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The Running Game Was Working and First Down Made a Difference

COLUMBIA MISSOURI - OCTOBER 23: Roy Finch #22 of the Oklahoma Sooners rushes against the Missouri Tigers at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium on October 23 2010 in Columbia Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA MISSOURI - OCTOBER 23: Roy Finch #22 of the Oklahoma Sooners rushes against the Missouri Tigers at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium on October 23 2010 in Columbia Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Missouri ran the ball 39 times, and passed it 42 times. That is almost a perfectly balanced ratio. Oklahoma passed the ball exactly twice as much as they ran it (50 passes to 25 rushes).

While Missouri was averaging a pretty ridiculous 4.6 yards per carry, Oklahoma was also averaging a respectable 4.0 yards per carry. And yet, the Sooners didn't get 100 yards on the ground. I wonder, if you search through the record books of college football, how many times a team has failed to rush for 100 yards, but averaged at least 4 yards per carry? Probably not often.

If you recall, Oklahoma was winning 21-20 with a touchdown at the 3:48 mark in the 3rd quarter. They held Missouri on the following drive, and then got the ball back. Here's what followed:

1st and 10 at OKLA 20 Roy Finch rush for 1 yard to the Okla 21. 21 20
2nd and 9 at OKLA 21 Landry Jones pass complete to Roy Finch for 1 yard to the Okla 22.    
  End of 3rd Quarter

3rd and 8 at OKLA 22 Landry Jones pass incomplete to Brandon Caleb. 21 20
4th and 8 at OKLA 22 Tress Way punt for 50 yards, downed at the Missouri 28.

This was where the running game died. They ran the ball once on 1st down, and never looked back. After punting, Missouri did drive down and score a touchdown, but they failed to convert a 2 point conversion. So the Sooners were down by 5 with 12 minutes and 36 seconds remaining.

The very next drive Landry Jones was intercepted on a pass on 1st down. Perhaps this was because it was a route they had thrown so often - that little flare route where a FB, TE, or RB runs a little out route parallel to the line of scrimmage about 3-4 yards upfield. It could be because Landry was telegraphing his passes. Whatever the case was, the "short passing game equals a running game" theory did not work. Missouri knew what to expect, and to their credit they jumped all over a pass route that the Sooners seem to incorporate on half their plays.

Even despite this failure, the defense held Missouri to a field goal. It was an 8 point game with 9:44 remaining. At this point, you thought that Gary Pinkel's decision to go for 2 on the last drive was looking pretty stupid, because that was the only thing that was keeping it at a 1 possession game. Here's what followed from the Sooners:

1st and 10 at OKLA 20 Landry Jones pass incomplete to DeMarco Murray. 21 29
2nd and 10 at OKLA 20 DeMarco Murray rush for 5 yards to the Okla 25.    
3rd and 5 at OKLA 25 Landry Jones pass incomplete to Kenny Stills.    
4th and 5 at OKLA 25 Tress Way punt for 51 yards, downed at the Missouri 24.

After a first down passing play in which Landry was clearly flustered and basically threw the ball away, DeMarco Murray had a 5 yard run. On 3rd down, Landry threw to a well-covered Kenny Stills, and Oklahoma had squandered a precious opportunity to drive down the field, give the defense a rest, and equalize the score. However, as we know, the rest is history.

But why not just open up with a lot of running plays? Missouri hadn't shown they could stop the run, particularly on 1st down. By my calculations, Landry was 11-21 for just 77 yards and 2 interceptions with no touchdowns on first downs. Meanwhile, the Sooners had a ton of success running the ball on first down. Despite only 13 attempts in such situations, they rushed for 59 yards and 1 touchdown. That's a 4.5 yard per carry average on 1st downs. 

Coming into this game, the Sooners ran the ball way more often on 1st down than they passed it. Landry only had 94 passing attempts on first down, while OU ran the ball 131 times on first down. It was almost a complete reversal of the trends for the season in this game. Why is it that Landry attempted over 40% of his passes on first down against Missouri, and achieved 22.3% of his season total in first down pass attempts in one game

The season average going into Columbia for rushing on first down was 3.8 yards per carry, by far their best average of any down. In fact, just about 1 out of every 10 first down rushes had gone for more than 10 yards! 

But I digress. You obviously need to mix things up, or you get predictable. But, when the Sooners commit to the run, they have success. It's pretty simple. One of the easiest theories to understand is that if you are successful on 1st down, you are likely to be that much more successful on 2nd down, and 3rd down. Even if you only get 2 or 3 yards on a 1st down run, a 2nd and 7 is much more manageable than a 2nd and 10. 

My point is that the Sooners got away from what had worked for them all season in this game against Missouri. And they didn't just deviate from that plan a little bit, they completely flipped some trends that had been in place all season! Why? Why would you do that? You have three, count them THREE, running backs averaging at least 4 yards per carry this season with at least 15 attempts. Most teams would kill for that! It just doesn't make any sense to me. 

The problem, I think, is that Kevin Wilson designed this new style of offense around uber-stud quarterback Sam Bradford who was basically a machine. Don't get me wrong, I think that Landry is a very good collegiate quarterback, but I also think that Sam was in a class of his own. Meanwhile, you have a stable of amazing running backs. The good news is you don't have to change the style of offense (hurry-up, no huddle) to run the ball. In fact, I would imagine that running the ball would be more effective in that style of offense. The defense will be struggling to catch their breath and it would be easier for the offensive line to open up holes, the running backs to blow guys over, etc.

So consider this a plea from me, Kevin Wilson, to recommit to the run. You have some absolutely amazing running backs. Feed them the ball, or else the defense will just pin their ears back like they did in Missouri.