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Oklahoma Sooners Football: A tale of two running games

The ground game plays more of a central role in Jeff Lebby’s offense than what OU saw under Lincoln Riley.

Syndication: The Oklahoman STEVE SISNEY / USA TODAY NETWORK

It was the penultimate game of the 2021 regular season for the Oklahoma Sooners, and they had spent that particular November afternoon futzing around with the Iowa State Cyclones. Nursing a 21-14 lead with seven minutes and 26 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the offense trotted out to take possession at the OU 32 yard line following a Cyclones punt.

With the Sooners sending out 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end), the ISU defense set up with five players – three defensive linemen and two inside linebackers – in the run box between the wing TE on the left side of OU’s offensive formation and the right tackle. The Cyclones had shown OU and coach Lincoln Riley the same look all day.

On the first play of the drive, running back Kennedy Brooks chugged around left end for 26 yards to the ISU 42. A face mask penalty added 15 yards to the run. On the next play, quarterback Caleb Williams again handed the ball to Brooks, who gashed the Cyclones for nine yards on a cutback run. Brooks took another handoff up the middle for seven yards. With first-and-goal from the ISU 10, running back Eric Gray subbed in for TE Brayden Willis and chewed up three yards on a lead run behind Brooks. On second down, Gray took the ball the final seven yards to the end zone on a counter with five minutes and six seconds left on the clock.

Five plays, all runs. Sixty-eight yards. Two-and-half minutes off the clock. Most importantly, it gave the Sooners the game-deciding touchdown in a 28-21 win.

More than a month earlier, the Ole Miss Rebels had hosted the Arkansas Razorbacks in Oxford. The two teams combined for more than 100 points and almost 1,300 yards in total offense for the game, which Ole Miss won.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom aligned the Hogs defense thusly throughout the entire contest:

Remind you of anything? Even with the nickel hedging towards the line of scrimmage, Arkansas is showing the Rebels a light run box not unlike what the Cyclones threw at OU. (For the record: Ole Miss ran for a 63-yard TD on this particular play.)

Juxtaposing these two games against opponents playing similar defenses gives a feel for what will change this year at OU under offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby.

The drive described above versus ISU seemed like a microcosm of Riley’s orientation towards running the ball. As was the case in a handful of other games throughout the year, Riley didn’t seem inclined to lean on his team’s rushing until absolutely necessary.

OU’s ground attack put together a stellar day against ISU’s stingy defense, which ranked 22nd nationally with an average 3.54 yards allowed per rushing attempt in ‘21. The Sooners ran for 209 yards on 34 carries against the Cyclones, an average of 6.1 yards every time they went to the ground. At the same time, Williams was struggling throwing the ball, completing nine of his 19 attempts for 97 yards in the game. The rookie QB also showed the kind of lax ball security that occasionally got him into trouble, tossing one interception in the second half and getting stripped on a drop back in OU’s end zone. (Offensive tackle Anton Harrison grabbed the loose ball and carried it out across the goal line, preventing the Clones from scoring a defensive TD.)

Nevertheless, OU had called 23 pass plays to 21 runs leading up to the start of that aforementioned fourth-quarter drive. The Sooners finished the game with nine consecutive rushing plays, including one kneel-down on the final snap.

Conversely, of their 70 total offensive plays in the game against Arkansas, the Rebels ran the ball 49 times, which works out to 70% of its snaps. Why go so heavy on the ground? The Rebs generated 6.6 yards per rush for 324 yards in the game.

Even allowing for circumstantial factors that might have impacted the how the two teams ran their offenses in those particular games, that disparity has to reflect differences in mentality. So what are they?

Riley never shares much publicly about his schemes. From the outside looking in at Riley’s offense, however, running and passing generally appear to work as constraints against each other. He has a diabolical ability to make different plays look the same through formations or personnel or blocking schemes or any number of contextual factors. The goal is to manipulate opposing defenses so that: a) they can’t anticipate what is coming from the offense; or b) they guess wrong about what is coming.

So there’s a secondary outcome to every play beyond just the amount of yards it gains/loses. It also lays the groundwork for subsequent plays. Additionally, each play call is also influenced by what was called before it. (Very Hegelian.) Therefore, throwing against a light run box does have a logic to it: Every play is part of a broader framework that theoretically makes the offense more effective.

In contrast, if Lebby sees five in the box during games this fall, consider a run play to be the default call. His RPO-heavy offense appears intent on building from the ground up. Not only are his offenses playing consistently at a high tempo, they’re also skewing to the run. Last season, for instance, Ole Miss ran the ball on 58% of its offensive plays. Especially notable, the Rebels ran the ball on 45% of their passing downs in ‘21, which was significantly higher than the national average last year.

So which offensive approach is better?

There’s no answer to that question. They’re just different.

However, if you got tired of screaming at the Sooners to run the ball in the last five seasons, get ready for a more pleasant experience watching their games in 2022.