky shooters chase even faster athletes around the court.
When teams use tempo and passing, attack the Oklahoma defense, and embrace a shootout, the Sooners get into trouble. Texas did as much in 2018 and Sam Ehlinger took better care of the ball and made more of the Longhorns red zone trips than Kyler Murray. In 2019 he nearly did the same against Jalen Hurts but Texas was whipped so badly along the offensive line and by explosive gains from CeeDee Lamb it didn’t matter.
Beyond relying on Sam Ehlinger to out-execute his counterpart (auspices here are promising) the other key is to prioritize stopping the Sooner passing game. Neither Lincoln Riley nor his precocious new quarterback have a lot of patience for trying to drive down the field with the running game. In a fascinating twist, their offensive line doesn’t seem up for it either.
If Oklahoma comes out running GT counter from 21 personnel they could complicate things. TCU’s GT counter game really struggled against the new look Texas defense, often getting stuffed by Keondre Coburn and Ta’Quon Graham beating down blocks inside of effective contain by the ends. However, Oklahoma is better than TCU up front and the Texas linebackers haven’t put together a clean game yet. Chris Ash should accept there will be some longer Oklahoma drives and count on negative plays inflicted by the defensive line and tighter proximity from the safeties in the red zone to force field goals.
This is a Cort Jaquess game, the walk-on has some speed moving downhill and even laterally in the run game and is far and away Texas’ most sound run-stopper. DeMarvion Overshown is inconsistent with his fits but will have opportunities to have a big game, especially if Texas gives Spencer Rattler some “keep” reads in the option game. Spencer Rattler is still adjusting to the speed of Big 12 defenders relative to the guys he used to run by in high school back in Arizona. Texas may choose to let him keep the ball at times and see how he fares against Adimora, Overshown, B.J. Foster, and Caden Sterns in the middle of the field.
Rather than playing conservatively, Texas will probably play the Oklahoma receivers 1-on-1 outside and there’s good reason to believe those matchups will play out in their favor. Their success stopping the passing game will come down to Adimora and the linebackers or strong safety bracketing Austin Stogner effectively on third downs and Caden Sterns staying on top of Marvin Mims and Charleston Rambo when they’re in the slot running a fade or post.
For instance, against the play the Sooners kept dialing up against Iowa State:
The Sooners want to hit their top burners running fades and post routes from the slot. In the big picture strategy, step one is for the Longhorns to deny big plays with Sterns and the cornerbacks matched on Oklahoma’s receivers. Step two is for Sam Ehlinger to light up the Sooner secondary and put Oklahoma in a hole early. Spencer Rattler and Lincoln Riley have both shown a tendency to press.
So everything ultimately hinges on Texas having a great plan to get after the Sooner defense. Fortunately for Tom Herman and Mike Yurcich, the answer is rather obvious and was regularly telegraphed in the TCU game.
Alex Grinch runs a 3-3-5 defense heavy on stunts and blitzes up front, defers stress to the secondary, and tries to keep the quarterback and offensive coordinator guessing by moving around the nickel (Brendan Radley-Hiles). Offensive coordinators now have a year of film on the Sooners’ tactics and LSU demonstrated Grinch’s stunts and disguises can get relatively simple in a hurry IF you’re willing to go empty. Kansas State built on that success and Iowa State did some work here too in their own fashion.
Texas couldn’t utilize much empty last season because they couldn’t block the Oklahoma defensive line. But this time around the Longhorns have an even better O-line, a year of additional understanding on how to block the bear fronts everyone (including Texas) now uses to bring pressure on third down, and a weaker opponent. Star defensive end Ronnie Perkins might play and change the matchup but overall the Sooners are still less intimidating in 2020 without Neville Gallimore, Jalen Redmond, and Kenneth Murray on the field.
At any rate, they have shown they don’t have great answers for empty formations and Texas did an awful lot from those sets last week against TCU. Here were two particularly interesting plays from their final touchdown drive:
Jared Wiley was very effective in this game working as a flexed out receiver, even on the outside, and Malcolm Epps has always been effective when he isn’t getting jammed up on the line of scrimmage. Texas is going into this game without a proven outside receiver who can beat press coverage and reliably give Ehlinger a target but they do have a number of players who’ve demonstrated themselves to be highly effective working from the slot, now bolstered by Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington.
The plan should be to play the game from 11 and 12 personnel but get into spread sets and make the Sooners cover Josh Moore, Jake Smith, and Jordan Whittington with linebackers and cover Jared Wiley, Roschon Johnson, Keaontay Ingram, and Malcolm Epps with cornerbacks.
Doesn’t that look fun? Jared Wiley or Cade Brewer can basically set two picks, first for Jordan Whittington on the wheel route, then for Jake Smith on the shallow cross. The X receiver can run a middle of the field curl without worrying about getting jammed off their release. The Sooners can either try to cover this mess or drop eight and sacrifice any chance at a good pass-rush.
These formations create huge problems for Grinch’s scheme. If the Sooners match up in man coverage and flex their linebackers out wide to preserve matchups with running backs and tight ends, then you can run the ball to Herman’s heart’s content. There’s not really a carries limit for Sam Ehlinger in a game like this so they can always flex a running back wide only to power the ball inside with the guy who has eight career rushing touchdowns against the Sooners. They can also flex a tight end wide and run inside zone if a linebacker vacates the box.
Herman can mix in a little bully ball running tempo after a first down or two. A review of the Iowa State film will make clear the Sooner secondary’s lack of size can also show up if asked to play blocks by tight ends. Texas’ has run the ball best this season though by getting into running formations at tempo after picking up gains and then running outside zone schemes to crease a tired and scrambling defense.
It’s truly an obvious gameplan, so much so the Sooners will probably be spending much of their week trying to work out how to counter it. No worries for Texas, there are a lot of possibilities and variety they can bring into this game and when you mix wonky flex formations with tempo it’s hard for even a well prepared defense to keep up. The likely Oklahoma response will just be to get ultra handsy and commit endless penalties in hopes they won’t be called in big spots.