Three of the four College Football Playoff teams are led by their defenses, while the Oklahoma Sooners are the offensive machine of the field. With elite play-caller Lincoln Riley orchestrating the show, and headlined by Baker Mayfield, the likely Heisman Trophy winner, the 2017 OU offense has yet to be stymied. Now, the show must go on against a truly formidable challenger:
Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs boast one of the most respected defensive units in the entire country. UGA has taken pride in thwarting opposing offenses this season, both with its defense as well as its own offense —which eats up plenty clock. I expect Georgia will want to play ball control, especially if the game is close or if they have a lead in the second half, in order to keep Mayfield and the dangerous Sooner offense sidelined.
If you’re looking for a couple of Georgia difference makers to watch out for in the Rose Bowl, then look no further than the 2017 Butkus Award-winning linebacker Roquan Smith and stud sophomore safety J.R. Reed. Smith leads UGA in tackles and sacks while Reed has forced three turnovers and is the Bulldogs’ second-leading tackler. Much like the rest of Georgia’s defense, this dynamic duo plays a punishing style of football:
8 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, ☝️ fumble recovery for a TD.— Georgia Football (@FootballUGA) October 31, 2017
J.R. Reed - SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week pic.twitter.com/qZBHk6ShoY
Defensively, the Bulldogs rank fourth in the country in both total yards and points per game with 271 yards and 13.2 points respectively. Those two figures cannot be overstated, even though the majority of the offenses Georgia has faced do not rank anywhere near Oklahoma’s. The two most prolific offenses UGA has defended so far this season are Missouri and Auburn. Neither are quite like what UGA is about to see on New Year’s Day in terms of both style and efficiency, but it’s best to look at these games to get a feel for what they might be able to do against Oklahoma.
Against Mizzou, which finished the regular season averaging 512 yards and 39.3 points per game, the Bulldogs gave up 312 yards and 28 points. Part of that drop in productivity should be credited to Georgia’s defense, but Georgia’s offense also deserves credit. UGA won the time of possession battle against Mizzou by holding the ball for over 19 minutes longer than the Tigers. Keeping Missouri’s high-powered offense on the sideline attributed to Georgia’s defensive statistics as much as anything else.
Now, this is not to say that the Missouri Tigers were not successful when they had the ball. On back-to-back possessions, Missouri scored on 63-yard touchdown passes. It’s only a coincidence that both plays went for the same yardage and between the same two players, but what isn’t a mere happenstance is how each of the plays were executed. Take a closer look at how Tigers’ QB Drew Lock found WR Emanuel Hall deep down the field on two separate plays:
The main difference between the two plays was the timing in which the QB had to throw the ball. In the first play, Georgia’s front seven could not generate enough pressure on Lock, therefore allowing him to let Hall’s route develop. Like Baker Mayfield, Lock has great arm strength. With an accurate pass, the end result is an explosive play for a touchdown.
In the second of the two plays, the Bulldogs were able to generate a little more pressure in a shorter amount of time. The Tigers’ were ready for it, as Lock pulled the trigger quickly and found an open Hall streaking down the sideline, resulting in yet another 63-yard bomb.
The key for Oklahoma’s high-powered attack is its offensive line. It’s well known that the Sooners have one of the best offensive lines in the entire country. In fact, they’re so dominant, it’s difficult for me to discern what they’re actually better at between pass protection and run blocking. One thing’s for sure: Oklahoma has made life difficult for defenses because they can hardly ever apply pressure on Mayfield. Time and time again, OU’s o-line has given Mayfield all day to pick those defenses apart.
Now, it should be of no surprise to anyone that the offensive play style in the SEC is much different than that of the Big 12’s. In the SEC, most offenses are less likely to throw the deep ball consistently and the overall pace of the game moves at a slower, more methodical rate. With the couple of examples I presented from the Missouri game, as well as the one I’m about to present, whenever teams have taken their chances and gone deep against UGA’s defense, the results have been somewhat surprising:
Darius Slayton, this is a ridiculous catch. pic.twitter.com/rxbEK1ltk9— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 11, 2017
As demonstrated by this play against the Auburn Tigers, who have one of the more explosive offenses in the SEC, time in the pocket, accurate passing, and solid route running will get the job done. Although the throw was slightly off-target, the receiver made an exceptional adjustment on the ball. It’s been discussed on this blog before, but Oklahoma is no stranger to the deep ball. Baker’s average of nearly 12 yards per pass ranks as the highest in the FBS.
Another way Oklahoma can attack Georgia’s highly-touted defense is with the screen pass. In their regular season matchup with the Bulldogs, Auburn used a number of screens to counter Georgia’s blitzes. Schematically, Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker like to dial up both safety and linebacker edge blitzes, but the Tigers made the Bulldogs pay on several occasions. Take this touchdown for example:
Perfect call against the blitz. Ryan Davis making dudes look like fools https://t.co/YupoE1X5I5— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) November 15, 2017
On this play, both a safety and a linebacker rush the QB from the left side. The two pass rushers leave a huge gap in their absence, and Auburn takes advantage of it by throwing directly into the void. A convoy of blocks clears the way for the TD.
Auburn sort of went away from the screen game in the SEC Championship, but credit Georgia for creating enough disruption up front to keep Auburn from doing much in the deep passing game that afternoon. Oklahoma’s offensive linemen will certainly have their work cut out for them, but this unit has proven to be up to the challenge against some elite defensive fronts.
With offensive weapons like Mark Andrews, Dimitri Flowers and Marquise Brown as well as the backs, utilizing the screen pass should prove to be effective. Blocking on the outside and at the second level of the defense is the key to picking up sizable gains against the Bulldogs.
And don’t let anybody tell you differently, because the Sooners have absolutely faced some highly-ranked defenses this season. While the statistics show a slight drop in production in those contests, Oklahoma’s offensive efficiency was still apparent. Ohio State, Texas and TCU’s defensive efficiencies currently rank 11th, 6th, and 14th respectively. TCU’s ranking is a bit misleading, considering the Horned Frogs were the only team who had to defend the most efficient offense twice this season.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s defensive efficiency ranks 2nd, which is very good, but could be argued that it is skewed because the offenses they normally face haven’t been as capable as some of the offenses in the Big 12. That said, the argument could easily be reversed and used against Oklahoma in regards to some of the weaker defenses that the Sooners have faced.
My final takeaway from all of this is that studying the metrics and statistics all day long will never truly tell me how this matchup will shake out, but the great debate between Georgia’s defense and Oklahoma’s offense will sort itself out on New Year’s Day in Pasadena. However, there’s reason for hope in the meantime.
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