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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Slowing Sam Ehlinger and the Texas running game

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OU needs a better game plan for the Longhorns’ ground attack in their second meeting.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The reductionist crutch of boiling down football matchups to battles between quarterbacks often feels lazy, but Saturday’s clash between the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns at AT&T Stadium is not one of those cases. Both teams’ identities revolve around their star signal-callers, and, fittingly, Kyler Murray and Sam Ehlinger traded low-key barbs this week leading up to their battle for the Big 12 title.

Murray’s exploits on the field this season have been well documented. Unfortunately for Ehlinger, he might have had an open-and-shut case for the first-team spot at QB on the All-Big 12 team in many other years. He made big strides as a thrower and decision-maker, boosting his quarterback rating from 124.07 in 2017 to 147.59. He also improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 11-to-seven to 23-to-four this season.

Meanwhile, Texas coach Tom Herman has utilized Ehlinger as an effective short-yardage back: In addition to his 11 rushing TDs this year, Ehlinger has converted 11 first downs on 17 third-down rushing attempts with three or fewer yards to go. Ehlinger also has gained first downs on two of his three rushes on fourth down.

The Sooners have felt the effects of the Ehlinger element in the Texas running game the last two years. The last time the two squads played, he ran for 84 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries.

If OU defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill somehow figures out a way to neutralize Ehlinger as a running threat in the Big 12 title game, it will take away one of the cornerstones of the Texas offense.

Ehlinger on the edge

Against the Sooners, Ehlinger made an easy living running around end. Not surprisingly, OU’s defense played a big part in that. In his final game as OU’s defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops deployed multiple defensive alignments that gave Texas multiple options to victimize the Sooners.

From a personnel standpoint, OU played almost exclusively with five defensive backs. The front six shifted between three- and four-down fronts, with edge player Mark Jackson toggling between weak side defensive end in a four-man line and strong side linebacker (SAM LB) to when OU was in a three-down look.

No matter the alignment, Texas pulverized OU on the edge. Ehlinger was a major benefactor.

The clip above provides an example from a QB counter call against the four-down front. The playside offensive linemen pin down the defenders inside them and the backside guard and tackle pull to clear the way for Ehlinger on the boundary.

Playing a five technique to the boundary side of the formation, Jackson initially follows the flow of the play to the field. In doing so, he leaves himself exposed to the pulling guard, who folds Jackson inside and opens up the edge for Ehlinger. Texas’ QB picked up nine yards on the run, which was subsequently nullified by a hold on the back side of the play.

Field of confusion

The action turned especially dicey for OU’s defense in the second quarter. Texas put together two 75-yard TD drives in the period that took a combined eight minutes off the clock. Defenders looked lost and frequently received late checks from the sideline (although that wasn’t much different from the rest of the game). In particular, Caleb Kelly appeared out of his depth at inside linebacker.

This clip illustrates how these issues conspired to burn the Sooners when Ehlinger ran the ball. With Texas in 11 personnel (one running back and one H-back), OU comes out in a funky set with Kelly at inside LB to the field side of the formation. As safety Bookie Radley-Hiles approaches the line of scrimmage prior to the snap, Ehlinger makes a check.

Kelly and MIKE LB Kenneth Murray look to the OU sideline for a full five seconds looking for guidance after Ehlinger makes his check. Both are still looking at the sideline when the ball is snapped, and Kelly gets caught inside reacting to the mesh on the read play Texas is running. As Bookie darts in from the edge to tackle the running back, Ehlinger pulls the ball and makes a beeline for all kinds of vacant green grass to the right side. Fourteen yards later, safety Kahlil Haughton brings him down.

End the grind

To me, the plan for stopping Ehlinger’s tank-like running fits with the broader picture of defending the Texas offense. The Longhorns’ physical, methodical identity leverages size advantages at the skill positions. Ehlinger’s legs acted as one of the biggest clubs used by the Longhorns to beat the hell out of OU’s defense in their last game. The Sooners can’t afford to let UT just grind them down again.

I like the idea of using OU’s hybrid 4-3 (above) in this game. In this alignment, McNeill has moved Kelly back outside to the SAM LB, which suits him far better than his previous role as WILL LB in the 3-4. Compared with a nickel, Kelly gives the Sooners a more useful defender against the run in space. Even though he’s far from a great pass rusher, he also has a better likelihood of bringing down Ehlinger in the backfield on a blitz.

Additionally, Ronnie Perkins has been floating between weak side defensive end and JACK LB. He admittedly lacks the mobility of some of OU’s edge players from the past. On the other hand, I’d take his size on the edge after after seeing how game one played out.

The trade-off with playing the hybrid 4-3 in this case is losing a coverage player in the secondary, opening the door for the Longhorns to strafe OU’s secondary with throws to Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Given that Texas threw for 324 yards in game one, that sounds like steering into the skid.

This is all true, but we saw how well the DB-heavy scheme worked last time (i.e. not very). I don’t believe the solution is doubling down on that strategy.

The strength of the Texas offense this year lies in Herman’s ability to manage drives and work his team into favorable down-and-distance situations. The hybrid 4-3 seems like the best way for OU to throw a wrench into that and affect Ehlinger in the process by getting better run defenders in the game. While the overall results haven’t been great so far, I feel cautiously optimistic about how some of McNeill’s tweaks could impact this second matchup.