Once a laughingstock, the Oklahoma Sooners now have a defense that probably qualifies as, at minimum, good.
Through four games in 2021, OU is allowing 16 points per contest. Even if the unit’s performance drops the rest of the season, the Sooners will probably cut their average points per game down from the 2020 mark of 21.7. If you want to get more esoteric, OU ranks 25th nationally in Defensive SP+, an opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency. Keep in mind the Sooners ranked 84th in 2018, the season before Alex Grinch took over as defensive coordinator.
The Sooners owe much of that overall improvement to a defensive line that has become one of the nation’s best. OU is tied for 13th overall in tackles for loss per game at eight. The DL accounts for 19 of those 32 TFLs – 23 of 32 if you count OU’s RUSH outside linebackers as part of the defensive front.
OU’s last two games have illustrated how teams are building their game plans around neutralizing that havoc-wreaking defensive front.
The Sooners have undergone a significant shift in the types of players they recruit on the defensive line and how they develop them in their strength and conditioning program. Pre-Grinch, OU wanted big, beefy linemen who could plug two gaps in the trenches. The media guide for 2018, for instance, lists several DLs weighing in the range of 300 to 330 pounds.
The Sooners now keep their front on the lighter side to help maintain their athleticism and generate disruption. The heaviest DLs on the team in 2021, nose tackles Perrion Winfrey and Isaiah Coe, come in at 292 pounds.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost apparently looked at OU’s scrawny front and thought his team’s best hope was pounding them. The Cornhuskers ran the ball 38 times in week three versus OU and threw it 25 times. NU featured bigger personnel packages against the Sooners, including a look with two massive tight ends in No. 11 Austin Allen (6-9, 255 pounds) and No. 83 Travis Vokolek (6-6, 260):
NU’s rushing attack didn’t produce much, however. In raw terms, the Huskers ran for 95 yards on 38 attempts, or 2.5 yards per rush. It looks a little better when you take away five sacks for 28 yards, which works out to 3.7 yards per attempt.
The West Virginia Mountaineers took a different approach last week. Rather than try to push the OU defensive linemen around, WVU coach Neal Brown did his best to avoid challenging them more than necessary.
Unlike NU, the Eers skewed heavier to the pass (29 runs to 34 passes). Running back Leddie Brown and wildcat quarterback Garrett Greene combined for 71 yards on 20 carries for an average of 3.6 yards per attempt. WVU enjoyed most of its success on slant routes to Bryce Ford-Wheaton, who caught eight passes for 93 yards.
In fact, WVU used the same concept repeatedly. Three receivers lined up to the field side of the formation, while Ford-Wheaton lined up to the boundary (image above). On the snap, the WVU RB would run towards the boundary flat, clearing out the WILL inside linebacker. WVU QB Jarret Doege could then fire the ball out immediately to Ford-Wheaton in the vacated space, allowing the burly wideout (6-3, 220) to use his size to get off the line of scrimmage and shield OU’s cornerback from the ball. (OU radio analyst Teddy Lehman gave a superb explanation of this concept on his podcast this week.)
By using plays that called for short drops and quick throws, Brown essentially removed the OU DL from the equation.
Although NU and WVU went about it differently, the approaches to minimizing the damage caused by OU’s DL helped produce games that played out in similar ways. For starters, both teams limited the exposure of their QBs to pressure that can lead to turnovers, an area in which the Sooners are starting to excel under Grinch’s philosophy.
They also moved the ball incrementally with multiple drives that lasted at least nine plays. That had the additional benefit of draining the clock and keeping the OU offense on the sidelines. The Sooners got just nine possessions in each game, four fewer than their per-game average in 2020.
As a result, the double-digit underdogs both played OU down to the wire. That means the Sooners may see more teams rolling with similar game plans the rest of the way. In fact, keep an eye out for it in OU’s game this weekend. The opponent, Kansas State, took a Nebraska-like approach to upsetting the Sooners in 2019.