For the second time already this season, Oklahoma is getting ready to suit up against a top-tier opponent in non-conference play. After starting the season 1-1, the Sooners know the margin from error the rest of the year is just about zero if they want to have any chance of making the playoffs. Their opponent—the Ohio State Buckeyes—comes in to Norman 2-0 after bouts with Bowling Green and Tulsa.
But this game isn’t just another interesting non-conference game. The Buckeyes and Sooners are ranked #1 and #2, respectively, in the AP Poll all-time rankings. Both teams are eyeing a return to the College Football Playoffs. It’s Bob Stoops vs. Urban Meyer, a rematch of the coaching dual from the 2008-2009 BCS National Championship game (man, don’t you miss the BCS? No? Me either). The game is also the world’s first major introduction to the renovated Owen Stadium (since last week’s game was pay-per-view), and boy will there be important people in attendance. The Sooners will be hosting one of their most impressive lists of official visitors in recent memory. Word has it that even Donald Trump will be in attendance. Pretty much everyone except College Gameday will be there. It will be wild.
So let’s get to the actual football. Here’s what I’ll be watching and my keys to the game. Keep in mind that Houston’s coach—Tom Herman—is an Urban Meyer protege, so if you want to figure out what kind of things OSU likes to do, watch Houston.
1. Stop the pass-rush: On offense, the offensive line is going to be crucial. If you watched Baker Mayfield play against Louisiana Monroe, you may have noticed that he played much better than he did against Houston. If you watched Baker Mayfield play against ULM closely, you’ll notice that a big reason for the improvement is that Mayfield looked awfully comfortable sitting in the pocket, free from the worries that accompany a great pass rush. Houston caused problems for Oklahoma, and it resulted in the same mistakes that Mayfield made against Texas and Clemson last year. If he’s under too much pressure, defenses can get Mayfield antsy, and his accuracy declines as the likelihood for an interception increases. Mayfield is not one to make mistakes (just look at his stats from last year), but pressure from a good pass rush can change that. Mayfield needs help from the offensive line to be the Baker Mayfield that Sooner fans have come to love. Meanwhile, the Buckeye defense is young and hungry. Though they return only six starters across both sides, Urban Meyer has an ability to reload that’s as good as any other coach in the country. Expect the pass rush to be aggressive. However, there’s a chance that the young players won’t have as much experience with complicated pass rush maneuvers that an experience front seven like the one Houston has threw at Oklahoma. That could help the Sooner’s offensive line keep the talented pass rushers at bay. If Oklahoma wants to win this game, it’s going to have to to just that.
2. Use your talent: Something else the Sooners need to do if they’d like to score some points today is utilize the creative options that their personnel gives them. I’m talking specifically about the backfield. Last week against ULM, for example, the Sooners had a drive that went like this (in order): Mixon 13-yard rush, pass attempt to Mixon, Perine five-yard rush, pass attempt to Dimitri Flowers, Perin six-yard rush, touchdown pass to Flowers. On six consecutive plays, the Sooners utilized their talented backs to move down the field in ways that kept the defense off-balance. The Ohio State defense is athletic, but the Sooners’ backfield provides ample mismatch opportunities. Oklahoma needs to take advantage of that more than they did against Houston, when Mayfield had more rush attempts than both Mixon and Perine.
3. Stop Barrett: On defense, Ohio State reminds me quite a bit of Clemson. J.T. Barrett is a good passer, but he’s also a good runner. He’s also a big quarterback that can make defenders pay for poor tackling form. The Sooners have struggled against running quarterbacks (particularly big ones), and Ohio State will surely be trying to take advantage of that. Oklahoma did a good job keeping Houston’s Greg Ward from picking up big yards, but they did miss tackles and allow him to find an open receiver. Oklahoma will need to be better against Barrett. The linebackers will need to make the tackles when they rush. Barrett can absolutely throw the ball, but the Ohio State wide receivers shouldn’t be a big mismatch for OU’s secondary. Their best bet in this game is to keep Barrett in the pocket and see if you can make a play on the pass, rather than risking his great running ability.
4. The “other” corner: Jordan Thomas will be playing cornerback for Oklahoma today—that much we know. What we don’t know is who will be playing cornerback on the other side. It’s fully expected that Parish Cobb will be getting the start, and reports are that he’s looked good in practice this week. However, that doesn’t mean that he’ll be playing the entire game, as he may have a short leash from coaches. This position has been a glaring weakness for the Sooner defense through two games, and to the extent Ohio State thinks it has a mismatch against the defense, it’s probably at this spot. Expect Ohio State to attack Cobb’s side of the field. If they’re successful, you may see “Cobb’s side” belong to someone else. Either way, the corner playing opposite of Thomas is going to be a major factor in the game.
5. Who will be stepping up?: The Sooners have had two games to try to piece together their game plan moving forward. Fortunately for the staff, last week’s contest gave them the opportunity to showcase some of the young talent on the roster. Players like Neville Gallimore, Mykel Jones, and Caleb Kelly got to play, and they played very well. Several players who were getting hype in the off-season gave the world plenty of reasons to think they should be getting playing time in serious games. The coaches will be looking to capitalize on every advantage they’ll have, and that may mean taking a look at some young talent that is just too good to keep sitting on the bench.
Ultimately, this has the potential to be a wild game. Both teams need the win—especially the Sooners. If OU can come out on top with these five areas of the game, that should give them enough to win. Now buckle up; it’s gonna be fun.