The Oklahoma Sooners’ annual showdown in the Cotton Bowl with the Texas Longhorns marked the midpoint of their 2019 regular season. With six games on the books, OU hasn’t given fans much to complain about. Meanwhile, the team has answered most of the questions posed by pundits coming into the season about areas such as a new quarterback, replacing four starters on the offensive line and implementing Alex Grinch’s defensive scheme.
So what have we learned so far about the Sooners halfway through the year? Here are five major takeaways:
Standing by the safeties is paying off
Before the season, safety made up the weakest position group on a defense that performed miserably a year ago. Reviews from spring practice weren’t exactly glowing. The same goes for their early play this season.
In the last two games, however, Patrick Fields, Delarrin Turner-Yell and nickel Brendan Radley-Hiles seem to be coming on. Most notably, DTY put on the best performance of his young career against the Longhorns with a team-leading 10 tackles. He and Bookie patrolled the open space near the line of scrimmage vigilantly the entire game to disrupt UT’s horizontal passing attack.
Grinch has lamented the lack of depth at the position ever since he arrived in Norman. Hopefully, he’s grooming some backups in case they’re needed in the second half of the year.
There’s strength in numbers on defense
Speaking of depth, the safety spots represent the exceptions to the rule under Grinch. OU has established rotations across the board on D to keep players fresh. As a result, the Sooners are receiving better contributions from more players in shorter bursts.
The strategy seems to be having a pronounced effect in the trenches, where down-to-down punishment is getting distributed among more linemen. Nose tackles Neville Gallimore and Marquise Overton, in particular, appear more energized this year in the process.
CeeDee Lamb stirs OU’s drink
Coaches building their offenses around the skills of one dynamic player happens all the time in college football. As great of a receiver as Lamb has been, he never really came off like that kind of playmaker. Until last weekend, that is, when he caught 10 passes, the most in his career. All those receptions produced 171 yards and three touchdowns, and Lamb even got a rushing attempt for four yards.
That’s 11 touches in 66 offensive plays – coach Lincoln Riley obviously made it a priority to get the ball in Lamb’s hands versus Texas. Will the Sooners operate out of the same playbook in big games to come this year? If so, opponents will need to decide if it’s worth tilting their defensive strategies toward putting the clamps on Lamb and leaving themselves vulnerable to OU’s other weapons.
That was a major key for OU’s offense in the first five games, as guys like Charleston Rambo were able to capitalize on the opposing defense’s focus on Lamb (who entered the Texas game with 18 receptions on the season). Against Texas, Lamb was allowed to breathe a bit, and the results were spectacular.
Jalen Hurts has played a significant role in keeping OU’s offense rolling, but Lamb has become its cornerstone (whether he’s pulling in a ton of receptions or not).
There’s no substitute for an organic pass rush
Defending the spread has become a hot topic among football scheme gurus. Coverages, personnel, alignment – all have been put forward as keys to slowing down high-powered offenses in the Big 12.
You could make the case that OU’s defensive renaissance this season goes to show it still starts up front. More specifically, it goes back to a filthy pass rush.
After years of using burly defensive linemen to eat up blocks, Grinch has turned them loose. He has put lighter, more athletic players in position to shoot gaps and added a barrage of slants and stunts to their arsenal. Through six games, OU has accumulated 22 sacks. The Sooners had 16 at the same point a year ago.
Grinch can still draw on exotic blitzes to pressure the QB on passing downs, but he can count on guys like defensive end Ronnie Perkins and defensive tackle Jalen Redmond — as well as the aforementioned Gallimore — to get after it without bringing extra rushers. That gives the defense more resources to devote to pass coverage. Currently, the Sooners are giving up 6.6 yards per passing attempt, ranking 39th nationally. A year ago, OU allowed 8.4 yards per throw, which ranked 109th overall.
The Sooners aren’t as explosive this year, but they are more domineering
The stats indicate the OU offense hasn’t lost a step this season. If you’re watching it in action, you know that’s not exactly the case.
The ability of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray to hit big throws down the field had a big hand in making the Sooners so dangerous. Hurts doesn’t have that in his bag: OU is still generating big passing gains, but many are coming from finding Lamb and fellow receiver Charleston Rambo on shorter routes in catch-and-run scenarios.
On the flip side, a still-coalescing offensive line hasn’t prevented Riley from fashioning a brutally efficient rushing attack. The Sooners are using personnel groupings with H-backs Jeremiah Hall and Brayden Willis heavily, and both are equally effective run blockers and pass catchers. Meanwhile, although Hurts lacks the quickness of Murray and the elusiveness of Mayfield, his package of straight-line speed and size make him OU’s best running QB since the wishbone days. He’s essentially the top running back on a team that already has three very good ones in Kennedy Brooks, Trey Sermon and Rhamondre Stevenson.
Unlike a year ago, the Sooners don’t need to win by playing “Top That!” with every offense on their schedule. Against Texas, they demonstrated that they can control possession if they so choose by pounding out 7.3 yards per rush. On the year, OU is averaging a staggering 7.7 yards per run.
When you can run at will on teams, it gives you the ability to control the flow of games. In light of the improvement of OU’s defense, that’s a scary proposition for opponents.