The Oklahoma Sooners’ 35-32 loss to the Florida State Seminoles in the Cheez-It Bowl on Thursday night felt familiar. It marked the fourth time in the 2022 season that the Sooners lost by a field goal and the fifth time they lost by one score. Once again, OU committed enough mistakes on the margins to fall short in a game it could have won.
However, the losing effort still showed the Sooners made strides during the break between the end of the regular season and the bowl game. We also got a preview of what the 2023 season might look like.
A few observations and notes from the game.
OU showed up
Plenty of factors pointed towards the potential for an FSU blowout, reflected in the pregame spread of 9.5 points. Four of OU’s key players opted out playing in the game to preserve their NFL draft status; FSU had none. Meanwhile, the Seminoles ended the regular season on a tear by winning their final five games. And, as expected, Camping World Stadium in Orlando served as a de facto home field for FSU, which was vying for its first season with double-digit wins since 2016.
Given the circumstances, the fact that OU didn’t roll over speaks well of the morale in the locker room. Sure, playing hard may sound like a low bar to clear. Look around at some of the performances other shorthanded teams have put up during this bowl season, though.
(It bears mentioning that offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby constructed an outstanding game plan that saw OU run the ball 60 times against 24 passes.)
The most notable wrinkle in the game on defense was periodically shifting WILL linebacker Danny Stutsman to MIKE in place of David Ugwoegbu. CHEETAH LB DaShaun White stayed on the field in those packages, and an extra defensive back replaced Ugwoegbu in the lineup. White often lined up as a high safety in the package, which might best be described as a 4-1-6 alignment:
Other times, White joined Stutsman the run box:
Does this indicate a new role for Stutsman in ‘23? If so, does that mean Ugwoegbu might return to playing on the edge? Seems like a viable solution from head coach Brent Venables to the problems that plagued OU at inside LB this season.
Pass rush remains a major concern
The Sooners’ inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks hamstrung the defense all season. The final game was no different.
OU managed to sack FSU’s Jordan Travis twice on his 45 drops. The Sooners’ best hope to put any heat on Travis came from exotic pressures and playing games on the edges. Asking defensive linemen to beat opposing blockers one-on-one amounted to surrender. Travis and FSU receiver Johnny Wilson both played extraordinary football, but it makes it easier to hit downfield throws when the QB isn’t under duress.
Looking ahead, youngsters like R Mason Thomas and blue-chip recruit PJ Adebawore should see plenty of opportunities to make a difference on the edge.
Backfield rotation looks set
Freshman Gavin Sawchuck fell victim to “out of sight, out of mind” during a regular season in which he received a total of two carries. After Eric Gray opted out of the bowl game and Marcus Major again fell victim to an injury, Sawchuck had to share the workload with Jovantae Barnes. He left a lasting impression in the process, carrying the ball 15 times for 100 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Barnes rushed for 108 yards and a score on 27 attempts. The upside of a Gray-Sawchuck combo probably diminishes the need for OU to find a transfer back in preparation for the fall.
Incorporating QB run
Sticking with the running-game theme, we got a chance to see what OU’s offense looked like with QB Dillon Gabriel carrying the ball more often. Excluding sacks, Gabriel ran the ball eight times for 54 yards. His carries included multiple conversions on third down.
The coaching staff never came out and said as much during the season, but they clearly wanted to shield Gabriel from taking too much punishment. The QB play in losses to TCU and Texas with Gabriel on the shelf showed why. With hyped freshman Jackson Arnold joining the team as an early enrollee, the coaches may feel more comfortable letting Gabriel stretch his legs in ‘23. If so, that should give OU’s offense a boost.
Solid performance by the offensive line
The Sooners were missing three starters on the OL coming into the game, and they lost a fourth prior to kickoff when guard Chris Murray was ruled out. The unit drew a tall order taking on FSU’s talented defensive line, which included a potential first-round NFL draft pick in Jared Verse. They held up well for the most part and controlled the line of scrimmage well enough to allow the Sooners to rush for more than five yards per carry on called run plays.
There were some rough moments, such as a holding penalty on guard Savion Byrd that took away a TD run in the first half. Giving up six sacks also indicates the unit isn’t quite ready for prime time. Meanwhile, a leg injury for freshman offensive tackle Jacob Sexton represents a setback for the group’s development in the upcoming offseason. Even so, the big uglies offered some optimism for next year.