The Sooners have another one this week that is hard to evaluate. All the history of this game recently is always put through the “Lincoln Riley” lens of evaluation this year. Are the previous struggles a credit the opposing team or a fundamental weakness exploited of the previous coaching staff?
Yeah, I know your answer.
I thought that way heading into Iowa State this past weekend. This one feels different. I talked about that difference this morning in the intro to my Hot Links post.
I, however, do think this matchup poses some hard questions on both sides of the ball. I spoke mostly on offense on that post, here I want to spitball around a little on defense. This season, Blake Shapen was given the reigns over a returning starter for one reason. Juice. Shapen had it. He raised the ceiling of this team, and he still might in future seasons with some development.
Shapen, however, has brought something else — chaos. Baylor’s offense changed fundamentally at the beginning of the year, allowing it to revolve around the arm and playmaking ability of their QB. That has led to some spotty results. Let’s run down some key games quickly here with my one-word descriptions.
BYU - Sacks
Oklahoma State - Turnovers
West Virginia - Electricity
Kansas - Turnovers
Tech - Scattered
Shapen is boom or bust, and this coaching staff knows that. Depending on the week, they have played with fire to varying degrees. However, like Oklahoma, Baylor is becoming more and more run dependent. Richard Reese is attempting to remove some load from Shapen, and I think that shows in the past two outings from the Bears. If Oklahoma can’t stop the run, they can’t force Shapen to beat them. If they can’t force Shapen to try and beat them, they can’t count on turnovers. It all leads to itself here.
What to watch
- Eric Gray has to have a good day. Baylor and Dave Aranda are going to try to force Gabriel to march the Sooners down the field by completing tough throws. Not by allowing Eric Gray’s draft stock to continue to rise. Despite the up-and-down performance of the Baylor defensive line, the Bears do have every tool to slow down Gray. However, if Oklahoma can keep the running game as it has been the past few weeks... this game might look a lot easier for Brent Venables.
- The tight end was such a major question mark for me heading into the year. Not because I doubted Brayden Willis but because I wasn’t sure how Lebby would use him. Not a ton of track record with a Lebby offense and tight ends. Willis has been amazing. I think he will likely be a guy who might see some single coverage this week if Aranda decides to double team Mims or stack the box against Gray. The Sooners have also struggled with red zone offense. He could be a solution here.
- Key Lawerence is a walking turnover producer. Given how I opened this article, I would circle Lawerence as the man who can take advantage of what Shapen gives you chances to do. Lawerence’s playing time has been a cryptocurrency value chart this year. Hopefully his play will finally speak for itself.
- Pass rush for Oklahoma still remains a major concern. We have seen more of it, when it is coming it is because Brent is dialing up pressure. The Sooners are still struggling to get consistent pressure with one-on-one moves. So, who needs to step up and change that this week? Jalen Redmond, the best player on this defensive front.
Know your opponent: Baylor Bears
- Richard Reese is a star. Averaging over five yards a carry, he has been a nightmare for opposing defenses, especially recently. Slippery and running with a jolt, Reese will test the integrity of your run fits. Every Sooner fan should’ve just did a cartoon (gulp) with that sentence. OU looked much better last week in that respect but admittedly, I think that was an Iowa State thing... not an Oklahoma thing. Reese will either show old wounds or prove Oklahoma’s defense has taken a step.
- Holmes and Baldwin are the receivers that the secondary needs to be aware of. Their longest receptions of this season are 56 and 70, respectively, and they account for over 700 yards through the air. However, while being the most effective pass catchers on the team, neither leads the Bears in receptions. That would be TE Ben Simms, who has 26 catches through the eight games thus far. Watch for Holmes to take advantage of the Sooners’ linebackers, and Holmes and Baldwin to try and get behind the Sooners’ secondary.
- Gabe Hall leads the Bears in sacks at three and a half. I bring him up to not really highlight him specifically, but more to highlight how little pressure Baylor has gotten this year consistently. Supposedly their strength does give me thoughts that maybe Gabriel, with time, can rekindle the connection with Marvin Mims. However, this defense can be as good as anyone at designing a sack when they need one. Their sack numbers are low, but they have gotten them with well-timed blitzes in critical moments.
- This coaching staff has struggled to find its footing this year. However, when it comes down to it, I won’t be the guy betting against someone like Dave Aranda when he knows the whole world is watching. No one in recently history has quite performed on the big stage like Dave Aranda and despite being on ESPN Plus, Oklahoma always gives their opponents a stage to stand on. Dave Aranda might have a guitar solo in his back pocket.
In short, I don’t think all Oklahoma’s struggles in recent years were a Lincoln Riley problem. I think Baylor is well-coached. I worry that OU’s progress against the passing game is real based of personnel changes, but the progress against the run might be a little fool’s gold. I think Reese has a big day. Baylor’s struggling defense has something for Oklahoma, as it always does. While the Sooners will have success on offense, it might be similar to last week where it lacks explosion, and I will always bet on Aranda in a close game.
Oklahoma - 23
Baylor - 26