Oklahoma's defensive task got a little easier this week when Vols coach Butch Jones announced on Monday that receiver Von Pearson would not be available. That said, the Sooners defensive back will still be pressed against a talented group of Tennessee receivers that could still be the best group OU has faced this season.
The passing game is the strength of the Tennessee offense with the Vols are seventh in the SEC in passing yards per game and tenth in the rush. This means for the second week in a row defending the pass is the top priority for Oklahoma's defense. Here's what you can expect from Oklahoma's game plan.
Push back the line of scrimmage. It isn't enough just to hold their ground. Jordan Phillips and company must push an inexperienced Tennessee offensive line back on every down. Doing so will not only limit what the Vols can do in their rushing attack, it will also be disruptive to their passing game by flushing quarterback Justin Worley from the pocket and forcing him to make a decision on the run.
Contain on the edges. Worley isn't just a guy who lives in the pocket and, while he's also not Vince Young, the Sooners should plan as if he were a dual-threat guy. He absolutely has the ability to make plays with his feet and has even proven so this season with with a rushing TD. Charles Tapper and Chuka Ndulue can't get caught crashing in because if Worley were to escape he could certainly head up field for some positive yards.
Make the Vols' offense one dimensional. Oklahoma will aim to do this by shutting down freshman running back Jalen Hurd who is averaging 3.3 yards per carry through the first two games. If the Sooners can shut him down without committing from the secondary then it leaves OU with a full compliment of personnel to blitz and defend the pass.
Don't get beat in one-on-one coverage. This is where the rubber meets the road in Saturday's game. All reports are indicating that corner Zack Sanchez will play in this game, which is huge for the defense, but even at that the Sooners have to be able to account for Tennessee's receivers.
Marquez North is a 6-4/221 receiver and he leads the Vols with 8 receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns. All of those are team highs and add to the fact that North is a one-on-one nightmare. Oklahoma fans are high on freshman corner Jordan Thomas but can you imagine to potential headache of him having to cover North is Sanchez is unavailable?
Stopping Tennessee's air attack will be the name of the game for Oklahoma's defense on Saturday night and to do so is a three-step process. They have to stop the run, first and foremost, and do it without committing any additional personnel. This all but eliminates the effectiveness of the play-action on passing downs. On paper this seems to be a task that's within reach for the Sooners but as the saying goes, "they don't play games on paper." Then they have to shorten the time that Justin Worley has to throw the ball by pushing the offensive line back and using the blitz effectively. If they can do those first two things consistently then it will make winning those one-on-one matchups (the third factor in stopping the pass) so much easier because it limits the time that Oklahoma's defensive backs will have to cover.