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Can Oklahoma's defense finally stop Baylor?

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It's Mike Stoops v Art Briles: Round IV. How has that battle gone in the past and what's it likely to look like in 2015?

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From 2000 through 2012, the Big 12 was largely dominated by Bob Stoops' Sooners. The combination of Oklahoma's nearly perpetually top-10 S&P defenses and generally cutting-edge, explosive offenses was more than most teams could hope to handle and they racked up seven Big 12 championships while going 87-19 in league play over that period.

The 2012 season was the first to see Mike Stoops come back to Norman and the last to see Oklahoma do anything against Baylor other than be blown off the field. The following two years have seen Baylor win the league while blasting the Sooners 41-12 at home in 2013 and then embarrassing the Sooners in their botched vengeance attempt in Norman in 2014 with a 48-14 shellacking.

Perhaps the most interesting clash here has been between the brilliant Art Briles offense and Stoops' typically overwhelming defense. This battle has not gone very favorably for the Sooners in any year since Mike Stoops took over the Oklahoma defense and has gotten worse with each new contest, as you can see in the below table:

OU D vs Baylor O

Oklahoma's evolving strategy for stopping Baylor

Bob Stoops has claimed recently that stopping Baylor starts with stopping the run and then stopping the big play. This is a common mistake teams make with Baylor, and Oklahoma's own history should tell them otherwise. Last year Oklahoma held Baylor to their lowest rushing output yet in the series and yet were totally dominated.

Baylor has a strong running game and they can do damage on the ground, but if your plan is essentially to out-score the Bears there's no reason to not encourage them to try and score their points the slow, hard way. The easiest way to be defeated by Baylor is to give up gobs of points very quickly against their quick-strike passing game and then find yourself in a hole, desperately digging your way out. That's when the Baylor run game will wear you out, not when they're still in a position to have to match scores with your offense.

Giving up big passing plays is what broke the Sooners the last time they were in Waco and it will bury them again if they aren't careful.

That said, OU's fundamental approach to handling Baylor was fairly consistent over the years until 2014. Before that debacle they would try to keep six defenders in the box and match up on the outside in man coverage to decrease the efficiency of the Bear passing attack.

The first time Mike Stoops took on Briles the battle plan was similar to what Oklahoma did against most every other team in the Big 12, they played a lot of 4-1-6 dime personnel and man coverage and would drop one of their two big safeties in the box to provide extra help against the run as needed.

OU D vs Baylor 2012

In 2013 this approach evolved because the Sooners had safeties in Gabe Lynn and Quentin Hayes who could play man coverage and a hybrid LB in Eric Striker who could be moved around to attack the line of scrimmage. Then the approach evolved to include more man-1 blitzes and 3-3-5 nickel sets that could create 5-1 or 5-2 fronts to force the runner between the tackles and allow the DBs to focus on man coverage:

OU D vs Baylor 2013

The difficulties here came from the fact that OU simply couldn't hold up in man coverage without giving up a few deep bombs, and the Oklahoma offense totally muffed their chance to put points on the board early in the game before Baylor's inevitable surge just before the half.

Another difficulty with this approach is that while it can keep the ball constrained between the tackles, against a four-wide offensive formation the defense potentially only has one second-level defender and if he gives up a crease the deep safety has a long ways to go in order to make the tackle. This eventually burned the Sooners in 2013 as they gave up a big day from Linwood.

The next year Oklahoma decided to try and learn from West Virginia's "all or nothing" approach to stopping the Bears, which was a mix of "rush three/drop eight" max coverage calls and zero-blitzes with no deep safeties. As Mountaineer DC Tony Gibson must have reasoned, "if some of my players are always going to end up on islands anyways when I don't drop eight I might as well put them all on islands and at least get pressure on their QB."

This went very poorly for the Sooners, but it could be reasoned that something similar to what they attempted in 2012 or 2013 would have also gone poorly. Oklahoma simply did not have corners that could match up to K.D. Cannon or Corey Coleman (who had over 200 yards) and their attempts to bring zero-blitzes with off coverage rather than press coverage as West Virginia had done led to endless wide open completions for the Bears that ended with senior Sooner CBs yelling at the coaches on the sideline.

Whatever the Stoops brothers have cooked up for the game this year it likely won't resemble what they threw out there in 2014.

Dynamics of the 2015 match-up

Both Oklahoma and Baylor are better off in the skill position battle than in some of their previous battles if the Sooners should turn to man coverage again as a way to balance taking away Baylor's easy RPO reads with stopping the run.

The Bears have been devastating opponents with Corey Coleman, who already has 1k receiving yards with at least five more games left in the Baylor season. They also have difficult targets outside in KD Cannon and Jay Lee that are capable of abusing a bad match-up in coverage.

Meanwhile the Sooners have been repping a 3-3-5 nickel package that can put four good coverage players on the field in their two corners Jordan Thomas (big upgrade over converted safety Julian Wilson) and Zach Sanchez, nickel corner William Johnson, and strong safety Steven Parker.

In the trenches the Sooners are a bit worse off than they were a year ago when NFL nose tackle Jordan Phillips helped them clog the middle while Baylor returns their OL from a year ago more or less intact. However, the Sooners have plenty of sturdy DL, two very experienced inside linebackers, and Eric Striker is still patrolling the edges.

The biggest dynamic to this game is the fact that Baylor is throwing true freshman Jarrett Stidham out there in his second-ever start as a college QB. His first-ever start came last week against Kansas State, who employed strategies that the Bears are unlikely to see from the Sooners.

First K-State attempted to play their standard cover 4 defense and align the LBs to discourage the run, which led to endless RPOs by Baylor in which Stidham threw simple passes outside wherever the Wildcats were outnumbered. When teams elect to play with two deep safeties against the Wildcats they can be assured of seeing lots of plays such as this one:

Either you leave those safeties deep and deal with death by a thousand paper cuts via the run or you play man coverage outside.

Eventually KSU adjusted to play off man coverage on the outside and outnumber the run as OU has done in years past but while this slowed the Bear attack they couldn't match up outside against Coleman who made enough plays to allow Baylor to seal the victory.

It's pretty reasonable to assume that Oklahoma utilizes something closer to their 2013 strategy (3-3-5 nickel, six-man box, man coverage outside), and opts to play man coverage with a single deep safety in the middle rather than facing the above scenario where Stidham can make easy decisions and the game becomes a matter of whether he can get the ball out on time and accurately (he can).

In that event, the two big questions for this game are then whether Baylor can run on a six-man front from Oklahoma and if Stidham can beat coverage and pressure.

The Bears have actually struggled to run the ball effectively over the last few years when opponents with good DL and LBs  (KSU, Sparty, OU) would match them with honest fronts and it's probably not overly hopeful for the Sooners to expect to slow down Baylor's rushing attack if they can get away with playing nickel personnel and leaving their LBs in the box without getting shredded by the passing game.

That leaves the question of how to attack Jarrett Stidham.

The obvious solution is simply to man up, drop a safety to remove easy RPO reads for Stidham where he can always throw it "where they ain't," and try to out-execute the Baylor passing game. There's a case to be made that if Striker can't get pressure and the Sooner DBs can't cover the Baylor WRs, then the torch is passed and OU is simply out-matched.

The other option is to try and game the Bears and trap Stidham by taking away Coleman and daring him to beat them with other receivers and without the aid of a running game. This can be done by bracketing Coleman with cover 2 to whichever side of the field he's operating on while playing aggressively on the other half of the field:

OU bracket on Coleman

When Kansas State would bracket Coleman like this his response was often to simply not even run a route but just give up on the play and save his legs for another down. It'd probably be worth Oklahoma's time to see if they could erase Coleman from the game simply by alignment and force Stidham and the Bears to out-execute them with the rest of their roster.

Another tactic would be to mix max coverage with zero blitzes again but use one blitzer to instead jump routes based on Stidham's eyes or Coleman's position on the field. Or perhaps even all of the above while testing to see how Stidham responds to a variety of different schemes, although the simplicity of the Baylor offense suggests this could just result in assignment busts that gift easy points.

A few weeks ago Oklahoma was in a bad place in the Big 12 race. They'd been physically whipped by their rivals and were facing a looming trip to Waco to face the newest, Briles-groomed Baylor upperclassmen QB. Now they find themselves surging and the Bears' position in doubt thanks to a devastating injury. If they can't take advantage now they may not recover the Big 12 throne in the Bob Stoops era.