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Oklahoma Sooners Football: A dime-centric defense for slowing the LSU offense

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Flooding the field with defensive backs may actually be OU’s best hope for defending the Tigers.

NCAA Football: South Dakota at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As transformations go, it doesn’t get much more radical than the one made by the LSU Tigers on offense this season. The Oklahoma Sooners know those kinds of attacks all too well.

The Bayou Bengals improved dramatically across every significant measure of offensive efficiency, and voters for the sport’s major awards rewarded them handsomely for shifting from plodding to supercharged. Banquet season culminated in a landslide Heisman Trophy victory for quarterback Joe Burrow. The overhaul also turned LSU assistant Joe Brady into a Broyles Award winner and one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel.

What OU will get from the Tigers in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 28 can stand up against any attack they’ve seen in the past. Additionally, the Sooners have to figure out how to slow LSU down with their most effective pass rusher and a key member of their secondary on the sidelines.

Their best hope for containing the Tigers may rely on flooding the field with defensive backs.

Auburn’s blueprint

NCAA Football: Clemson at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

LSU has thrown up prodigious offensive statistics all season, so stopping the Tigers really comes down to degrees of “less good.” The Auburn Tigers probably had the most success of any of LSU’s opponents in that regard.

Auburn slowed Louisiana State with an unconventional look cooked up by defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, but AU typically based its defense this season out of a standard 4-2-5 look buoyed by a stout four-man front. Here’s a shot of the very first snap of the season for AU versus the Oregon Ducks:

The Ducks come out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end). Auburn matches them with a four-man front of two defensive tackles, a defensive end and an edge rusher playing a position dubbed the BUCK in the Auburn D. AU also rolls out two linebackers and a nickel-like secondary.

Now here’s what Steele had his defense doing versus LSU:

LSU lines up in 11 personnel, just like UO. However, Steele deploys a three-man front, with just one linebacker lined up behind the defensive line and seven DBs dotting the secondary.

This meant pulling out linebacker K.J. Britt (6-0, 236) and defensive lineman Nick Coe (6-5, 291). Steele replaced them with smaller, quicker players in DBs Jamien Sherwood (6-2, 204) and Smoke Monday (6-2, 186).

AU set up the DL in a variety of shifting alignments featuring DT Derrick Brown playing nose guard, defensive end Marlon Davidson lined up to the field side of the offensive formation and BUCK LB Big Kat Bryant coming off the edge to the boundary. Solid in coverage and against the run, freshman LB Owen Pappoe generally played in the middle of the field. Safeties supported Pappoe when LSU kept the ball on the ground.

To be fair, Auburn didn’t shut down LSU by any stretch. Steele’s game plan did render Burrow and Co. less potent than usual. For example, LSU rolled up 508 yards of total offense – but needed 88 plays to do so. Burrow passed for 321 yards on a season low of 7.6 yards per attempt. AU also sacked LSU’s QB three times and picked him off.

Can OU replicate that?

Exactly that? In a word, no.

OU actually had a 3-1-7 in its repertoire once upon a time, used by Mike Stoops with disastrous results. Now isn’t the time to bring it back.

Considering that the Sooners are already down a starting safety, playing that many DBs at one time would require putting a freshman such as Woodi Washington or Jeremiah Criddell on the field. Both have been tied down to the bench this season, so it’s tough to imagine either is ready for extended action in a College Football Playoff game.

Grinch unveiled a dime package this season that comes close in theory to Steele’s gambit, though. He primarily pulled it out of the bag in third-and-long scenarios, such as this third-and-14 play for Baylor in the Big 12 title game:

In this case, OU has subbed in cornerback Jaden Davis (No. 4) as a dime back in place of an inside linebacker from its base defense. The two-high look from the safeties enables them to help with coverage on vertical routes. Meanwhile, MIKE LB Kenneth Murray and RUSH LB Nik Bonitto can play drop zones or get after the passer when called upon.

No sure thing

Unfortunately for Grinch and Lincoln Riley, a DB-heavy approach is far from a sure bet against a team like LSU. In fact, the Georgia Bulldogs tried to mimic the Auburn 3-1-7 versus LSU in this year’s SEC championship game. Burrow appeared far more in-control in that game, completing 28 of his 38 throws for 349 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers in a 37-10 route by the Tigers.

If a team with UGA’s athletes can’t stop LSU, why would it behoove OU to go small on D?

Like Auburn, OU can try to make LSU take more plays to score. That introduces the possibility of more mistakes and turnovers on the part of the Tigers, especially following an extended layoff.

Moreover, a DB-heavy alignment all but dares the Tigers to keep the ball on the ground to capitalize on light run boxes. Even if that entails conceding yards to the LSU running game, wouldn’t you prefer that LSU try to move the ball that way without Clyde Edwards-Helaire as opposed to seeing Burrow and his collection of freakish receivers lighting up an overmatched secondary?

Ultimately, OU isn’t going to shut down the Tigers. The Sooners had slim to no chance of doing so before they lost defensive end Ronnie Perkins and safety Delarrin Turner-Yell for the game. With both of them out, Slim is nowhere to be found.

A plan of attack that limits deep throws and forces LSU to execute consistently sounds like a decent complement to OU’s salty rush offense, however. That may be the Sooners’ best hope of staging the biggest upset in CFP history.