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Anatomy of an upset: How Houston beat down Oklahoma

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Houston v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

It was easy to dismiss the Cougars’ win over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Houston had every reason to show up and make a statement in that game while the Seminoles had little at stake and played like it. The Cougars came out and bottled up Dalvin Cook with loaded fronts and Florida State didn’t have good answers to make them pay.

Their game against Oklahoma has the potential to be misleading as well. The Sooners were in game one adjusting to the losses of Charles Tapper (DE), Eric Striker (OLB), Devante Bond (OLB), and Zack Sanchez (OLB) who were largely responsible for Oklahoma’s superiority on the edges in 2015. What’s more, the Sooner defense that appeared dominant in 2015 was one that avoided quarterbacks Trevone Boykin, Mason Rudolph, and Seth Russell.

Still, no one expected the returning Big 12 champion that’s known as the most physical team in the league to get out-hit and taken down by a team who’s merit as a Big 12 expansion candidate has been in question. The Sooners are a talented football team and Houston put them to the sword, so to speak.

Here’s what that looked like:

The game’s outcome was set by Oklahoma’s third drive

The Sooners started their third drive at the start of the second quarter from their own 25 yard line. They were up 10-6 at this point but things were about to swing in the other direction.

The play call on first and 10 was a clever RPO, the Sooners are running outside zone to the boundary with Perine slipping out for for a quick flat route to the field with receivers setting up blocks for him. Mayfield reads the backside linebacker to see if he stays home on Perine or pursues the outside zone run.

The Cougars have a fire zone blitz going, bringing the nickel and mike linebacker, who are looking to overload the field side together and can’t adjust in time to the quick throw to Perine. The will linebacker is supposed to have Perine in coverage but he’s committed to the outside zone run. Samaje Perine has wide open grass ahead of him as he turns around, but then...

...strong safety Garrett Davis flies in from his deep middle zone and stops big Samaje Perine cold just before the first down marker. Perine hurts his shoulder and has to be tended to on the sideline while the Sooners are left one yard short of the marker.

Houston landed a few big hits in this game, including one earlier than this on Baker Mayfield, but when your free safety lays out the top power back in the Big 12 that tends to fire up the defense and dictate the feel of the game.

Still, the Sooners still had Joe Mixon, a deep stable of other running backs, and two downs to pick up that first. On second and one they come back with their split-back “Cerberus” formation but motion out Joe Mixon and learn that Houston is not bringing another man blitz when they line a corner up on him.

Then they run good ‘ol power to the boundary...

...and get stopped again.

The Sooners got exactly what they wanted here. Houston played their outside linebacker aggressively on the Joe Mixon screen with “three over two” on that side of the field. Oklahoma was running at advantage on the other side of the field and running on a 5’11”, 200 pound nickel rather than the Cougars’ 6’3”, 240 pound outside linebacker.

However, the Sooner pulling guard didn’t make contact on the middle linebacker but tried to help their slot receiver block Houston nickel Brandon Wilson (who had a huge game with 10 tackles). The middle linebacker then spilled the run outside and Wilson managed to get back across the slot receiver’s face and arrive along with free safety Kahlil Williams to make the stop at the line of scrimmage.

Still, the Sooners have another down with which to pick up a first and get this drive rolling again. They don’t waste much time getting set with tight end Mark Andrews and fullback/H-back Dmitri Flowers opposite twin receivers to try and beat the Cougars heads’ up. They run inside zone with the intention that Mixon can cut back behind the TE and FB and pick up the yardage:

Houston is bringing the nickel/mike blitz combination again, which results in a “three on two” for Brandon Wilson, the middle linebacker, and DE Cameron Malveaux against the left side of the Oklahoma line. Sooner left tackle Orlando Brown erases the middle linebacker but left guard Cody Ford whiffs on Malveaux and no one touches Wilson.

This results in Mixon getting forced back into the cutback lane in a real hurry, where he finds that Houston five-star freshman nose tackle Ed Oliver has obliterated right guard Alex Dalton. The Sooners are forced to punt.

That was it, the Sooners and Cougars went mano y mano on that drive and the result was a Cougar safety knocking Perine out of the game, their nickel beating a double team to make a stop on second and short, and then their freshman nose tackle dominating in the A-gap. After seeing that drive it would have been hard to project anything other than a Houston victory.

Then Houston capitalized with a soul-crushing touchdown drive

Things started well enough for Oklahoma as they forced a third and 10 to start the follow-up Houston possession, but then this happened.

The Cougars line up in a spread 2x2 which Oklahoma matches with what appears to be cover 4 but is revealed by their response to RB Duke Catalon’s motion to actually be a sort of blitz. As it turns out, the Sooners stunt two pass-rushers and drop nine into coverage, giving Ward all day to throw. He beats nickel Will Johnson with a back shoulder throw to Linell Bonner.

The drive continues and things start to look up for Oklahoma again with the Cougars soon facing a second and twenty three. They line up in a 3x2 empty formation, which the Sooners match by dropping eight into coverage and rushing three.

Again Ward has all day to throw and he finds a receiver isolated on the deep safety in wide open grass who’s able to get open in the six seconds that Ward had to throw that ball.

The drive inevitably ended in a touchdown and a 13-10 lead for the Cougars and the game was basically wrapped up.

There was still an ill-advised kick-six from Oklahoma and many other plays that went into this game’s outcome, but these two drives established Houston’s superiority in the box on defense and the inability of Oklahoma to control Greg Ward on passing downs.

Oklahoma was hesitant to even come back to the run game again and finished the day with 90 yards on only 21 carries (4.3 yards per carry) electing to lean on Baker Mayfield for their comeback efforts rather than the “Cerberus” split-back sets and option game. They essentially conceded the line of scrimmage to the mid-major.

Greg Ward Jr finished the day 9-11 on third downs throwing for 147 yards at 13.4 yards per attempt and converting on eight of those downs.

Oklahoma’s strengths were negated in this game while Houston’s strengths dictated the outcome. This wasn’t a mid-major getting a few breaks to go their way and besting a more talented squad, this was a mid-major throttling a traditional power. Of course it looks like Houston won’t be a mid-major much longer.

Welcome to the Big 12 Houston.