Out of all the folklore in college football, the history of “Bedlam” is probably my favorite. As legend has it, the first game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State occurred on November 6, 1904 in the small town of Guthrie, Oklahoma on a small field known then as Island Park. At the time, Oklahoma was not yet a state, OSU was Oklahoma A&M, and every player played both ways. At one point during the game when Oklahoma A&M was punting, the wind carried the ball backwards behind the punter into a half-frozen creek. In an effort to recover the ball, players of both teams jumped in the creek and an Oklahoma player ended up coming up with the ball, resulting in a touchdown. This play set the tone for the day (Oklahoma won 75-0) and the rivalry as a whole (Oklahoma owns an 86-18-7 record in Bedlam).
As we look to Bedlam 2017, I think we all know that Baker Mayfield would be the one who would come away with the football if it plummeted into a half-frozen creek. In this year’s edition of Bedlam, the No. 5 Oklahoma Sooners face off against the No. 11 Oklahoma State Cowboys in Stillwater. Oklahoma carries a three-game winning streak into the contest and likely controls its own destiny in terms of the College Football Playoff and the Big 12 championship. As for Mason Rudolph and co., they likely need a lot of other teams to lose to have any shot at the CFP. In short, the Bedlam showdown will have major implications for the Big 12 title race and the College Football Playoff race.
Here are some of the keys to the game for both teams:
Make Mason Rudolph uncomfortable
Over the last two games, Oklahoma State star QB Mason Rudolph has struggled a bit. After being in the 80’s and 90’s in terms of adjusted QBR for the first six games of the season, Rudolph’s adjusted QBR dipped to 62.5 against Texas and 78.6 against West Virginia. I know that analytics do not tell the whole story, but it is obvious by looking at this dip that something is up with Mason Rudolph. There are some rumors that he is suffering from an undisclosed injury that is hurting his play, especially on throws down the field.
This all means that Rudolph will likely not be at 100% for Bedlam, which the Oklahoma defense has to capitalize on. They need to bring exotic blitzes from the start of the game and successfully utilize a four-man front like they did against Texas Tech. As we saw against the Red Raiders, the Oklahoma defense was able to stifle the running game while also making Nick Shimonek uncomfortable in the pocket with their four-man front. To add to this, the Oklahoma State offensive line has struggled this year so this is definitely a matchup I could see Obo and co. exploiting.
As good as guys like James Washington, Marcell Ateman, and Jalen McCleskey are for the Cowboys, they can be slowed down if Mason Rudolph doesn’t have time to throw in the pocket. In order to make this happen, everyone on the defense has to step up. The corners have to play aggressive coverage, the safeties have to help over the top, and guys like D.J. Ward and Caleb Kelly have to help Obo get pressure on Rudolph. If the Sooners can limit big plays and hold the pokes somewhere in the 21-28 point range, then Baker Mayfield and his guys can likely take care of the rest.
Connect on the deep ball
Speaking of Baker Mayfield, in order to keep up with the Poke’s scoring attack, he will have to start connecting on more deep balls. Against Texas Tech, Mayfield posted his lowest adjusted QBR(72.6) of the season and missed some throws he usually makes with ease. To put this number in perspective, Mayfield is typically in the low 90’s in terms of adjusted QBR. This not only shows how exceptional Mayfield is but also how his numbers took a significant dip against Texas Tech. I think this comes down to two things: Mayfield is still dealing with the shoulder injury he suffered against Texas and still needs time to get on the same page with his deep threat receivers.
Mayfield still needs time to get on the same page with his deep threat receivers because this is his first season playing with all three of them(Marquise Brown, Jeff Badet, Ceedee Lamb). As the season progresses, Mayfield should continue to get his timing down with all three of these receivers. There really is no way to improve timing with receivers other than game and practice reps throughout the season. We saw this in 2015 with Sterling Shepard and in 2016 with Deedee Westbrook. As the season went on, Mayfield got more comfortable with both players and was able to start hitting them on deeper routes. The same should be the case for Brown, Badet and Lamb. I expect Mayfield to connect on a couple deep balls in bedlam, which will open up the offense even more. If Mayfield is able to get a couple big plays down the field, it could be a long night for the Pokes on their home turf.
Keep the ground game going
Against West Virginia last Saturday, Oklahoma State backs J.D. King and Justice Hill rushed for a combined 228 yards on the ground. This ground game wore out the West Virginia defense en route to a 50-39 victory for the Cowboys. If Oklahoma State is able to run the ball effectively against the Oklahoma front seven, then it could also carry them to a victory.
As it stands right now, Oklahoma rush defense ranks 44th nationally and has allowed an average of 142.5 yards per game. This means that Oklahoma is certainly vulnerable to the running game, as we saw against Texas Tech in the first quarter, and Kansas State for the first half of the game. If Oklahoma State can exploit this weakness and wear down the Sooner defense with their rushing attack, it could be a long night for the big boys up front. Look for Oklahoma State to run it a lot early on and try and duplicate what some other big 12 teams have done to the Sooners.
Make the Oklahoma offense one dimensional
Despite not being ranked as a great defense overall this season, Oklahoma State boasts a solid run defense. On the year, their rush defense is ranked 26th in the FBS, only giving up an average of 3.26 yards per rush. The rotation of Vili Leveni, DeQuinton Osborne, Darrion Daniels and Cole Walterscheid have been stout all season. The group does a great job plugging gaps in the run game on the inside and controlling the edge on the outside.
If the Cowboys are able to do this against the Sooner rushing attack, then they could at least slow down the Sooner offense. As good as Mayfield has been, he has shown that he struggles at times when 8 guys drop into coverage. This happened against Iowa State. In that game, the Sooners abandoned the running game late in the game and forced Baker to throw into eight-man coverage.
Like the Ohio State game, this is truly a strength vs. strength matchup. The Oklahoma offensive line has done a great job all season opening up holes in the run game and seems to have really hit their stride over the last couple of weeks. If the trio of Rodney Anderson, Abdul Adams, and Trey Sermon can run at will against the Cowboys, then they will likely be in deep trouble.
Unfortunately for the sanity of Sooner fans, I predict that this game will turn into a shootout. Against a high-powered offense, I think the Oklahoma defense will struggle. I see the defense creating a couple of turnovers but otherwise failing to stop Mason Rudolph and the Oklahoma State wideouts. I see Baker having a huge night and the Sooners winning a tight game.
Oklahoma 44, Oklahoma State 41