This Saturday, Mike Gundy brings his mullet and his 9-2 Cowboys into Norman to face off against the Sooners in a Bedlam match-up that will determine the Big 12 champion for the second consecutive year. Here are some things to keep an eye on during the game, as well as our keys for the Sooners if they want to come away victorious.
The points will come by air…
With apologies to Patrick Mahomes, we could very well see the Big 12’s top two quarterbacks square off on Saturday. Baker Mayfield is getting serious Heisman hype once again, and it’s more than deserved. The junior leads the nation in yards-per-attempt, leads all Power 5 players in completion percentage, and is on pace to set the all-time record for passing efficiency.
Mason Rudolph leads Oklahoma State, and he’s certainly no slouch, either. He leads Mayfield in passing yards, and while his 25 touchdowns fall ten short of the Sooner signal-caller, he’s only thrown four interceptions all year (Mayfield has twice as many). Sooner fans who think this year will be a repeat of 2015 would do well to remember that Rudolph essentially missed the entire game a year ago, and he brings a much more consistent passing threat than J.W. Walsh.
Both men will have big-time targets trying to haul in their passes. The Sooners, of course, are led in this regard by Dede Westbrook, who, like Mayfield, is a contender for the Heisman Trophy. Oklahoma State’s James Washington only barely missed the cutoff for being named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, though, and he’s nearly Westbrook’s equal in big-play ability. Both receivers average a cool 19.3 yards per catch, so look for them to try to make big things happen, especially against secondaries which have both struggled at times this year.
…and also by land.
For as much as you hear about the quarterbacks and receivers in this game, you could be forgiven if you forgot that these teams can run the football, too. The Sooners have what may be the nation’s best duo in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Against Oklahoma State, both backs could top 100 yards for the third consecutive week. The Cowboys rank in the bottom half of the conference in yards-per-attempt, and are worse in that regard than both Baylor and West Virginia, and the Sooner’s duo lit up both those teams on the ground. Look for OU to lean on the running game, especially if they can grab the lead early.
OSU doesn’t have the ground-game talent the Sooners do, but they’ve been hitting their stride a bit recently. Chris Carson has emerged as an excellent complement to Justice Hill, and last week the pair combined for 300 yards on the ground against TCU, whose run defense is better than that of the Sooners. Speaking of the Sooner defense — they’ve allowed just as many yards-per-carry (4.5) as OSU has, so both teams should be able to establish the run if they choose.
The points will also come early
I mean early in the day. Once again, Oklahoma has been dealt an early start, though this one is set for 11:30, not 11:00. Honestly, I don’t know how much that will really impact the players. One thing that does tend to appear in early starts, on the other hand, is a more lethargic crowd. Saturday morning in Norman looks to be rainy and a little cold. Given that it’s an in-state rivalry game with so much on the line, I still think the crowd will be energetic, but if they’re a little quieter early, that could only help OSU. We’ll see. This could be nothing, but it could also be something. Sports are strange.
Coming in hot
Both teams are riding big win streaks (OU has won eight in a row while OSU has reeled off seven straight). Both teams are also coming off a bye week, so they should be fairly fresh for a game this late in the season. The break came at a nice time for the Cowboys, who regain a starter on the offensive line from an injury as well as a starter on the defensive line who returns from suspension. The Sooners also badly needed the break to allow Jordan Evans some time to recover after injuring his hamstring a few weeks ago. According to Bob Stoops, Evans will likely play on Saturday. Unfortunately for OU, it doesn’t look like defensive back Will Johnson will be back yet.
Despite the few injuries that the bye week couldn’t fix, both these teams should be as close as they’re going to get to being their “best selves” on Saturday. Oklahoma hasn't faced another team with as much momentum as these Cowboys, and ruining their day early should be high on Lincoln Riley's list of priorities if OU wants to win this game.
Matchup to watch: Jalen McClesky vs. the Oklahoma secondary
We've mentioned Cowboy receiver James Washington already, and if you follow college football closely you've probably heard a lot more about him. The truth of the matter is that he's probably going to get "his." Oklahoma allowed Baylor wideout K.D. Cannon 122 yards and two touchdowns. TCU's leading receiver, Taj Williams, recorded his best game of the season against the Sooners (210 yards, two touchdowns). Texas Tech's top pass-catcher is Jonathan Giles, and he also recorded two touchdowns against OU to go along with his 167 yards. I imagine the list probably goes on like this, but I'm not having fun looking these up, so I'm going to stop here.
The point is that expecting Washington to get shut down is unrealistic. However, Washington isn't the only receiving threat the Pokes have; McCleskey actually has more catches on the year (67), and has seven touchdowns of his own. McCleskey can also be a big-play threat, and the two times this year he's averaged more than twenty yards-per-catch, OSU scored 44 and 49 points and came away with wins. Washington is likely going to get quite a bit of attention from the OU safeties, which means that it could be mostly up to the cornerbacks to win the man coverage match-ups against McCleskey, something they've struggled with at times. Whether it's Jordan Thomas or Jordan Parker, how they fare against McCleskey could be the difference between allowing 35 points and giving up 45 points. In the Big 12, that's often the difference between a win and a loss.
Keys to the game
1) Hold the line
There are two Baker Mayfields: the one who is comfortable in the pocket and winds up on highlight films, and the one who is constantly pressured and winds up making poor decisions. Against Houston and Ohio State, we saw a lot of the latter version, and the Sooners lost both games. The same holds true with both of Oklahoma's losses a year ago. Mayfield has a well-known ability to escape pursuers and make things happen, but if he has to do that all game, something bad's bound to happen eventually. Just like Mayfield, some of the success expected from Perine and Mixon has a lot to do with the line. If either back is able to build up a bit of momentum, the chances of bringing them down early go from small to non-existent.
The line will be especially important against a Cowboys squad that has the ability to bring pressure up the middle, a big blow to any offense's scheme. In fact, OSU's sack leader is actually a defensive tackle (Vincent Taylor); that's pretty rare. If Oklahoma State feels that it can get good pressure on Mayfield, or good penetration in the run game, without having to bring extra rushers, that will allow them to play more comfortably in the secondary. I've long said that the only way to have a chance at beating this OU team is to win the battle at the line of scrimmage consistently. If Oklahoma can stop their in-state rivals from doing that, they’ll win going away.
2) Don't turn it over
Don't look now, but a convincing win against West Virginia two weeks ago would look a lot less convincing had West Virginia not committed several costly turnovers deep in OU territory. The Sooners shouldn't expect those kinds of gifts from Oklahoma State. While Oklahoma State has lost ten fumbles this year, fumbles always involve a bit of luck because the ball can bounce any number of ways. The Cowboys rank #12 in turnover margin at +9, and no team in the top twenty has a higher percentage of turnovers that were the result of fumbles (which, again, often involve a little bad luck). Oklahoma has picked off opposing quarterbacks only eight times all year, and Rudolph is unlikely to give them a lot of chances to add to that number on Saturday.
Luckily for the Sooners, they don't necessarily need to create a lot of turnovers. The Sooners sit at 9-2 on the season despite a +0 turnover margin. Of teams in the AP Poll top 10, only Clemson and U.S.C. rank worse (-1 and -2, respectively). Oklahoma can win games at the pace it does, despite a lack of turnovers generated, because they've got great talent (especially on offense). That being said, their two losses this season each featured an important drive that was stopped by a costly turnover. Against Houston, Oklahoma lost out on a chance to close the gap when Jarvis Baxter fumbled in enemy territory. Houston scored a touchdown on the drive that followed. Against Ohio State, Oklahoma's attempt to tie the game 7-7 ended with an interception returned 68 yards to instead make the score 14-0. Oklahoma can score with anyone in the country, but its defense isn't good enough to stop opponents all game if the offense forfeits scoring drives by turning the ball over.
There's a reason the Sooners opened at 14.5 point favorites; their talent level meets or exceeds OSU's at almost every position. As long as the offense doesn't shoot itself in the foot, the Sooners should get to enjoy a Big 12 Championship celebration on their home field for the first time.
We covered it here, but tackling has been an issue for the Sooner defense all season. In fact, both of K.D. Cannon's aforementioned touchdowns came after missed tackles. While OU may miss some plays in coverage, and while they may struggle to get off blocks, there are still few offenses capable of putting up enough points on this defense to go toe-to-toe with OU's offense. As long as the Sooners don't miss tackles that turn decent gains into long touchdowns, I don't think Oklahoma State has one of those offenses. They've had a week off to rest, and I really hope they used some of that time to watch film of Alabama's tackling form. If they tackle decently well, they should be able to keep the Cowboys off the board enough to walk away happy.
As good as Oklahoma State is, and as much as Gundy may say they're "really" a one-loss team, Oklahoma has the better team in this one. Add in that it's a home game, and OU's advantage looks a bit better. Barring big-time mistakes (NO RE-PUNTS AT THE END OF THE GAME, PLEASE), the Sooners should win this one. Look for Mayfield, Westbrook, Perine, and Mixon to all have good games. A good performance by Rudolph won't be enough.
My crimson glasses are feeling good right about now. OU wins 47-36.
For the next few months, we are creating #Strangewiches, unexpectedly delicious sandwiches that embody the spirit and culture of your favorite college town that you can't find on a menu anywhere! For the University of Oklahoma, our friends at SB Nation and Eater helped select the best ingredients to create the BEST, and most strange, #Strangewich for your tailgate in Norman. Ingredients below!
Oklahoma [Chicken-fried steak sandwich: chicken-fried steak, chipotle mayo, creamed corn, green onion biscuit]