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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Can OU hold its own in the trenches against Ohio State?

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Oklahoma hopes to avoid the issues that plagued them in last season’s matchup with Ohio State.

Oklahoma v West Virginia Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

There will be several compelling storylines playing out during Oklahoma’s top-5 showdown with the Ohio State Buckeyes this Saturday. One of those storylines is of course the fact that the game will be a rematch from last season. Then there is the potential for quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and J.T. Barrett to both be Heisman finalists come December. And of course there will be the chess match between seasoned veteran Urban Meyer and rookie head coach Lincoln Riley.

However, I am not here to discuss any of those matchups. If you intend on watching the game, I suggest you keep an eye on the matchups in the trenches. Both teams wield units that are widely regarded as some of the nation’s best, boasting a plethora of top quality talent along the offensive and defensive lines.

Ohio State’s Defensive Line:

Last month, Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said he believed this defensive line was the most talented unit he had ever coached, including his years in the NFL. That kind of high praise, while likely to some degree hyperbolic, is still enough to cause a sense of concern.

Beginning on the inside, defensive tackles Dre’Mont Jones and Tracy Sprinkle clog up the middle and disrupt the pocket from within. Redshirt sophomore Jones is coming off an impressive freshman campaign after leading all Ohio State defensive linemen in total tackles. Meanwhile, the fifth-year senior Sprinkle is back from a season-ending knee injury, but has always been a key piece when it comes to stuffing an opponent’s running game.

The starting defensive ends for the Buckeyes are redshirt junior Sam Hubbard and redshirt senior Tyquan Lewis. Hubbard has recorded just about everything stats-wise as a defensive end, while Lewis, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, has led the Buckeyes each of the past two seasons in quarterback sacks.

The man coaching up these defensive terrors is Larry Johnson, the father of the former Penn State and Kansas City Chiefs running back of the same name. Coach Johnson is in his fourth year coaching the Buckeyes’ defensive line. In the last 20 years, no other coach has developed more Big Ten Defensive Players of the Year and Defensive Linemen of the Year than Johnson has, which includes Johnson’s previous stint at Penn State. It is fair to say that Ohio State has an embarrassment of riches both on the depth chart as well as in the coaching booth.

How can OU contain OSU’s defensive line?

It should come as no surprise to anybody who follows the Oklahoma Sooners that they possesses arguably the nation’s top offensive line. Headlined by mammoth left tackle Orlando Brown, the group as a collective unit has performed exceptionally well over the last couple seasons, getting better and better with experience. After Mayfield was sacked 39 times in 2015, that number was cut in half and then some last season with only 16 sacks given up.

One reason Oklahoma saw a decrease in sacks from ‘15 to ‘16 was Mayfield’s increased pocket awareness. Another reason was the type of play calling from offensive genius Lincoln Riley. On many occasions, plays were designed to have Mayfield roll out of the pocket, away from a potentially collapsing pocket. This bought more time for his receivers to get open while also giving Mayfield an opportunity to scan the entire field.

If the Sooners aren’t looking for the home run ball, an over-aggressive defensive line can be combatted and even neutralized with quick passes to running backs in the flats or dump-off passes to a fullback or tight end over the middle. Beyond Oklahoma’s offensive line potentially going toe-to-toe with Ohio State’s defensive line, I believe the Sooners hold a unique advantage with their multifaceted play calling and diverse offensive skill set.

Ohio State Offensive Line/Running Game:

Up front, the Buckeyes return four of five starters from a season ago on the offensive line, having only to replace the right guard. Last year, QB J.T. Barrett was sacked 27 times in 13 games, which is not terrible, but also not ideal for consistent offensive efficiency. Where Ohio State flourished, however, was in their running game.

Ohio State ranked 11th in the country last season with 245.2 rushing yards per game. What was most devastating about that was the 5.5 yards per carry that the Buckeye runners enjoyed. With a mobile QB in J.T. Barrett, the return of 1,000-yard back Mike Weber, and the rise of stud freshman tailback J.K. Dobbins, the Buckeyes’ rushing attack figures to be the most formidable running game Oklahoma will face all season.

How can OU contain OSU’s running game or pressure the pocket?

In last season’s matchup in Norman, Ohio State rushed for 291 yards and only gave up one sack. In order for the Sooners to see a drastic improvement in these areas, Oklahoma’s defensive line and linebackers must do two things better: win the leverage battles in the trenches and tackle soundly.

Having the base defense switch over to a 4-3 instead of a 3-4 should help to contain the running game tremendously in principle, but that won’t be enough to fully stifle the Buckeyes’ ground game. Sure tackling at the point of attack preceded by some assignment-sound football will need to be at a premium if the Sooners want to keep Ohio State off schedule. If J.T. Barrett has to pass the ball 35+ times by game’s end, that could be a sign that the Sooners will have accomplished their defensive goals. Having Caleb Kelly as part of the equation this time around should also help in that regard.

Oklahoma will also want to keep QB Barrett running outside and Ohio State’s running backs running inside. With the sideline-to-sideline speed on OU’s defense, that should be enough to keep Barrett from breaking free on the outside. Ohio State’s running backs are on the more diminutive side, so meeting them on the inside for guys like DT Neville Gallimore and MLB Kenneth Murray should work in the Sooners’ favor.

Final Thoughts:

Before I delve into my final thoughts on this matchup in the trenches, I want to mention one last aspect that could go a long way towards deciding the outcome of the game. Another factor that makes both teams’ lines such quality units is the amount of experienced depth behind the starters. Being able to rotate fresh linemen in without much drop-off is essential for offensive and defensive success. When Oklahoma has the ball, don’t expect either side to successfully wear out the other based on this aspect alone. On the flipside, the game could be decided on plays when Ohio State is in possession.

At the end of the day, the way I see this colossal clash unfolding is effectively a draw. I believe both units will find some success throughout the game with no clear and decisive victor one way or the other. Whichever unit creates the most disruptive/neutralizing plays will more than likely finish on the winning side of the contest. Line play in football typically reveals which team has control of the game. Whoever has that control will ultimately determine how the game will play out.

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