Even though the Oklahoma Sooners have dominated the Oklahoma State Cowboys over the history of their in-state rivalry, the series has still produced more than its fair share of classic games and indelible moments. In a perfect world, the 2019 edition of Bedlam would set up as another thriller.
The combination of running back Chuba Hubbard and dynamic quarterback Spencer Sanders would constitute a nightmare for an OU defense that has struggled all season with giving up big plays against the run. Tylan Wallace running vertical routes against a secondary preoccupied with helping out against that ground attack? Yikes.
With Sanders and Wallace now on the shelf, the Cowboys present fewer threats to the Sooners by both land and air. Let’s take a look at what that means ahead of Saturday’s Bedlam installment.
What can Brown do for OSU?
The statistics from veteran Dru Brown’s first start at QB last week against the West Virginia Mountaineers paint a solid picture. Brown completed 22 of his 29 throws, two of which went for scores, in OSU’s 20-13 win.
The Pokes also converted a combined seven of 16 opportunities on third and fourth downs, so OSU did a decent job of keeping the chains moving with Brown at the controls. The Cowboys’ two touchdowns came on drives of 74 and 78 yards – the scores didn’t come cheap.
However, a closer inspection of Brown’s performance tells a different story. Coach Mike Gundy and offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson showed little faith in Brown’s capacity to make throws downfield – or really much at all in the passing game. Approximately half of Brown’s throws were swing routes or screens. Consequently, Hubbard had seven receptions for 88 yards, both of which easily surpassed his previous highs for the season.
Overall, of Brown’s 29 passes, 20 of his targets were within seven yards of the line of scrimmage. He also threw two balls away. OSU averaged a piddling 6.8 yards per attempt from its pop-gun passing attack.
When Brown did get the opportunity to showcase his arm strength, it became clear why the OSU coaches weren’t asking him to do it often. Brown’s passes on vertical routes were coming in late and underthrown. Meanwhile, throws outside the far hashes took way too long to reach their destination.
In terms of what that means for this weekend, predicating your passing attack on quick throws isn’t a bad strategy versus the Sooners. Forcing OU’s defenders to tackle soundly has worked for some teams already this season. However, it doesn’t work nearly as well when defensive backs don’t fear the ball going over their heads.
Don’t be surprised if OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch throws an even heavier dose than usual of press man and one-on-one coverages at the Cowboys on the perimeter. If the Sooners don’t come up with at least one interception in this game, consider it a big disappointment.
In reality, even when Sanders and Wallace were healthy, Hubbard was always OSU’s showstopper. He is fast and powerful, and Gundy has leveraged his durability to load Hubbard up with carries. The nation’s leading rusher has toted the rock at least 25 times in seven of OSU’s 11 games.
Hubbard will almost certainly surpass the 25-carry mark in this contest. Keep an eye, though, on how Gleeson draws up ways to get the ball to his workhorse. The Princeton transplant has layered on new schemes to the OSU running game throughout the season. Even a week ago, the Cowboys were showing new wrinkles in their ground attack.
Unfortunately, the Pokes have lost a big weapon in Sanders’ legs. Sanders was capable of exploding for big gains on the ground, which forced defenses to account for an additional runner at all times when the Pokes had the ball. In turn, that opened up running lanes for Hubbard.
No one will mistake Brown for that kind of threat. Removing sacks, he ran for nine yards on four carries versus WVU. The Cowboys may use Brown as a constraint player with a couple carries to keep the Sooners honest. OU will also defend anything resembling a read call to keep the ball in the hands of the QB – which suggests that part of the playbook will be closed off to the Cowboys on Saturday night.
Whether Grinch goes with a spot deployment of a 4-3 alignment or sticks with five defensive backs as OU’s base defense, expect the Sooners to key on Hubbard and challenge OSU’s depleted receiving corps to make them pay.