The headline matchup of this year’s Rose Bowl is unquestionably Baker Mayfield leading one of the most potent offenses in college football history against a very stout Georgia defense. I’ve detailed that matchup over at SB Main and it’s a very difficult one for the Bulldogs.
But the saving grace for Georgia may be that the bar for their defense may not be perfection or shutting down the Sooners, who’s own defense ranked 95th in S&P+ this season. The Sooners had a rough season on defense and whether or not a team with a defense ranked this poorly can win a title seems to be the bigger question for Oklahoma in these playoffs than whether anyone can stop Mayfield and the offense. If Georgia can just credibly slow down Oklahoma while lighting up the Sooner defense they can survive a strong Mayfield performance.
OU’s identity crises
The Sooners started off the year impressively on defense holding Ohio State to 16 points early in the year in Columbus. The secret to the Sooners’ success was basically outnumbering the run and daring the Buckeyes to throw the ball, which netted Ohio State only 5.2 yards per attempt as well as an INT and three sacks. The Buckeyes ran the ball pretty well overall but the Sooners were regularly able to force J.T. Barrett to keep the ball on the option and his 3.7 yards per carry couldn’t hurt the Sooners like J.K. Dobbins’ 5.5 per.
Then the Sooners got into Big 12 play and had to start facing spread passing attacks, which caused immense problems for their base 3-4 defense. OU’s DC Mike Stoops clearly hoped to make big sam linebacker Caleb Kelly into a terror in space off the edge this season but instead he was constantly scrambling to protect him from having to play coverage down the field. The Sooners are designed to get extra help against the run from his ability to come off the edge unblocked but this limited the Sooners both in how they could play coverage and where they could send help to outnumber the run.
Trips sets and four receiver formations really made this issue clear as they forced the Sooners into predictable coverages that could then be attacked with precise calls. For instance, Georgia motioning a flexed tight end from one side to the other would almost certainly lead to OU rotating into a matchup zone coverage to keep Kelly (S here) on the edge and not in coverage out wide against a top slot without safety help over the top.
This isn’t a bad base coverage for the Sooners, their strong safety Steven Parker is very strong in coverage on slot receivers but they didn’t always hold up very well in man coverage on the weak side (where Z is) and Baylor’s Denzel Mims went for 192 yards and three TDs on them playing coverage like this.
Perhaps worst of all, for all their trouble to keep Kelly on the field and on the edge, the Sooner linebacker finished seventh on the team in tackles and had only 3.5 tackles for loss, nine run stuffs, and but one sack. They experimented with a 4-2-5 nickel package and a 3-3-5 that kept Kelly on the field but all of their various packages often seemed to confuse their own players as much as the opponents, if not more.
The OU 4-2 nickel package would be better if they knew how to adjust to motion out of it... pic.twitter.com/WBjEDtdIEh— Ian Boyd (@Ian_A_Boyd) November 9, 2017
Ultimately the Sooners didn’t get much out of their base defense and strong collection of large and talented athletes up front by playing three linebackers. It was a very questionable strategy to begin with...
...but now they play an SEC offense.
For all the struggles that OU has had playing their base 4-3 defense, now they face off against an SEC team that likes to play one or two tight ends more often than not and run the ball downhill to lead backs Nick Chubb and Sonny Michel.
Their issues with cornerbacks getting picked on when opponents know they’ll be isolated in man coverage, predictable coverages, and a lack of pass-rush outside of star OLB Obo Okoronkwo are likely to be less relevant against a team that has averaged 18.8 passes and 45.5 runs per game with a freshman QB at the helm.
Georgia’s priority on offense will undoubtedly be to try and attack the Sooners’ defensive shortcomings while staying true to their philosophy of running the ball downhill to Chubb and Michel. They don’t want their ability to consistently block Okoronkwo in the pass-rush to be a major factor, nor for this to be the game where we find out what happens when Fromm attempts 30 or more passes.
There’s a chance they can pick on the Sooners for their youth up the middle and insistence on trying to play Kelly off the edge, other teams this season had success running away from Kelly:
Inside linebackers Emmanuel Beal and Kenneth Murray weren’t always in the right spots this year and the play in front of them along the DL was similarly inconsistent. Kansas State’s diverse run game sprung QB Alex Delton and RB Alex Barnes on a combined 250 yards and four rushing TDs on just 33 carries.
The saving grace for the Sooners in this contest is that Georgia is much simpler as a rushing team than Kansas State and their favorite play, inside zone, is vulnerable to the Sooners’ favorite front.
The challenge of this “tite” front, which uses a pair of 4i-technique DEs clogging up the B-gaps and then outside linebackers on the edges is that it makes it hard to run the ball downhill as the play is designed and either the sam linebacker or the mike can be a free hitter that the offense doesn’t block. Georgia has tended to handle that with either a Fromm keep option or a quick pass outside to the slot but the Sooners are hard to beat that way with strong safety Steven Parker dropping down. The senior is a pretty sure tackler and these options all involve giving the ball to someone other than Chubb or Michel which isn’t the preference in Athens.
There’s a chance Georgia mauls the OU defensive line and blows open holes up the middle anyways, or that they can use their supporting run plays to attack the edges or get OU from clogging up their inside zone play, but the strength of the Georgia offense is not in attacking a defensive front like this. Indeed, the Bulldogs use a similar scheme to clog the middle and free up Roquan Smith to run wild against opposing rushing attacks.
The Sooners have a large and talented if inconsistent defensive front and they’ll be keen to send numbers to stop the run and encourage Georgia to ask Jake Fromm to out duel Baker Mayfield in a shootout. If Georgia is going to rise above that and impose their will in the trenches then they’ll either have to slow down Mayfield or get going early on the ground in this game. That may be the battle to watch in this game.