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Flyover Football: Lincoln Riley’s takeover

In this excerpt from “Flyover Football: How the Big 12 became the frontier for modern offense”, Ian Boyd looks back at the 2016 shootout between Oklahoma and Texas Tech.

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NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Oklahoma at Texas Tech Photo by Sam Grenadier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The following is an excerpt from my new book “Flyover Football: How the Big 12 became the frontier for modern offense”. The book details how and why the spread offense took over in the Big 12, why it’s expanding to every other level of football, and finally what’s coming next for the Big 12 conference.

We pick up in 2015 when Oklahoma Sooners Bob Stoops decided to shake things up again on offense by hiring Lincoln Riley from East Carolina...

The situation in 2015 was unique for an Air Raid coach like Riley. The Sooners had a loaded backfield featuring RB Samaje Perine, who had just rushed for 1713 yards, as well as redshirt freshman Joe Mixon fresh off a one-year suspension. The OL had to rebuild after facing an exodus of big, talented seniors but senior receiver Sterling Shepard was back to lead the passing attack. Riley installed his Air Raid offense and Mayfield won the starting job over the less accurate Trevor Knight, but it all came together to look very different than expected.

Riley brought a lot of standard Air Raid schemes and approaches but he was also receptive to what OU had done well in the past with TEs and FBs on their roster and featuring an effective rushing attack. They opted to travel down the smashmouth spread path that Briles had helped pave, and they added a few major schematic breakthroughs. The biggest development in the run game came from Lincoln Riley bringing back Tom Osborne’s good old GT counter play with a new tweak for the spread era, an option read on the backside defensive end:

By having the QB read the backside end like on a zone-read, the offense could run the GT counter play from 2x2 or 3x1 spread sets with four receivers on the field and no one worrying about the defensive end. With the “double, kick-out, and lead” blocks of the traditional power scheme all executed by OL, the Sooners were able to build a power run game that they could execute with Air Raid spread sets, an OL in two point stances and wide splits, and no FB/TE was needed.

With a power run game established that way, the Sooners could then mix in RPOs, play-action, or vertical combos and slot fades, much like Art Briles’ Baylor teams had done against teams who’s safeties had to stay flat-footed to mind the run.

The Sooners also found a balance between their “multiple” offenses of the past and Riley’s preferred spread sets. Rather than going back and forth between bigger sets and spread sets, they used 6-5, 260 pound Mark Andrews as the “Y” slot receiver rather than as a true tight end and 6-2, 250 pound Dmitri Flowers as the “H” inside receiver/fullback.

Both could flex out to run routes or block on the perimeter and the Sooners could still use their power run game with the GT counter play because it didn’t require their help to block a DE. Or they could bring those two in to help punish smaller defenders if opponents tried to go small. Rather than picking on personnel deficiencies with multiple packages, the Sooners were doing it from the same personnel group, making tempo even more effective.

It was exceptionally hard to match up against that personnel because both Flowers and Andrews were so skilled and athletic; particularly Andrews who was a full-time flex tight end that could run vertical routes or attack the seams. Oklahoma also drew an advantage from the fact that despite flexing out like a slot, Mark Andrews could play up on the line like a tight end. That allowed the Sooners to play guys that would be slot receivers in other offenses at outside receiver. They played diminutive burners like the 6-0, 178 pound Dede Westbrook or 5-9, 166 pound Marquise Brown outside and either could play a yard off the ball and avoid the sort of press coverage that otherwise might have exploited their lack of size and strength. Nickel defenders had to contend with Andrews’ size and strength while cornerbacks had to deal with the speed of Westbrook or Brown in extra space.

Oklahoma won the Big 12 in 2015 and went to the playoffs, where they lost to the Deshaun Watson Clemson Tigers running their own smashmouth spread, installed by Chad Morris. In 2016 Oklahoma dropped pre-conference games against Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars and a home date with Ohio State before rebounding to go 9-0 in Big 12 play to win the league title again. They then headed to the Sugar Bowl where they pummeled power-spread Auburn 35-19.

At this point, it was clear that Lincoln Riley was a special offensive coordinator and the Sooners were beginning to make plans around him as the future of Oklahoma football. Determining to get out on his own terms and timeline, the legendary Bob Stoops decided to step down and retire, handing the scepter to Riley for the 2017 season. Another Big 12 championship followed, Baker Mayfield won the Heisman trophy as a redshirt senior, and the Sooners went back to the playoffs where they were edged out by Georgia 54-48 in overtime.

In 2018 the Sooners had to move on from Baker Mayfield but they had ultra-athletic, Texas HS product, Kyler Murray ready to step in after transferring in from Texas A&M, a redshirt season of his own, then another year backing up Mayfield. Murray led the new most efficient offense in college football history, edging out the 2017 Sooners, and Oklahoma won another Big 12 title and were knocked out in the playoffs again; this time going down 45-34 to Nick Saban’s Alabama.

Four years with Lincoln Riley in Oklahoma yielded four straight Big 12 championships, two Heisman trophies, and some of the following notable stats:

In essence, after the 2015 season the Sooners ruled the Big 12 entirely on the basis of their overpowering offense. Their combination of Air Raid passing with the smashmouth elements of play-action and RPOs were obliterating everyone. But their defense offered little in terms of generating turnovers, preventing efficient gains by opposing offenses, or preventing points. Riley’s Sooners struggled to beat other playoff teams due to their poor defense but it wasn’t an issue in the Big 12.

Since Ragnarok (the 2008 season, detailed in an earlier chapter), the league had seen a lot of no-defense championships and what good defense had been played in the Big 12 over this period didn’t avail those teams (such as 2014 Texas, 2017 TCU, 2018 Iowa State) in winning the conference. Not unless they also had a strong offense (such as 2009 Texas or 2014 Baylor).

The game that perhaps best defines this “defense?” -era took place in 2016 between Oklahoma and the Texas Tech Red Raiders, who’d rebounded from Mayfield’s departure thanks to the quick rise of another overlooked Texan high schooler named Patrick Mahomes II.

The Sooners had to travel to Lubbock for this one, which was particularly meaningful for Baker Mayfield who was returning to the stadium for the first time since transferring out. The teams were on two different trajectories. The Red Raiders were 3-3 after dropping games to Kansas State and West Virginia while Oklahoma was trying to claw back from a bad start (losing to Houston and Ohio State in the pre-conference games) and had narrowly won a pair of shootouts over TCU and Texas.

The Red Raiders found some inner fire for this contest and the result was a 66-59 shootout that would stun the college football world and be a reference point for years to come as both Mayfield and Mahomes would go on to find success in the NFL. Tech was being coached at this time by Kliff Kingsbury, who’d parlayed Texas A&M’s brilliant 2012 season into the head gig in Lubbock, and he was proving one of the cleverest coordinators and best quarterback coaches in the country.

This 2016 contest is one of the defining games of the Big 12’s history and it established three trend lines, the continued development of the more traditional Air Raid under Kliff Kingsbury, the variety of Air Raid more heavily influenced by Art Briles in Oklahoma’s power run/play-action formula, and the fact that defenses were nearly irrelevant for anyone who had a mastery of either style.

On the Tech side of things, their offense was built on the shoulders of Pat Mahomes, the most talented quarterback to ever play in the Big 12. The Raiders had him passing or running the ball on 100 snaps in this game. That’s right, “1-0-0.”

He completed 52-88 passes for 734 yards at 8.3 ypa with five touchdowns, one interception, and one two-yard sack. But that wasn’t all, the Raiders also leaned on Mahomes as their key rusher and he had 11 carries for 85 yards at 7.7 ypc with two rushing touchdowns. All told, he had 100 touches for 819 yards at 8.2 ypp with eight touchdowns, and a single turnover. When Eric Crouch won the Heisman at Nebraska in 2001 he’d thrown for 1510 yards over the course of the entire season.

10 different receivers caught passes for Tech with two guys (Keke Coutee and Jonathan Giles) going for 10 catches and 100+ yards while a third (Cameron Batson) came close with nine catches for 99 yards and a fourth (Ian Sadler) caught seven balls for 75 yards.

The Raiders didn’t have just a ton of long explosive plays, their drives consisted of Mahomes working down the field by picking up yardage in chunks and bursts via the passing game. In particular, the Red Raiders went 20-25 on third down and two for two on fourth down. It was all the Sooners could do to make Tech work a little for their points; anything beyond that was too difficult.

Oklahoma had a more balanced approach with three offensive players carrying heavy loads. Running back, Joe Mixon, had a big day with 31 carries for 263 yards at 8.5 ypc, two TDs, and four catches for another 114 yards and three touchdowns. All told he had 35 touches for 377 yards at 10.8 ypp and five touchdowns. Normally such a performance would make you the story of the game. Top receiver Dede Westbrook had nine catches for 202 yards with two scores, another huge day. Baker Mayfield had a record setting game completing 27-36 passes for 545 yards at 15.1 ypa with SEVEN passing touchdowns and zero interceptions. When Eric Crouch won the Heisman trophy at Nebraska in 2001 he’d thrown seven touchdown passes over the course of the entire season.

Other than the steady but still highly efficient running game with Joe Mixon, perhaps because of it, the Sooners were able to pick up a lot more chunk plays than the Raiders. The Sooners had six scoring plays of 25+ yards and three more touchdown passes by Mayfield from 23 yards out, 23 yards out (again), and 15 yards out.

The Sooners’ more balanced approach also included a smashmouth way of running the classic “Y-Cross” plays that had taken down Nebraska back in 2000. Oklahoma ran a double post play on back to back snaps for a pair of long completions (the second a touchdown) at one point in the game, utilizing the Y-Cross route (or the affect at least with a deep slot cross) and adding extra stress with play-action:

The play-action held the nickel and free safety, isolating the H slot receiver on the deep cross (against the strong safety) and the X outside receiver on the post (against the cornerback). The first time OU ran it they hit Westbrook as the X on the deep post. Then they ran it again and this time had the slot (Nick Basquine) matched up on the free safety, who couldn’t keep up with him so Mayfield hit that for a touchdown.

Underneath it all was the same principles at work in the Y-Cross play that helped take down Nebraska and their all-out blitzes years ago. But the addition of a power run game from spread sets which could suck in defenders and expose defenders to 1-on-1s down the field made it even deadlier. The power run game’s ability to draw in underneath defenders essentially left Texas Tech exposed on the back end in the same fashion as if they’d been blitzing those underneath defenders.

Texas Tech also used the classic Y-Cross Air Raid concept, but they employed it as part of a very different overall strategy. Here’s the version of the play that Kingsbury and Mahomes dialed up repeatedly on the Sooners:

In this iteration of the play, which Tech ran multiple times, Oklahoma brought a blitz with their middle linebacker, dropped a defensive end into the underneath zone to track Pat Mahomes if he scrambled, and dropped their strong safety down to cover the Y receiver (Jonathan Giles). It was 3rd-and-15 here and this play gave Mahomes a lot of options. There was the slot fade by the H receiver if the Sooners didn’t have help on that from the safety, and then the whip/dig combination on the other side with the R receiver and Z receiver. Then there was the Y-Cross, which Mahomes locked onto and whipped past the strong safety and inside of the boundary corner who tried to come over to help. First down Texas Tech.

The Raiders’ ability to put five receivers on the field more often than not was a nightmare for the Sooners, who tried to match them in nickel and dime schemes but lacked the skill athletes to keep them covered up. Dime safety, Kahlil Haughton, was mercilessly hunted by Mahomes on a few 3rd downs before the Stoops brothers pulled him out for a linebacker. While the various blitzes and pressures regularly beat the Tech offensive line (the middle linebacker came free on this blitz), they couldn’t catch and bring down Pat Mahomes. One sack in 89 passing plays made for a tough day, and perhaps pointed more to the Sooners’ inability to keep all the Tech receivers covered and Mahomes own unique abilities, as it did to failures on the part of their pass-rushers.

After all, Mahomes would go on to run a 4.08 shuttle at the NFL combine at 6-2, 225 pounds. His size and quickness combined with his ability to throw balls to every quadrant of the field with touch or zip from a variety of arm angles made him exceptionally difficult to defend. His quickness and power also allowed him to run option or direct snap runs in short-yardage or the red zone to give the Raiders’ collection of finesse, skill athletes enough juice to finish drives with the run game.

Tech had taken Air Raid passing and the sort of matchup-hunting, adjustable vertical route game that Leach and Briles had utilized so effectively to a new level.

It was as though the Air Raid had gone nuclear.

Neither defense could do much about any of it and the Sooners won by avoiding turnovers (the Red Raiders had an early fumble and a single interception by Mahomes) and ultimately holding the ball last. It could be argued that the Texas Tech offense was actually more efficient, though it was unbalanced and made those crucial mistakes. By flooding the field with four or five receivers every snap the Raiders made the game into a contest of whether the Sooners could cover them all up without dropping so many defenders that Mahomes could have all day to find receivers.

The essence of strategy is to play to your strengths while trying to force your opponent to come to grips with their weaknesses. The HUNH spread is extremely effective at allowing offenses to achieve those strategic ends. With uptempo pace and multi-receiver sets the Red Raiders moved the focal point of the game into a realm where a talent like Mahomes could dominate. By mixing in smashmouth run schemes from spread sets the Sooners were able to build a lethal play-action attack that created a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” effect for the Tech defense and made the most of their overpowering OL and Mayfield’s particular knack for play-fakes and hitting deep throws.

By this point in the Big 12’s history the best offenses were so advanced, particularly the Sooners, that defense became nearly irrelevant for determining the champion. The 2018 Sooners that won the Big 12 title with Kyler Murray ranked 10th in the B12 in both scoring defense and 3rd down defense. They had figured out next to nothing in the two years since they let Mahomes drop nearly 1,000 yards in one night. It didn’t matter because the HUNH spread offense had allowed them to dictate the outcomes of games on their own terms. If you couldn’t be the most efficient offense in an up and down shootout you couldn’t beat Oklahoma. Even when the Sooners were playing bad defense it was hard to be the most efficient offense when you were playing Oklahoma.

If you enjoyed this excerpt and want to read more about how Bob Stoops drove offensive evolutions in the Big 12 with the hire of Mike Leach and the adoption of hurry-up tempo in 2008, or read more on what Riley brought to the equation, then check out the book!