After an agonizing Saturday spent watching the Oklahoma vs. Army game, I can gladly say that I welcome the return to Big 12 play. Sure, a shootout can be stressful, but nothing really compares to the frustration of watching Army hammer the Sooners defense time and time again on 7-10 minute drives. For most of the game, I was unable to enjoy the magic of the electric Kyler Murray-led Oklahoma Sooners offense. Instead, I had to focus on our defensive struggles without knowing when the offense would ever get back on the field.
Luckily, the Oklahoma-Baylor game this Saturday in Norman will most certainly not feature 10-minute drives. Both offenses feed off big plays, and OU is the only one I can picture with long, clock-chewing drives (see: Trey Sermon late in the 2017 game in Waco). The over/under per Westgate Superbook is set at 68.5 (so close), which to me is too low for a game like this. Baylor — while having plenty of flaws — sits at 3-1 after putting the Kansas Jayhawks back in their rightful place at the bottom of the Big 12, while the Sooners are a bit fortunate to be 4-0 going into the game. OU’s defense struggled with Hakeem Butler in Ames, so these DBs are going to need to make a statement against Baylor’s big, athletic receivers.
Date: Saturday September 29
Time & TV: 2:30PM CT on ABC/ESPN2
Spread: Oklahoma -23.5
Here are some key storylines to follow on Saturday!
Baylor’s Receivers vs. Oklahoma Secondary
This is arguably the most important matchup of the game on Saturday. We saw how Oklahoma struggled to contain WR Hakeem Butler of Iowa State earlier this year. Against the Baylor Bears, Oklahoma will have to deal with a talented stable of tall and fast Baylor receivers including Denzel Mims(6’3), Jalen Hurd(6’4), and Jared Atkinson(6’3). On top of this, Baylor has senior WR Chris Platt back from an ACL injury he suffered against the Sooners last year. Although Platt is only 5’11, he’s a flat-out burner who also runs on the Baylor track team. In sum, this group of receivers is likely one of the best that Oklahoma will face all season, so the secondary needs to put on their big-boy pants for this one.
Sophomore cornerback Tre Brown will be available this week to spell Parnell Motley and Tre Norwood. After struggling in certain instances against Iowa State, I thought Motley played really well in the Army game (for what that game was). He made some good tackles on the edge and then iced the game with an interception in overtime.
However, the Big 12 challenge returns against the talented Baylor receivers. The corners will have their hands full in coverage, but finishing the plays is absolutely critical in the event of a lost battle. After missing the Army game with an injury, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tre Brown thrown in there quite a bit. Brown has looked good so far this season on defense and special teams, so look for him to reenter the rotation on Saturday and possibly play a huge role if Motley or Norwood begin to struggle.
At the safety position, Oklahoma will need all of the guys to step up just like at the corner position. That means Bookie and Khalil Haughton especially will have to play better. Bookie has been solid on the year and has actually been in position to make some big plays, but has not been able to capitalize with the huge play yet. I think most of that can be attributed to him being a true freshman and maybe trying too hard to make something happen. While I envision Bookie getting better as the season goes on, I am not as bullish on Khalil Haughton.
Haughton has struggled to make plays and be in the right position for the Oklahoma defense. Some of that may fall on coaching, but Haughton also needs to pick things up. I think one thing that has kept him on the field now is the fact that Robert Barnes has not been healthy and there is no one behind Barnes that Stoops trusts to step in for Haughton. Haughton is a senior and has yet to really figure things out. Hopefully he can start to find his way against Baylor on Saturday. It will be nice to see more of Justin Broiles, who didn’t really see action against the triple option last week.
Hopefully a strong pass rush, effective safety help, sound tackling, and tight coverage by the Oklahoma corners allows Oklahoma to at least slow down the weapons that Baylor QB Charlie Brewer has at his disposal.
Oklahoma Ground Game vs. Baylor Front Seven
As Seth focused on in his article on the Oklahoma rushing attack against the Baylor front seven, this is a serious mismatch.
I expect the offensive line to truly find its footing in run-blocking against a Baylor rush defense that’s 113th in the nation in yards allowed per carry (5.3 ypc). I expect Riley to try and establish the running game with Sermon and Murray early on to open up some big plays for Hollywood Brown and Ceedee Lamb downfield.
In order to take full advantage of the Baylor defense, Oklahoma will need to account for Baylor linebacker Terrel Bernard. Bernard is only a redshirt freshman but has been force so far this season for Baylor. He provide’s Baylor’s biggest hope to slow down the Oklahoma running game if he’s not accounted for. I expect Riley and Bedenbaugh to be well-aware of Bernard by now and be prepared for him come Saturday.
Oklahoma Pass Rush vs. Charlie Brewer
In order to help alleviate some of the pressure that the Oklahoma secondary will face on Saturday, the Oklahoma pass rush will need to be strong. In the first two games of the season, the Oklahoma pass rush looked downright dominant, piling up sacks and TFLs like clockwork. Against Iowa State, they struggled to generate much of a pass rush at all until the fourth quarter. This needs to change against Baylor QB Charlie Brewer, who has shown he is an able passer that can make plays downfield if given ample time. Additionally, he is an adept scrambler.
Oklahoma will have ample opportunity to get after him in the pocket. I expect Kenneth Mann, Ronnie Perkins, Neville Gallimore and Amani Bledsoe to demonstrate some strong play rushing the passer from the line of scrimmage. On the second level, JACK LB Mark Jackson seems to be really coming into his own as a pass rusher and will need to continue that play to make Brewer uncomfortable. It would also be nice to see Kenneth Murray, Ryan Jones, and Curtis Bolton on some more blitzes against Baylor. I know that may open up certain opportunities in the passing game, but those linebacker blitzes were lethal in the first two games, and I think it’s usually pretty clear that they’re a net positive.
Guys like Parnell Motley excel at jumping routes when the QB is pressured. This may also give Bookie an opportunity to get that elusive first interception. He has been close on a few plays, but has not been able to come down with one thus far. A few early blitzes early on in the game may also have the effect of rattling Brewer, who is a promising young quarterback but is still only a sophomore.
Oklahoma Special teams
With new special teams coach Shane Beamer at the helm, Oklahoma has looked much better in that area in 2018. They have come close to taking kicks and punts back for 6, and I think this may be the game where they finally pull it off. Ceedee Lamb returning punts has worked well so far, while Tre Brown and others have proven to be promising kick return guys. I also expect Austin Seibert to bounce back in this game. He has had a pretty solid career, and his body of work speaks for itself. Aside from Adam Vinatieri, no kicker makes all the big kicks. Hopefully Austin can knock a couple in on Saturday and get some confidence back.
I see this game as a shootout that Oklahoma takes control of in the second half. Baylor will get some early big plays, but the Oklahoma defense will mostly settle in as the game goes on.
Prediction: Oklahoma 48, Baylor 31