Praise the universe, Sooner gameday is finally upon us. We've all been very impatiently awaiting this day for months. As you surely know by now, the storyline for today is: can a well-coached, up-and-coming Houston team with a star quarterback topple the Sooners (who should be more physically dominant on paper) and continue their rise up the college football hierarchy. That certainly will be one of the takeaways from today’s game, but there are a lot of other things going on that you’ll want to pay attention to in this one. Before you get set to watch the first big football game of 2016, here are some notes:
When Oklahoma has the ball:
- The biggest factor for OU's offense will be its ability to win on the line of scrimmage. I saw 3 games last year where the OU O-Line was outplayed: Tennessee, UT, and Clemson. OU scored 17 ppg in those 3 games (not counting overtime against Tennessee). In the rest of their games, OU averaged 50.1 ppg. OU's offense needs blocking to get the job done, plain and simple. Meanwhile, Houston's front 7 is the strength of its defense. This is the most important key to victory for Oklahoma. Look for Houston to try a lot of scheming up front to penetrate OU's offensive line. That offensive line needs to be ready, and they could make mistakes at this point in the season.
- Expect OU to attack down the field on some passes. Houston's replacing most of its secondary, and through camp OU has been talking about the ability of some new receivers to make plays deep. This could be a big game for Dede Westbrook if Mayfield can connect with him.
- Another major key to this game will be turnovers. Last season Houston had huge success here, with a +21 turnover margin. Oklahoma wasn't too shabby in this regard, either, ending the year at +9. Both teams have a tendency to get interceptions but not throw many. If the young Houston defensive backs can get a few turnovers, that could go a long way toward building Houston momentum. If OU can avoid costly turnovers, though, that will eliminate a huge factor in Houston's success. For reference, Houston had two games last year with a negative turnover margin. While it didn't cost them against Tulane, their -4 margin against UCONN was the biggest factor in their only loss of the season. Against a FSU team that perhaps had better athletes, Houston finished the game +4 walked away with a big-time bowl win.
When Houston has the ball:
- Even though Greg Ward, Jr. has reportedly grown a lot as a passer during the off-season, don't expect Houston to attack down the field too often. Houston's offense (at least last year) simply doesn't rely on the deep ball to get points. They'll probably try to stick to short/medium throws and hope a receiver can make a play with the ball. OU's secondary has a history of playing soft coverage, so hopefully they'll be able to close on the receiver before Oklahoma suffers a death by a thousand paper-cuts.
- Speaking of Ward, I've been watching his highlight reels lately. There's absolutely no doubt that he's fast, and he's got a knack for dodging tacklers in the pocket (and down the field if you let him get there). That being said, his highlight reel actually made me feel better about this game for OU. While Ward has a habit of getting away from defenders, he usually gets away by only a few inches, and the defenders actually had a chance to get him more often than not. Add that to the fact that most of his truly dynamic plays came against teams like Temple and Rice (no offense, Temple and Rice), and what you end up with is this: if the OU front 7 can be just a tiny bit better at making tackles on Ward, a lot of the plays that made the highlight reel in 2015 can turn into sacks.
- Part of being a tiny bit better than Temple and Rice means that the defensive line will have to avoid over-pursuit. If they get too far into the backfield, that will open up nice little holes for Ward to exploit. They also need to stay at home on the read-option. With relatively inexperienced outside linebackers, this could be tricky for Oklahoma. Hopefully this has been a serious area of focus for the Sooners leading up to today, since running quarterbacks gave them a particular amount of trouble at times last season, particularly against Texas and Clemson. Ward isn’t as big as the quarterbacks they faced in those games, but he’s also faster. If Ward can find a hole, expect him to pick up 5-8 yards almost every time. That could break the Oklahoma defense.
- Ward isn't the only part of the Houston offense, though. Duke Catalon, who transferred from Texas and sat out last year, hasn't played a college game yet, but he was the 10th rated running back coming out of high school. After red-shirting at Texas and then sitting last season, he's had two years in college programs to train, so even though he's inexperienced in actual games, don't expect him to be too raw. OU will have their hands full on the read-option plays Houston runs.
When neither team technically has the ball:
- The one position group with no returning starters for OU is the kick or punt returners. It looks like Jarvis Baxter will be returning punts, while Joe Mixon and Daniel Brooks will attempt kickoff returns. While none of them have return experience for OU, this does have potential to be an exciting group for the Sooners this season. Baxter has speed and certainly looks the part of a punt return, and I’m happy that Mixon and Brooks are each getting more opportunities to make plays.
- For Houston’s part, field position was a strength of theirs in Tom Herman’s first year (finishing in the top 20 in field position margin), so it will be interesting to see which team can win the battle to make the field shorter for themselves in a game where every score could matter. While OU returns their excellent punter, Houston has lost theirs, so that should be an advantage for the Sooners, but only time will tell.
In the end:
Oklahoma may start slowly, as they often do in season openers, but the Sooners were dominant in the second and third quarters of games last season. We’ll see if they continue that trend as they try to hold Houston’s offense at bay. If they can’t get things going fast enough, they could find themselves too far behind to catch up. If they click early, though, they should be able to keep Houston at bay.