Through seven games in 2019, the Oklahoma Sooners reaped the benefits of a move to a new defense under coordinator Alex Grinch. Against the Kansas State Wildcats on Saturday, the bill for the change was due.
The script of KSU’s win was familiar to upsets of the past. The Wildcats had possession of the ball for nearly 40 minutes, which kept OU’s dynamic offense on the sidelines for way too long. A couple turnovers put KSU inside the OU 25-yard line twice and led to 14 points. The Sooners settled for field goals instead of touchdowns too often.
It was like Bill Snyder never left, and... AAAAGH!
But from a tactical standpoint, the story of this game was the way Kansas State overwhelmed OU’s defensive front. KSU’s rushing total of 213 yards for the game wasn’t outrageous, but the fact that the Wildcats ran the ball 45 times illustrates their ability to hold the ball and plug away all game.
The Wildcats had success opening holes for ball carriers in the interior of the line. They did even more damage by sealing off edges to give runners ample room to blast through. Their success on the ground set up KSU QB Skylar Thompson for timely play-action passing to keep the chains moving.
In some cases, KSU put OU defenders in a bind through their formations and nifty tricks in the blocking schemes to throw off the keys of the OU linebackers (see above — generally a problem to have a cornerback filling that gap). K-State also used the Sooners’ tendencies against them. The blocking schemes also involved some nifty tricks to throw off the keys of the OU linebackers.
Ultimately, however, this loss came down to clashing styles.
First-year head coach Chris Klieman inherited the right pieces to build KSU’s offensive identity in his preferred image. With five seasoned offensive linemen and an apparent assembly line of H-backs and tight ends, the Wildcats have the goods to play a bruising brand of football. In this case, they were pushing around a slimmed-down defensive line that makes its bones by being disruptive.
Two members of OU’s starting three-man defensive line tip the scales at 269 pounds and 251 pounds. Ronnie Perkins, LaRon Stokes and the like can get upfield quickly through gaps and create problems in opposing backfields. On the other hand, muscling up against beefy blockers can go badly. The Sooners couldn’t add a bunch of run-supporting defensive backs behind them in the offseason, either.
These were always going to be the trade-offs with installing Grinch’s defense this year. Frankly, it’s surprising that the reckoning for OU’s defense didn’t come until the eighth game of the season.
Swimming in the shallow end
It didn’t help matters that the shallow depth of OU’s defense finally started rearing its head versus Kansas State.
Earlier in the season, Grinch played more of a traditional 4-3 defense when presented with heavier offensive personnel. He took the nickel out of the lineup and added a SAM LB lined up to the strong side of the offensive formation in this set. To do so, Grinch deployed a personnel grouping that included inserting backup RUSH LB David Ugwoegbu at SAM:
That plan blew up when RUSH LB Jon-Michael Terry was lost for the season, meaning Ugwoegbu was needed back at his original position to rotate with starter Nik Bonitto.
On Saturday, that left Ryan Jones playing SAM on a limited number of downs versus 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends/H-backs). More often, though, Grinch kept NB Brendan Radley-Hiles on the field, which frequently left him responsible for setting the edge against far bigger K-State blockers. That went about as well as you would expect for Bookie.
The situation deteriorated after officials tossed starting cornerback Parnell Motley in the first half for fighting. It got even worse when strong safety Delarrin Turner-Yell left the game in the third quarter with an injury.
Can this be fixed? (And does it need to be?)
Perhaps the most intriguing option for fortifying the run defense is a player who has yet to see the field this season.
A leg injury sustained during spring practices has kept Caleb Kelly on the sidelines this year. Lincoln Riley hasn’t exactly tamped down speculation that the fourth-year LB could make it back this season. After all, Kelly can still play four games this season and retain a redshirt.
Kelly has saved the day before by taking over the SAM position. It seems like asking a lot to hope he can do it again this year given his health status. Hopefully, it won’t reach the point where anyone feels the need to ask.
But keep in mind that none of the remaining opponents on the Sooners’ schedule have the same kind of team DNA as K-State. That may not stop them from replicating the Wildcats’ success on the ground, of course, but none is built like KSU.
Maybe Grinch will tweak his scheme or personnel groupings during OU’s bye week to account for what went down against KSU. Tinker too much with a scheme that has done so well to this point, though, and it stands to do more harm than good against teams like Oklahoma State and Baylor.
And frankly, there aren’t that many adjustments that can be made incorporating the players on the roster right now. Instead, Grinch and the defensive coaches may find their biggest challenge in the next two weeks is maintaining players’ confidence and sharpening their edges for the home stretch.