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Previewing Bedlam

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 wasn’t supposed to have a championship game until the 2017 season, but for the fourth year the final game is going to feature a de-facto conference championship game that determines at least a share of the conference title (2013, 2014, 2015). For the second straight season, that outcome will be determined by the winner of the Bedlam rivalry series.

If you’re uninitiated on the nicknames for of all of college football’s annual rivalries, Bedlam is the Oklahoma vs Oklahoma State series that always takes place as the last game of the conference season for these two teams.

Under the combined regimes of Mike Gundy and Bob Stoops, Oklahoma is 9-2 in this series with six total conference titles while Oklahoma State has won the Big 12 just once during that time. That win came in 2011, which incidentally is the only time that Oklahoma State earned a convincing win (44-10) over Stoops’ Sooners. The 2011 Oklahoma State Cowboys were known for their fantastic offense (no. 2 in S&P) that was led by QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon but that was also one of the better defenses of the Mike Gundy era thanks to DE Jamie Blatnick and a loaded secondary.

The game has been defined under these two coaches for high scoring outcomes that always seem to come out in Oklahoma’s favor. In these 11 games Oklahoma has averaged 40 points per game while the Cowboys have averaged 28.

This year’s game has the feel of another contest like 2008, 2010, or 2012 when neither offense could stop the other. Here’s how it’s likely to shape out...

The quarterback duel

This will actually be the first time that Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph square off in direct competition. In 2014 Mason Rudolph had just taken over the job in Stillwater the previous week against Baylor and he sent a chill down the Sooners’ spine with a 273 yard (7.8 ypa), two touchdown game in a narrow, 38-35 overtime victory for the Cowboys. Mayfield spent that season on the bench due to the Big 12 transfer policy.

Rudolph missed the game the following year with a leg injury (although he came in briefly and promptly threw an INT) and Baker Mayfield dominated with 257 total yards and three touchdowns in a blowout Sooner win.

The two have been the second and third best quarterback (in an as of yet undetermined order) behind Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes and essential ingredients to their respective offenses.

Baker Mayfield has unquestionably enjoyed the stronger supporting cast and his job is often made as simple as distributing the ball to whichever of the Sooners’ excellent skill players is working with a matchup advantage on a given play. Rudolph has found himself leading a revitalized rushing attack with the threat of his arm on RPOs (run/pass options) that make it very difficult for opposing teams to get numbers into the box to stop freshman RB Justice Hill in their zone running game.

Mayfield has the ability to add an extra dimension to the Oklahoma offense with his scrambling and running ability in the option but Rudolph will likely leave after this season for the NFL and has the kind of arm talent that is very, very difficult to stop at the college level. Since the Cowboys have been able to establish Justice Hill and the running game it’s become very difficult to keep the Cowboys off the board.

The defenses

Oklahoma’s 2016 defense has talented players that would lead you to believe that they would be fielding one of the better units in the conference, yet they rank only 62nd nationally in S&P and fourth in the Big 12. They are atrocious on passing downs (82nd nationally), which in the Big 12 is generally a pretty big problem and makes them particularly vulnerable to Oklahoma State, who ranks 37th on passing downs.

The Sooners play a lot of man coverage and simply haven’t had been able to hold up in that style because their second cornerback position opposite junior Jordan Thomas has been a revolving door that currently features true freshman Jordan Parker. It’s hard to play cornerback in the Big 12 as a true freshman, particularly in a scheme that relies on man coverage against some truly great receivers and passing attacks.

The Oklahoma State defense has a similar problem at cornerback and lack a lockdown guy outside, although Ramon Richards has been solid this season. Unlike the Sooners, the Cowboys have some varying strategies for mitigating that weakness, one of them is their Tampa-2 coverage.

They’ll shift their “star” linebacker, who’s a SS/LB space-backer hybrid that plays to the wide side of the field, into the deep middle to serve like a Tampa-2 middle linebacker would. In this coverage their corners get to jam the outside receivers and then play underneath zones and help against the run. You can’t pick on the corners with deep shots in this coverage because there are safeties over the top and neither of them have to worry about the deep middle.

In traditional Tampa-2 the middle linebacker has to jump backwards to mind the pass, but in this variety that middle hole is being defended by someone who starts at depth, so he can play downhill against run reads and be a free hitter. This isn’t a fantastic run defense but it’s not a horrible one and it makes for an excellent change-up that OSU mixes in regularly to help their corners out.

The strength of the OSU defense is up the middle. Their safeties Jordan Sterns and Tre Flowers are rangy, good tacklers and Jordan Sterns has been the team’s leading tackler for three years in a row now. The linebackers are solid and know how to fit the run while their defensive tackles are arguably the best in the conference.

In that clip above they use a nose/tackle stunt that allows star DT Vincent Taylor to get penetration to blow up the play. Taylor has 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks on the year and is the main reason that Oklahoma State has been able to get comparable results on defense to Oklahoma despite lacking their talent.

The key matchups

Since this is probably going to be a shootout, the team that wins will most likely be the unit that makes red zone stops or forces turnovers so that when the other offense racks up 500 yards it doesn’t also result in 40-50 points.

Here are the battles that I think will determine who gains the advantage in the struggle to contain Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph:

The Oklahoma State DTs vs Oklahoma’s interior OL

Oklahoma has been improving down the stretch of the season thanks to moving sophomore right tackle Dru Samia to right guard and plugging in former walk-on center Erik Wren and JUCO transfer left guard Ben Powers.

One of the key concepts to their offense is their “counter-trey” play, which they even run from four-WR sets with all kinds of options attached for Baker Mayfield.

Here’s a version of the play they use to achieve the all-important task of finishing a drive in the red zone. They pull the backside guard AND tackle, which can potentially create problems on the backside with penetration, but they mitigate that risk by attaching either Mayfield keep options or passes to punish aggressive plays by their opponents. They love pulling big LT Orlando Brown, a 6-8, 340 pound dancing bear who blocks remarkably well on the move.

Oklahoma State needs to be able to muck up the works on plays like this with their various DT stunts so they can protect their defensive backfield from finding themselves facing a situation where Orlando Brown is turning upfield with Samaje Perine in tow. West Virginia tried to fire numbers to the point of attack but Mayfield and the passing game is too good for that work out well, the better way is to blow it up with the DL.

OSU DC Glenn Spencer vs OU OC Lincoln Riley

The game of cat and mouse between these two should be quite interesting. Riley is always looking to find ways to get his various skill players at advantage while Spencer is always disguising where his weaknesses will be and mixing and matching between coverage-oriented calls like Tampa-2 and run-stopping calls like their quarters coverages.

One of the things that has always set Spencer apart in the Big 12 is that he’ll often use coverage calls on standard downs to throw opponents off from using plays on 1st and 10 that could burn their quarters defense. They often give up rushing yardage as a result but in the Big 12 that doesn’t really matter, what matters is limiting red zone conversions and quick strike passing touchdowns.

Lincoln Riley’s ability to draw up plays that will still over stress the Cowboy defense by making them account for multiple Sooner skill players simultaneously will be key to beating that approach. The fact that each team got an extra week to prepare for this game makes this battle all the more intriguing.

OU’s LBs vs OSU’s TEs

What Oklahoma State does better than anyone else in the Big 12 is run a “pro-style spread” that often gets two TEs on the field and allows them to spread opponents out or pack in the TEs and run people over or buy more time for Rudolph to find Jalen McCleskey or James Washington.

Oklahoma’s concern going into this game has to be their own LB corps, which has been beat up with injuries all year and who’s star (Jordan Evans) had to leave the last game with a hamstring injury. Oklahoma State is going to make the Sooner LBs prove they know how to fit the run against various zone running schemes that feature a lead insert and that they can handle play-action and RPO tosses to the TEs when they slip out on routes.

The Sooners have some major talent at LB but their collective inexperience could become an issue in this game, especially if the Sooners find they have to leave them undermanned against the run in order to stop Rudolph and the passing attack outside.

Baker Mayfield vs Mason Rudolph

Perhaps the most brutal aspect of defending the Sooners is that even if you make a call that allows your defense to cover up all of Mayfield’s options on a given play, there’s still the chance that he’ll just scramble around and burn you anyways.

That playmaking is one of the main reasons that no one in the Big 12 has defeated Oklahoma this season. The game almost always becomes a shootout and Mayfield often puts his own team over the top with a few key runs or occasions where he turns a potentially negative play into a positive one.

Rudolph is less mobile and doesn’t offer the same kind of playmaking as Mayfield but what he can do is make plays by beating coverage. Sometimes opponents have Oklahoma State pretty well schemed and covered but they just can’t defend the perfect throw. Not to say Mayfield doesn’t do this as well at times but it’s a big part of what makes Oklahoma State so good this season.

All of the factors above are likely to be reflected in the statistical performances of these two players but each will also have a major impact on how things play out by how they execute in the red zone and whether they avoid turnovers in the pursuit of playmaking.

The history of this series, Oklahoma’s slightly superior offense, and home field advantage suggest the Sooners will get this one. However, there are a few key matchups that Oklahoma State could hope to win in order to pull off the upset. Could be one of the more compelling games this weekend.