From the opening drive of Saturday’s game against the Oklahoma Sooners, the Nebraska Cornhuskers made their intentions known.
Defensively, coordinator Erik Chinander would not get beat by OU throwing deep. The Huskers routinely played 2-4-5 personnel, showing OU soft zones in coverage with deep safeties. The NU cornerbacks also gave the OU receivers generous cushions.
Essentially, NU conceded short throws and dared the Sooners to run the ball. The plan was for NU defenders to keep the ball in front of them and then rally to it. Ultimately, the Huskers had three goals:
- Force OU to be patient and execute consistently on long drives;
- Bow up to force field goals once the Sooners had less room to operate; and
- Shorten the game.
Mission: accomplished. OU scored 23 points, its lowest total in a game since 2016. (Two of the points came on a blocked extra point that Pat Fields returned for a safety.) The Sooners scored three touchdowns on drives of 14, 10 and 12 plays that consumed a combined 17 minutes off the game clock.
Meanwhile, OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch schemed to contain explosive NU quarterback Adrian Martinez and force the Huskers to win with Martinez throwing from the pocket. NU’s mercurial QB responded with one of the better games of his career, enabling the Huskers to sustain long drives and keep the Sooner O off the field. The complementary approach limited OU to just nine offensive possessions, similar to the Sooners’ infamous matchup with Army three years ago.
The gambit made sense for embattled NU coach Scott Frost. A shootout with OU wouldn’t go well for his team, and getting embarrassed wouldn’t do him any favors with Big Red fans who are tiring of watching the Huskers flounder. Ironically, the game plan overseen by OU coach Lincoln Riley seemingly gave NU a boost.
The Sooners could have leaned heavily on their rushing attack. NU’s scheme was set up for OU to pound the ball, and the Cornhuskers don’t stop the run well in the first place. Note that lowly Illinois ran for 4.2 yards a pop on the Nebraska D when they met in week zero.
Could have been all day pic.twitter.com/YLVPQ5cPc2— Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism) September 19, 2021
For their part, the Sooners didn’t have any trouble running the ball against NU, churning out 5.5 yards per attempt. Running backs Eric Gray and Kennedy Brooks rushed for a combined 159 yards on 29 carries, while quarterback Spencer Rattler added 35 yards on six attempts.
Check out how the NU ILB (No. 42) reacts to what he sees here - that play is diagnosed pic.twitter.com/3pdUGhB5l2— Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism) September 19, 2021
At the end of the game, OU’s offensive plays had an almost even split of 35 runs to 34 passes. In other words, instead of thumping the Huskers on the ground, Rattler was looking for receivers in crowded zones down the field. The Sooners weren’t really using new material in the passing game, either (see above).
OU’s coaches saw what everyone else did. So why wouldn’t the Sooners accept the Huskers’ invitation to run at will? It’s hard to say without sitting in the coaches’ meetings, but the most likely explanation is depth – or lack thereof.
The Sooners are managing a thin running back room after losing six scholarship players from the 2020 group. With just two scholarship backs left on the roster this year, Riley certainly appeared loath to give Gray and Brooks too many unnecessary carries in the first three games. It’s an understandably delicate balance between keeping Brooks and Gray healthy for the long haul and doing what it takes from play to play to win games.
Riley could add options to OU’s running repertoire by using Rattler’s legs more, of course. Similarly, the Sooners could put together a legitimate QB run package for freshman Caleb Williams, who scored in the season opener against on a QB Power call on the goal line.
OU also has alternatives to Gray and Brooks at running back who could get more work. H-back Jeremiah Hall, for instance, has received a handful of carries throughout his career. Walk-on RBs Todd Hudson and Jaden Knowles are waiting their turn on the sidelines.
Those options seem workable in theory, but here’s the operative question: Are they better than what OU is doing now? Knowing what we know about Rattler as a runner, giving him more designed keepers and reads doesn’t sound more appealing than the offense in its current form. Adding more plays for Williams to the game plan means taking time away from preparing the staples of the offense. Using Hall as a more traditional back requires taking him out of his role as a blocker and receiver.
Those alternatives all sound more like what to do in an emergency. Winning games in closer-than-expected fashion shouldn’t qualify.
If the suggestion that OU played Nebraska’s style of game on Saturday sounds like a criticism of Riley and the coaching staff, it’s not. From the outside looking in, it seems clear that the coaches treated the first three games of the year as a preamble to the rest of the season. Given the realities of the roster, Riley presumably did what he felt necessary.
We can debate what that may mean for the team culture and mentality of the players. However, there’s no denying that the Sooners got out of their first three games undefeated and in decent health.
Let’s see what happens when OU hits the throttle.