The Oklahoma Sooners’ 35-23 win over the Kansas Jayhawks last weekend looked like the latest in a string of generally uninspiring wins on the road to an 8-0 record.
While it’s not uncommon for the Sooners work out the kinks early in the year, the 2021 OU team is taking starting slow to another level. Five of eight wins have come by one score or less. The Sooners overcame a 21-point deficit to beat Texas. KU might have been the most unsatisfying performance yet, with OU needing a comeback in the fourth quarter to squeak out a 32-23 win over one of the weakest teams in the power conferences.
Normally, the bottom falls out on teams that have scraped by in such a fashion. OU could definitely end up that way this year. Keep in mind the Sooners still have arguably their three toughest games remaining – road trips to Baylor and Oklahoma State and a home date with Iowa State.
But something about the way Lincoln Riley is approaching the 2021 season feels strange. I had the same experience watching the KU game that I’ve had multiple times already this year:
Although a stank showing on defense against the Jayhawks is drawing the ire of Sooner Nation this week, let’s talk about what OU was doing on offense.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: When the Sooners had possession, the Jayhawks played soft zone coverage to prevent big plays. OU has seen some version of this bend-but-don’t-break scheme from opponents five or six times this year. Here’s an example of what it looked like before the snap:
On its second possession of the game, OU is facing second and 10 from its own 36 yard line. The Sooners line up in 11 personnel with running back Kennedy Brooks and H-back Jeremiah Hall flanking quarterback Caleb Williams in the backfield. The receivers aren’t doing anything exotic.
The Jayhawks are playing a standard 4-2-5, and the defensive backs are giving the Sooners generous cushions. Thanks to the camera angles in Lawrence, we can’t see the cornerback and safety lined up to the boundary side of the field. We can surmise, however, that both are playing way off the line of scrimmage. The CB across from Marvin Mims to the field side of the formation is off about 10 yards. To the inside, the nickel across from slot receiver Drake Stoops is roughly eight yards back, while the strong safety sets up shop around nine yards from the line.
On the snap, Williams fakes a handoff with Brooks moving to the right. KU brings four rushers, while the two inside linebackers and the SS hedge momentarily based on the play action from Williams. The CBs, free safety and nickel bail on the snap. Essentially, the Jayhawks are playing Cover 3 with the two CBs and FS dividing the field into deep thirds.
For OU, Brooks sprints right to the flat, and Hall stays in to block. Mims runs a deep post, Stoops is on a deep slant route across the field and Jadon Haselwood is running an over route from the left side of the formation to the right.
The above image is what Williams sees from the pocket, where he is facing zero pressure. (Much obliged to ESPN analyst Robert Griffin III for providing a passing cone.) At this moment, the QB has three very good options:
- Throw down deep to the opposite sideline for Haselwood;
- Throw short to Brooks all by his lonesome in the right flat;
- Tuck it and head for all that green to the right.
Williams walks through door four. He holds the ball, rolls right and takes a 50/50 shot on the move down the field Haselwood, who ran out of open real estate once he got to the sideline. Interception.
We can conclude in this case that Williams made a poor decision, which is true. But consider the context in which this specific play happened.
The Jayhawks’ opening drive of the game, which ended in a touchdown, consumed 80 yards in 14 plays and took more than nine minutes off the clock. OU responded with a drive of five plays that took two minutes and 45 seconds in game time. It ended with a punt after a busted blocking assignment resulted in a sack. KU drained nearly seven minutes off the clock on the ensuing drive and came away with three points. Now trailing 10-0, OU’s shorthanded defense had been on the field for 26 plays.
That’s a long-winded way of saying the Sooners could have used some points on this drive – preferably from a long possession. Riley could have called an untold number of plays against that particular D to chew up an easy eight-ish yards and stay on schedule. Instead, the play call played right into the what the Jayhawks telegraphed they were doing from the jump.
So why call that play in that situation?
And that’s just one in a series of curious decisions. For instance, Williams’ legs have arguably provided the most effective weapon in OU’s arsenal for the last three games. He has averaged a whopping 10.3 yards per rush during that stretch. If you exclude sacks from his attempts, that increases to 13.3 yards.
On called run plays involving the QB against KU – all of which came in the fourth quarter – Williams had 82 yards on just four attempts. What does the final score look like if Riley unleashes the QB run from the jump?
I could keep going. The Sooners called one WR screen pass against KU despite all that ample room for receivers to operate around the line of scrimmage. Honestly, you could apply some of the same logic to the defensive side of the ball. It started with the liberal substitution patterns on defense from the first game of the season against the Tulane. Against KU, OU held out available players from the first string to give them an extra week off to recover from injuries.
It would make fans like me feel better to watch OU wipe the mat with teams like KU and Tulane. It’s entirely possible that this team just isn’t good enough to do that.
But it also seems clear to me that Riley isn’t coaching this team in ways that would maximize the quality of its play. (Texas excluded.) I don’t really see plans of attack intended to exploit the other teams’ weaknesses. Instead, I see game plans built on objectives like preserving players’ health and and testing how a freshman quarterback reacts to different situations. I’m guessing that’s not unintentional.
Combine that approach with almost every opponent playing to shorten the game and you get... well, whatever this season has been.
If that is true, it’s undoubtedly a gamble on Riley’s part. His team has played with fire week in and week out.
But the team currently sits at 8-0, and a win over Texas Tech this week would make OU the first team to go 9-0 in the first nine weeks of the college football season since 2010. If the goal was simply to survive and crank things up in November, the Sooners are approaching the stretch run intact.