I still can't help but laugh at the commenter who called me out for labeling Collin Klein as a 'Heisman contender.' The guy is on every analyst's Heisman ballot thru three weeks of the season and without question (at least in my own humble opinion) the most valuable player, to his team, in the entire country.
Anyway, this isn't going to be about that one commenter it's about what we can expect to see from Mike Stoops and the OU defense Saturday night.
The most obvious change, and one you've likely heard about by now, is how the Sooners are likely to play more of a 4-3 on run downs as opposed to their customary 4-2-5. Mike Stoops said earlier this week that Joseph Ibiloye and Aaron Franklin were the two most likely linebacker to fill that third spot. Ibiloye was a predictable choice as he's been the linebacker of choice in this formation when Oklahoma has employed it in the past. Franklin was a little surprising given his size (he's listed at 6'1" 212 lbs), but has been a player the coaches have spoken highly of in the past and received snaps in a reserve role through OU's first two games.
Personally, I'd love to see a linebacker unit of Jaydan Bird, Corey Nelson, and Tom Wort on obvious run downs. That would give you more size in the middle while still keeping both of your best playmakers are the linebacker position on the field. However, we know that won't be happening. Another option would be to leave Wort and Nelson in their usual spots, but utilize Frank Shannon (listed at 6'1" 230 lbs) at SAM just for a little more bulk to hold up against we all expect to be a stout K-State run game. But these types of things simply make too much sense.
The biggest factor I can see with respect to the Oklahoma linebackers in this game is to avoid getting sucked up into the wash. I think most of you know what I mean by that and are also familiar with the fact it has been an issue for this unit in the past. K-State is going to use a ton of play-action, both with Klein and their running backs, and if the OU linebackers are biting on it they could very easily take themselves out of play after play. Gap responsibility is one thing, and that will be key to be sure, but taking yourself out of a play by being too aggressive is another thing entirely.
So expect to see Nelson, Wort, and Ibiloye/Franklin though I do expect them to get help with an additional safety dropping down into the box. You might even see the Sooners employ something of a 4-4-3 formation at times. This will leave one deep safety, which could alternate between either Javon Harris and/or Tony Jefferson, but also putting corners Demontre Hurst and Aaron Colvin on an island with no help over the top.
Both Hurst and Colvin should be more than up to the task, but it does obviously leave the OU defense open to the big play should either get beaten deep. It will be critical for both not to get caught looking into the backfield, which I can guarantee you has been drilled into their heads all week in practice.
As important as it will be for Hurst and Colvin not to get caught staring into the K-State backfield, it will be even more critical that whoever is playing that deep safety role avoids doing so as well. We all know Javon Harris' struggles with this very thing in the past, but I don't think that means he is the safety down in the box every time. Jefferson thrives close to the line of scrimmage, so his playmaking ability will be needed throughout the game.
Kansas State is going to take some chances deep down the field and will very likely do so off of play-action. This isn't meant to disrespect the Kansas State wide receivers, as they definitely have some guys who can make plays, but it is a matchup where Oklahoma should hold an advantage. What cannot happen however is something that we have seen all to often in the past under Brent Venables.
And that is the OU corners lining up seven or eight yards off the line of scrimmage allowing the opposing offense to complete those way too easy short, quick passes, then ask their defense to "bow up" once their opponent gets close to scoring territory. Mainly because I suspect both Bill Snyder and Klein will be all too happy to take those all night long. For all that Collin Klein is, and that is a lot mind you, while improved he is still not a guy you fear consistently beating you with the forward pass. So if you make his job that much easier, by playing that far off his receivers, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Given what we expect K-State to do offensively on Saturday night, it's a little surprising that we're several hundred words into this and have yet to mention Oklahoma's front four. They'll certainly play a role Saturday night, they'll have to, but not one they are traditionally expected to play. There job will be much more about playing containment, eating up blockers, and to avoid getting too far up field (I'm looking at you R.J.!) thus creating run lanes for Klein.
Which is why getting Casey Walker back could play such a huge role Saturday night. With Walker's return, it allows Oklahoma to move David King, who at 280+ pounds, could not be a more perfect at defensive end for this type of game. A defensive front of King, Walker, Jamarkus McFarland, and R.J. Washington should, theoretically, hold up much better against a punishing K-State run game.
All that said, it's not as if the Sooners can simply forget about rushing the passer. As good as we believe Hurst and Colvin to be, even they cannot be asked to cover for extended periods of time. Getting that pass rush is a bit of a double edged sword however for the very reason we mentioned just a minute ago. If you get too far up field, Klein can bail on the pass play and simply take off with the ball. So, as we've seen in the past, Oklahoma will almost employ a duo role of pass rush/containment which typically will only lead to decent pressure on the quarterback with excellent coverage behind them. Thus only increasing the pressure on Hurst, Colvin, and the safeties to hold up in coverage.
So, what do all of those words mean? They mean, if Oklahoma wants to win this game they have to do the following:
- Avoid giving up the easy yards, especially by giving too big of a cushion in coverage thus allowing Klein to complete those short, easy passes.
- Avoid any busted coverages at all costs! Don't get caught looking in the backfield and allow a KSU receiver to get behind the defense.
- The front seven has to play disciplined. They cannot lose their gaps or overrun plays, creating lanes for Klein.
- Make Klein pay for every rush attempt. Nothing dirty mind you, just make him earn whatever he gets. Don't interpret this as expecting to knock him out of the game or anything, but those hits will take a toll and could lead to a poor pass or two.