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Oklahoma Sooners Football: A look at Lincoln Riley and his offensive game management

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OU’s increased passing is putting its defense at greater risk.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma Sooners have their ground game rolling this season. A season-ending injury to star running back Rodney Anderson in week two couldn’t derail them. Since then, more of his backfield mates have succumbed to a variety of ailments, but OU keeps on churning out yards by land.

Lately, however, head coach Lincoln Riley has started relying more on the right arm of quarterback Kyler Murray. Even as OU has averaged more than seven yards per rush in each of its last three matchups with the Texas Tech Red Raiders, Oklahoma State Cowboys and Kansas Jayhawks, the Sooners have taken to the air more often than in their first eight games of the year.

The shift seems to be having residual effects on the team’s overall performance.

Offensive plays are up

To look at the balance of Riley’s play calling, I combed through OU’s possessions this season and removed then ones in which the team was explicitly playing to end the game. This includes drives in which the Sooners needed to gain a first down to run out the clock or were kneeling to end the half. As such, I admittedly didn’t get rid of what our friend Bill Connelly classifies as “garbage time” stats.

The data show that in the relevant possessions of the last three games, OU is averaging more than 32 pass attempts. That is up from an average of 25.5 in the first eight games of the year. If you throw out the weird numbers from the Army game, OU averaged 27 throws per game, which is still a material difference from the last three.

Clearly, OU’s running plays are also up, so the run-pass balance hasn’t tilted dramatically in that three-game stretch. Meanwhile, total plays have spiked during that period, and possessions are tending to the high end of the season’s distribution.

Ironically, the numbers of possessions are lower in the KU game because the Jayhawks were running the ball so much (36 rush attempts, 28 pass attempts). Gaining a cool 9.7 yards per rush likely had something to do with that.

OU’s defense is carrying a heavier load; hence, more shootouts.

The Sooners move the ball so efficiently on offense that they require very few plays to score. Opponents aren’t having much luck stopping them either.

OU has the No. 1 scoring offense in the country this season at 49.5 points per game, but the Sooners rank 101st overall in total plays. By way of contrast, the team that ranks second in the country in scoring at 49.3 points per game, Utah State, is running an average of seven more plays per game than OU, 72.4 to 65.5.

OU hasn’t sacrificed that offensive potency by taking to the air more frequently in the last three games. However, the changes to how OU’s output is being delivered alter the contours of the game.

Specifically, throwing the ball more on offense means your defense has to be on the field more because: a) you’re usually covering more ground on a completion than when you’re running the ball, so your own possessions are shorter; and b) the clock stops on incompletions. Therefore, both teams end up with more possessions.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When your defense is struggling the way the Oklahoma Sooners are right now, that creates a problem. The more offensive possessions the opponent gets, the more opportunities it has to score. That gets magnified when you’re playing other offensively inclined teams such as OSU and Tech.

In other words, for a squad like OU, throwing the ball more begs for shootouts of the 48-47 variety.

So why is OU throwing the ball more?

Aside from the reality that Riley calls the game as he sees fit, we should start by allowing for the possibility that defensive schemes are triggering pass calls by the Sooners. For example, OU might be responding to favorable matchups in one-on-one coverage or stacked boxes. Similarly, time and score might have Riley taking on a more aerial orientation.

However, the image above shows what KU’s defense was giving the Sooners when quarterback Kyler Murray threw an interception on a first-down play early in the third quarter. Not exactly a crowded box, and OU was looking to extend its lead, not playing from behind. I imagine you’d find similar situations on other passing plays in the pertinent three-game stretch.

It’s more likely that Riley’s chief concern is cutting down on the workload of his backfield. Injuries already knocked running backs Anderson and Marcelias Sutton out for the season. Meanwhile, nagging health issues have limited the availability of Trey Sermon and T.J. Pledger down the stretch.

Kennedy Brooks is the only scholarship back who has been healthy for the entire year, and Murray can only take so much punishment. Throwing the ball more helps keep them from getting (further) beaten up.

Why does any of this matter?

That’s actually a good question.

The last three weeks have put OU’s defense in the spotlight thanks in part to the pass-heavier offensive game plans. That is ugly from an optics standpoint, and it destroyed any illusions that axing Mike Stoops in the middle of the season made the D better.

Yet, it has cost the team nothing in the win-loss column. Assuming that Riley was trying to curtail the exposure of Murray and OU’s backfield to hits, he was essentially gambling that his team could keep winning shootouts. The Sooners got three Ws.

That calculus probably changes this week. The Sooners are facing a survive-and-advance scenario in a hostile road environment against a team with all sorts of offensive weapons, so Riley can’t afford to hold back.

If OU gets a chance to muscle the WVU defense with its running game, Riley at least has that option now. That will take on even greater importance if the Sooners are looking to extend a lead in the second half.

OU has little reason to count on its defense slowing down the Mountaineers on their own. At this point, relying more on the running game would use the team’s strengths to cover up for the Sooners’ defensive deficiencies. Having said that, Riley will work with what he has and adjust accordingly.