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Previewing the Orange Bowl: The Oklahoma defense

While the Sooners very well may have the best offense in college football, their defense skews decidedly terrible

Oklahoma State v Oklahoma
Oklahoma, owners of the nation’s last-ranked pass defense.
Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

It’s a shame that the Oklahoma offense must be saddled to a defense that is as inept as the O is potent. If the defense was half as talented as the Kyler Murray-led offense, then the Sooners would be almost unbeatable.

However, that’s not the case, as the Sooners come into their Orange Bowl playoff match-up with Alabama as a decided underdog. While the two teams share similarly-arrayed, explosive offenses regarded as two of the best in the nation for 2018, the Tide has a distinct advantage on the other side of the ball. While Bama has seen a drop-off in defensive play this season when compared to the standard of previous campaigns, Oklahoma has had one of the nation’s worst defenses yet again. That led to the mid-season firing of former DC Mike Stoops, with former ECU head man Ruffin McNeil promoted to the lead role.

Thus far, it hasn’t mattered who has worn the headset. While the Sooner run defense falls in the bottom two-thirds of college football, the pass defense has been abysmal. That will be a problem when the Sooners face Alabama, as no matter which quarterback leads the Tide, there will be no doubt that the passing attack will be potent. The Oklahoma defense allowed teams like Texas, West Virginia, and Texas Tech to slash them up in the passing game. They even allowed lowly Kansas to run for 348 yards earlier this year. There’s no doubt that Oklahoma has a defense problem, and against the Tide’s potent offense, those defensive hens will come home to roost.

It doesn’t seem to matter who’s at the helm of the Sooner defense, as not since Barry Switzer prowled the sidelines have they been formidable. Since 2007, the Sooners have only had two consensus All-American defensive players, and none in the last eight seasons. That’s a problem against a team like Alabama, which has a defense that is good enough to challenge the Sooner offense even if it doesn’t win every battle. On the other hand, the Tide’s offense will definitely keep pace against the Sooners, as Alabama is one of few teams in the country who can trade offensive blow for blow with OU.

Can Oklahoma do enough to slow Bama’s defense and give Murray and Company an edge on the scoreboard? Or will the Tide offense boat race the Sooner defense like countless lesser teams have this season. We’ll know soon enough. Let’s take a closer look.

The Roster

· DE: Kenneth Mann, Junior (6-3, 264 pounds) – 47 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble

o Isaiah Thomas, Freshman (6-5, 254 pounds) – 4 tackles

· NT: Neville Gallimore, Junior (6-2, 330 pounds) – 46 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 pass defended

o Dillon Faamatau, Junior (6-3, 319 pounds) – 15 tackles, 1 pass defended

· DT: Amani Bledsoe, Junior (6-5, 287 pounds) – 32 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 7 passes defended

o Tyreece Lott, Sophomore (6-2, 301 pounds) – 9 tackles, 1 tackle for loss

· Jack: Ronnie Perkins, Freshman (6-3, 254 pounds) – 35 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 pass defended

o Mark Jackson, Jr., Junior (6-1, 239 pounds) – 43 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 pass defended

· MLB: Kenneth Murray, Sophomore (6-2, 238 pounds) – 140 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery

o DaShaun White, Freshman (6-0, 221 pounds) – 13 tackles

· WLB: Curtis Bolton, Senior (6-0, 218 pounds) – 133 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 2 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries

o Caleb Kelly, Junior (6-3, 231 pounds) – 54 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 pass defended, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles

· CB: Tre Norwood, Sophomore (6-0, 179 pounds) – 53 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception, 5 passes defended

o Justin Broiles, Freshman (5-10, 181 pounds) – 24 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss

· FS: Robert Barnes, Sophomore (6-2, 207 pounds) – 51 tackles, 0.5 tackle for loss, 1 interception, 2 passes defended

o Delarrin Turner-Yell, Freshman (5-10, 175 pounds) – 12 tackles, 1 pass defended

· SS: Jordan Parker, Sophomore (5-10, 182 pounds) – 8 tackles

o Justin Broiles, Freshman (5-10, 181 pounds) – 24 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss

· CB: Tre Brown, Sophomore (5-10, 182 pounds) – 52 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 12 passes defended

o Parnell Motley, Junior (6-0, 177 pounds) – 59 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 10 passes defended

· NB: Brendan “Bookie” Radley-Hines, Freshman (5-9, 186 pounds) – 39 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, five passes defended

o Patrick Fields, Freshman (5-11, 193 pounds) – 5 tackles

How the Oklahoma defense will attack the Alabama offense

Simply put, the Oklahoma defense is a raging tire fire. There is literally nothing that the Sooner defense does particularly well. The statistics don’t lie, and the Sooners come well shy of passing even the eye test. One need only watch the OU defense in action to know that they lack fundamentals, are poor tacklers overall, and are out of position often, particularly in pass defense.

Speaking of the stats, let’s review a few of those data points. There’s only one measurable in which the Sooners place in the top half of the nation’s defenses, and that is the run defense. They allow 156.7 yards per game on average, which is good for 53rd overall. That said, they did give up nearly 350 yards on the ground and almost 10 yards per carry to Kansas earlier this year…so there’s that.

The Sooners next best defensive data marker is team sacks, where they are ranked 67th with 28 (Alabama, for comparison, has 42, which is sixth nationally). The remainder of the major defensive measurables form a litany of misery for the OU faithful, as Oklahoma is ranked 108th in total defense (448.1 yards per game allowed), 129th (or dead last) in pass defense in allowing 291.4 yards per game, 96th in scoring defense (32.4 points per game, and 112th in third-down defense (45.2 percent conversion rate). They’re also 83rd in turnover margin (-2 with 11 gained and 13 lost), and 128th in red zone defense (93.36 conversion rate allowed). Their pass efficiency defense ranks a lowly 105th.

That’s pretty pathetic, and Oklahoma’s defense represents one of the worst units the Tide has faced this year statistically. The advanced stats are equally as damning despite adjustments. The Sooners are 89th in defensive S&P, 83rd in defensive success rate, 68th in IsoPPP+ defense, 53rd in rushing S&P+, 91st in passing S&P+, 95th on standard downs, 67th on passing downs, and 88th in Havoc rating.

The lackluster defensive play has plagued Oklahoma for years even while its offense flourished. For years, Stoops was blamed for the poor defensive showing, so much so that he changed course in 2017 by shifting the Sooners from their traditional 3-4 into a 4-3 Under front with a Jack linebacker as a dedicated pass rusher. That change didn’t produce the desired results, and consequently, Stoops was released after Oklahoma lost a shootout to rival Texas during the regular season. In that game, the pass defense was particularly egregious, as Longhorn QB Sam Ehlinger ripped the secondary for a 24-of-35 performance for 314 yards and two touchdowns through the air (and three on the ground).

Enter McNeil. During his time as DC, things haven’t gotten much better. In fact, they’ve skewed slightly worse. Since McNeil took over, the Sooners have endured four of their worst five defensive performances of the season. If not for the electrifying offense, there likely would be no conversation about Oklahoma’s chances in the playoffs, as they’d be well outside of the playoff picture.

Schematically, what the Sooners do is simple. Though technically the base defense is a 4-3 Under, against opponents that are primarily passing threats they drop into a 4-2-5 with nickel personnel in the secondary and a dedicated Jack linebacker as an edge rusher. It’s a one-gap defense, so the Sooners can attack downhill aggressively without reads that can cause hesitation. In the back end, they play standard coverages, with a lot of Cover-2, quarters, and zone looks mixed in for good measure. They’ll even go Man with a safety over the top if the offense lines up three or fewer wide receivers. They rarely use Man against the four-wide receiver sets they see often in the Big 12, unless they have nickel personnel on the field.

The front aligns in what looks more like a 4-3 Over than Under, with a 3-technique tackle, 1-technique nose, 5-technique end, and a 9-technique Jack. However, the formation isn’t aligned to the tight end, as it would be in a straight Over, but rather shades the strength towards the boundary depending on which hash the ball rests on. The Will lines up directly behind the tackle, with the Mike working between the nose and end. The nose, end, and Mike typically work to the wide side of the field while the Jack, Will, and tackle work the boundary side. When they are in the 4-3 without a nickel, Caleb Kelly plays a Sam role and flies all over the field with his athleticism in pursuit, and he lines up in space to the field side where he can read the OL for a run or pass. On a run, he crashes the line of scrimmage, and on passes he helps in coverage by bracketing the slot.

The problem comes when the Sooners begin to adjust to the relative strengths of offenses, particularly when those offenses use the type of spread pro-style concepts that Alabama leverages. The 4-2-5 the Sooners shift to against pass-happy teams can prevent the horizontal stress that spread offenses create on a standard 4-3 with average linebacker talent. Conversely, when teams give the Sooners four-wides and spread the field, there are gaps to be exploited in the running game, especially when physically imposing offense lines are spearheading the attack.

For example, a spread formation with three wides to the field side can wreak havoc on the Mike and create a stress fracture in the OU defense in the B-gap. When three wides line up to one side, the Mike usually has to shade over to help with the slot receiver, mostly on shallow routes. Doing so moves the MLB, who is the RPO run safety valve, out of the play. The Mike (or in some cases the Sam) is forced to make a choice between bracketing the slot man and risking a B-gap run on an outside zone play, or staying at home in the B-gap and giving up a quick pass to the seam that can result in a big play. A savvy quarterback like Tua can use that dynamic to evacuate the Mike, the transition via RPO to a run that will plow straight at the space left vacant by the shifting MLB. It creates a huge mismatch, and the back is almost guaranteed second level penetration if the play is correctly blocked and executed.

The same tactic can be used on the narrower boundary side against the Will. The Will has a similar responsibility to cover the A-gap or the halfback/ H-back/ tight end coming out of the backfield. There’s less room to move on the boundary side, but the timeframe is also compressed, which favors the offense. If Alabama chooses to attack Curtis Bolton in such a way, he will either have to commit to stopping the run outside, or potentially allow Tua to RPO into an underneath pass to Josh Jacobs that will allow him to put his sharp-footed shiftiness to use against only two defenders who will remain on the boundary side of the field (one of whom, the corner, will be blocked by the boundary side wide receiver).

The only remedy is for the 3-technique tackle to wreck his blocker and blow up the A-gap so that the Will can maintain coverage integrity. With Bledsoe facing the likes of Jonah Williams, Lester Cotton, and Ross Pierschbacher, that’s a battle that he will struggle to dominate.

What the Sooners do defensively is not particularly innovative. It’s a vanilla scheme that attempts to do a few things well enough to get by without excelling in any one arena. The foibles of the Sooner D are many and are not solely related to the scheme. There are several former five-star blue chips on the defensive roster (such as Radley-Hines and Kelly), but for whatever reason, the defense hasn’t been able to turn the corner. They have size up front, athletes at linebacker and in the secondary, and yet they still can’t stop anyone.

The Result

Against Alabama, expect them to try to hold the rope early in the ground game knowing that their secondary will struggle with Bama’s potent passing game. While there has been some swagger talk from the Sooners in the weeks leading up to the game, no one (including Vegas insiders) expect the OU defense to be more than a speed bump for the Tide in the Orange Bowl. The Sooners have a historically bad pass defense, and the only teams that have given Tua Tagovailoa and the Tide receivers trouble this year have been top-25 pass defenses. Even then, the Tide prevailed. So, the notion that Oklahoma will suddenly develop a pass defense that can stop a machine like Alabama is ludicrous.

What can the Sooners do defensively to keep their offense in the game? To start, they’ll need to get a few stops. It doesn’t matter how they do it, whether on turnovers, third-downs, or even penalties. They cannot allow Alabama’s offense to run the field and string together drives, because every long drive by the Bama D takes time away from Murray and the offense.

On third down, they’ll have to consistently prevent Bama from converting. Alabama’s offense is second in the country in third-down conversions (52.8 percent conversion rate), while the OU defense is a lowly 112th in that metric. That doesn’t bode well for the Sooners, as if Alabama can put together long drives and keep Murray and his offense on the sidelines, the chances for an OU victory plummet.

Oklahoma must find some kind of pass rush. They haven’t been able to muster that to date against inferior offensive lines to the one they’ll face in Alabama. Alabama has done a great job of protecting the quarterback overall, as they rank ninth in sacks allowed with a mere 13 throughout the season. The Sooners rank 63rd in team sacks with 28, but they’ll have to find a way to pressure Tagovailoa or Hurts without losing containment as either man can burn their defense on the ground.

The only other hope the Sooner defense will have of stealing a series from the Tide will come through turnovers. Alabama has protected the ball well this season, as evidenced by their +8-turnover margin (13 lost on seven fumbles and six interceptions). Oklahoma, conversely, hasn’t been particularly opportunistic with a -2 margin (11 gained, 13 lost). While the two teams have lost the same number of turnovers, Alabama has 21 turnovers gained, 10 more than Oklahoma. The Sooners will have to find a way to create chaos for Alabama’s offense, and if they can’t do it with third-down stops, they’ll have to do it through turnovers. Again, that’s a tall order, as the Tide quarterbacks don’t throw many interceptions and the OU Havoc ratings (which factor in fumbles) are terribly low.

For Oklahoma, their offense represents their best defense. To have a chance at winning the game, OU will need to score on nearly every possession because the lacking Oklahoma defense won’t get many stops against Alabama unless they are self-inflicted through Tide mental errors or turnovers. The Sooners can minimize the damage done to their defense by keeping Tagovailoa and the Bama wide receivers off the field.

If Alabama can operate its full playbook against the withering Oklahoma defense, Murray may need to score 60+ to even have a chance at knocking off the top team in the land. Alabama has an equally potent offense compared with the one in crimson and cream, and against a defense that can’t stop the pass and struggles against teams that run well, the Tide will likely score at will.