When the Oklahoma Sooners (4-0) have the ball this weekend versus the Baylor Bears (3-1), Lincoln Riley should call upon the running game early and often, and rightfully so. OU’s rushing attack is a strength (provided the OL continues to improve following some offseason position changes) that should match up incredibly well against BU’s porous run defense, and therein lies the largest advantage that can lead the Sooners to a pristine 5-0 record heading into OU-Texas week.
In last year’s trip to Waco, Oklahoma rushed for a season-high 342 yards. While Baylor’s rush defense has improved marginally from then to now, the Sooners’ rushing attack is just as strong, if not stronger. And lest we forget, the great Rodney Anderson did not even record a stat in that game. Then swap Baker Mayfield’s wheels for Kyler Murray’s, and you can see why Oklahoma should feel confident about running the ball well in this contest.
A big reason why the Sooners were so successful on the ground in this game last season was Trey Sermon. The Georgia native came into the game in the fourth quarter and ran roughshod over the Bears as Oklahoma’s closer. OU’s ability to wear Baylor down and chew up clock with the running game proved pivotal in avoiding the upset. As good as Baylor is at the skill positions offensively, this could potentially come into play once again. Hopefully not, but it has to be in the back of the mind.
By the end of the game, Sermon had amassed a career-high 148 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries. It was a thing of beauty, and now in his second year in the system, he’s continuing to show why he’s such a powerful weapon.
What makes Sermon so difficult to defend is that he is nearly impossible to take down one-on-one in the open field. Not only is he physically stronger than the average back, he runs with outstanding balance and impeccable vision. Once he hits the sideline, he can turn on the jets (he’s faster than he sometimes looks) and eat up yards in a hurry before a defender actually makes contact with him, and even then he might not be done.
That leads me to the game at hand. So far this season, Baylor has had legitimate trouble defending the run. In fact, Matt Rhule’s run defense ranks 113th in the nation in yards allowed per carry (5.3), so there’s consistently been little to no resistance to speak of. And I mean this with no disrespect, but none of the running backs nor offensive lines the Bears have faced through the first third of the season are on the same level — at least from a pure talent standpoint — as what they’re about to line up against this Saturday at the Palace on the Prairie.
And speaking of the offensive line, with some changes up front for Oklahoma, there have been a few growing pains in the running game. The talent is undeniable, but that has yet to translate into a consistent rushing attack, particularly in short yardage situations. Bill Bedenbaugh recently took full ownership of his O-line’s sub-par performance late in the game against Army. Moving forward, I expect him to make the necessary adjustments and produce another great unit given his track record. The guys up front are simply too good not to improve with every rep, so it’s just a matter of time before they inevitably find their groove.
Back to Baylor’s side of things — against Abilene Christian, Billy McCrary found a lane on the edge and easily shed a poor tackle attempt to get to the sideline. Once he turned up field, 75 yards later, it was over. Not that this guy is any slouch (he’s got some wheels and a very cool name), but imagine Sermon, Marcelias Sutton, TJ Pledger or Kennedy Brooks in this guy’s place. I’m thinking he’d do something very similar if that’s how Baylor is going to play run defense.
Here’s yet another example of a running back being able to find the edge and slamming the pedal to the metal. Kansas’ Pooka Williams Jr. found a seam, cut up field, and 72 yards later put his team in a first and goal situation.
These are egregious errors by the Bears’ defense, and if they continue this weekend, Oklahoma will make them pay for their mistakes.
In total, Baylor has already given up nine runs of 20 yards or more through four games, including three over 50. If the Bears don’t shore up their defensive angles and tackling technique in a hurry, it should be a relatively comfortable day for Trey Sermon, Kyler Murray and the Sooners’ offense.
And speaking of Murray, he’ll play as much of a factor in taking advantage of BU’s run defense as anybody. Going into Week Five, the future Oakland A’s 6.7 yards per carry is tops in the Big 12 for a quarterback, and ranks third in the nation for QB’s with at least 20 rushing attempts. This one run against Army tells the whole story of why he’s such a dangerous player when he calls his own number.
Talk about a home-run hitter. Now Murray’s skill set is normally a nightmare for defensive coordinators to prepare for, but it should be especially troubling for Baylor. BU has only faced one true dual-threat this season — Duke’s Quentin Harris — and to be frank, they failed miserably to contain him.
In his first collegiate start, Harris ate the Bears up both on the ground and through the air for a total of 257 yards (83 on the ground) and four touchdowns, resulting in Baylor’s lone loss of the season thus far. That being said, while he was effective, he’s still not the caliber of passer nor athlete that Murray is, so defending the Sooners’ QB figures to be even more troublesome.
When it comes down to it, the type of game this ends up being will ultimately be determined when Baylor’s offense is on the field. Still, for all the reasons I’ve stated, when Oklahoma has the ball, the formula should be relatively simple. Give the rock to Trey Sermon, or continue to allow Kyler Murray to make a little magic happen. Unfortunately for the Bears, this game is setting up as a classic case of “pick your poison”.
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