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Duck Tape: Film Analysis of Oklahoma 2021

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A preview of Oregon’s Alamo Bowl opponent in San Antonio

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Special thanks to Chris Plank of the Sooner Radio Network and the Sooner Sports Podcast for joining me in a two-part podcast preview of Oklahoma. Listen HERE and HERE


Offense

Oklahoma famously switched starting quarterbacks in their sixth game this season against Texas, from #7 QB Rattler to true freshman #13 QB C. Williams. Rattler has since transferred to South Carolina, while Williams started the rest of the year.

The passing efficiency numbers don’t change much between the two quarterbacks – on the entire season, excluding garbage time and the FCS game, the Sooners have 178 successful designed passing plays vs 189 unsuccessful ones given the down & distance, or 48.5%. Rattler took a little under half of those snaps with a 50.9% success rate, while Williams came in at 46.4%.

That reflects a somewhat more conservative playstyle from Rattler and more of a tendency to check the ball down short. Williams is far more likely to take risks pushing the ball downfield, resulting in a gain of 15+ yards on almost 19% of his dropbacks, a massive improvement on Rattler’s 10.5% explosive passing rate. That raises Williams’ yards per pass attempt during meaningful play to a very healthy 9.2, a full yard and half over Rattler’s 7.7 YPA.

While somewhat raw and prone to some freshman mistakes, Williams’ athletic talent, arm strength, and running ability are some of the best I’ve ever seen, and I think he’s on track to be in Heisman contention next year if he can clean a few things up. Here’s a few selected plays to illustrate that talent:

(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed)

  1. :00 – The X-receiver is well covered and the inside routes to the field aren’t getting open, and pretty typically Williams refuses to hit the checkdown or get rid of the ball, instead ducking out of pressure and finding the Z-receiver in the endzone.
  2. :22 – Designed QB keep here with the back immediately blocking and the OL getting downfield. Watch Williams’ vision here, he makes two cuts to the left to get around traffic at the line and then a nice move to the right to dodge the DB.
  3. :32 – This one’s an RPO, with the screen threat to the field drawing off the overhang backer and high safety in Iowa St’s unique defense, and the starting RB as the lead blocker. Great acceleration by Williams, he looks like the fastest guy on the field.
  4. :46 – Miraculous escapes like this are almost commonplace for Williams.

The offensive scheme that former head coach Lincoln Riley designed for the Sooners — and Chris expects will continue without major deviation in the bowl game — was certainly an interesting one to watch. Riley was a quarterback at Texas Tech for head coach Mike Leach, whose Air Raid offense I’ve studied extensively during the eight years Leach coached at Washington St, and most of the route concepts in Riley’s passing game are straight out of the Air Raid playbook. The two major alterations are first that Riley extensively uses tight ends, and second that instead of checking into run plays only as a surprise when the defense presents a light box, Riley has devised a fascinating power rushing scheme with RPO elements that feed the passing game. Chris and I discussed those differences and the recruiting strategies which have likely led to them extensively on the podcast.

Here’s a representative sample of successful passing plays this season:

  1. :00 – Play-action is successful in getting the backers down and there’s a coverage bust here with both DBs to the field taking the flat route. This throw is pretty typical for Williams – it’s a little late (he should be throwing the instant the inside DB breaks for the flat) and a bit underthrown which lets that DB catch up to him, but the arm strength and accuracy are obvious.
  2. :30 – OU uses two different two-back looks, this is the one with the H-back in the backfield and it’s often an engineered RPO throw to him since he bluffs the run block.
  3. :37 – This type of playcall gave opposing defenses the most trouble – it’s an RPO with a very serious QB run threat that Williams often made good on, but here he checks into the throw at the last second when the safety comes down to hit him.
  4. :45 – Here’s one of OU’s backup receivers in action, just flying past the flatfooted DB. Williams’ throwing motion is unconventional, he usually does this backfooted twist even when not under pressure, but it doesn’t hamper his power or accuracy.

The biggest contrast in effectiveness between the Air Raid that Leach runs and Riley’s passing system that I observed this year is that the former is always in 10-personnel with four wide receivers and puts much of the emphasis on the inside routes for an efficiency approach, and I would typically chart championship-caliber passing efficiency numbers from Leach’s Wazzu teams. In 2021, Riley didn’t get nearly as much out of his tight ends and slot receiver, and most passing plays went to the outside receivers. That led to a boom-or-bust passing attack – either huge passing plays to the sideline or incompletions — and seemed to me to be a misuse of the extensive wideout talent on the roster.

Chris and I had a long discussion about why that might be, including what personnel will be available for the bowl game. Oklahoma distributed the ball pretty evenly to about nine different targets and seven of those will be available for the bowl game, plus they’re getting back a very talented receiver in #10 WR Wease who didn’t play during the regular season, so Williams will hardly lack experienced players to throw to. But the talent is clearly skewed to outside receivers and there’s only space for two of them in this offense, and it’s very difficult to tell who they’ll be.

The most interesting offensive departure is #11 WR Haselwood, who’s transferring to Arkansas. He had the most targets on the year with 39 receptions, and I think was something of a safety blanket for Williams on plays that were breaking down (I also think he was the best perimeter blocker for screens and outside runs). The rest of the receiver corps — including the very talented #17 WR Mims, #4 WR M. Williams, and #8 WR Woods who each had more than 30 catches — will be available for the game.

It’s an open question how the inside receivers go. #12 WR Stoops (son of Bob Stoops, the interim coach) played most snaps as a slot receiver, but his productivity wasn’t close to the rest of the group and he missed some time late in the season with an injury. There are a lot of schematically engineered passes to H-back #27 TE Hall, but as split-out tight ends I thought #18 TE Stogner, who’s also transferring to South Carolina, was significantly better than #9 TE Willis. In my opinion, Riley was making a mistake this year giving so many snaps to Stoops and Willis, and the productivity numbers suggest that 11-pers with Hall or simply 4-wide like Leach would run would have been significantly more efficient. It’s impossible to know what personnel decisions the interim staff will make, but there’s potential for revision in this regard during the bowl.

The other main issue, besides receiving personnel and Williams’ rawness, is that pass protection isn’t quite what I was expecting to see from a blueblood with this much talent. I was surprised that two different Pac-12 linemen whom I’ve never been high on were getting significant reps for the Sooners - #56 RG Murray from UCLA as a starter, and #66 C Congel from Arizona as a backup who’s made every snap for the last game and a half. While everybody else has about a 10% error rate on my tally sheet (indicating very good if not elite performance, in my experience), Murray and Congel came in at a distressing 15% and 18%, respectively. The starting center, #73 C Raym, is uncertain for this game. I think #71 LT Harrison is great starting tackle and so have been puzzled why there’s been a rotation between him and #77 OT Swenson, while #52 RT Robinson grades out somewhat worse but has a higher snap count. Rounding out the line is #54 LG Hayes, who took every snap I tallied and played well.

Here’s a representative sample of failed passing plays during Williams’ tenure as starter:

  1. :00 – Again Haselwood as the X-receiver is covered and it’s giving Williams some trouble, you can see him scanning the field trying to find any other outlet. As we talked about on the podcast, throwing the ball away isn’t his style, and eventually the pressure gets through for a sack.
  2. :08 – All the elements of this play are pretty common – poise in the pocket through the blitz, eyes downfield for Mims the whole way, beautiful arc on the ball, but a little late and a little underthrown, and the DB gets the break-up.
  3. :23 – Fairly typical freshman stuff here, Williams needs to unlock from the first read when the backer breaks that way and find the post route where Hall has leverage. Instead it’s tipped by the underneath coverage he doesn’t see.
  4. :38 – This play illustrates what has to happen to shut down OU’s most common 3rd down passing pattern – outside verticals, inside hitches. Pretty simple man coverage with a blitz, and note how the MIKE and the rushers keep eyes on the QB to deal with the scramble.

Oklahoma’s run game was a treat to watch. I’ve never seriously studied a power run game like this merged with RPOs and an Air Raid passing scheme, though I’ve discussed it with other film reviewers. It’s the Sooners’ most efficient quadrant of football, with 133 successful designed rushes vs 123 unsuccessful ones, or 51.9%. While the explosive rushing rate is about average for Power-5 schools with around 15% going for 10+ yards, the yards per carry number is fantastic at 6.2 on designed runs outside garbage time.

I attribute much of that to Oklahoma’s elite starting back, #26 RB Brooks, who shows excellent patience and vision making one cut and getting downhill, and generates a lot of yards after contact. Williams also significantly raises the designed run averages by getting almost 11 yards per carry excluding scrambles and sacks, and much of the offense uses read option runs, delayed draws, and QB power. The backup, #0 RB Gray, is capable but lacks Brooks’ and Williams’ explosiveness, averaging about 4.4 YPC. Here’s a representative sample of successful rushes:

  1. :00 – I believe this is an RPO instead of a QB draw with an extremely long delay, but either way this playcall is the most significant addition since the QB switch, as the staff clearly trusts Williams with each element of it – the read, fake, and run.
  2. :10 – This play precedes the touchdown pass against Kansas in the earlier video – same two-back look with Hall in the backfield, here he’s actually throwing the block that he’d later bluff. When it’s not a pass, it’s always a run by the RB to Hall’s side in this configuration. The RT gets hung up so the rest of the line is one block off and there’s a defender left for Brooks, but he powers through for more yardage.
  3. :18 – I don’t think Willis or Stoops are getting much done blocking on this outside run, but it doesn’t matter because Brooks is an incredible back.
  4. :31 – The threat of an RPO throw freezes the LB and safety here, and it’s an easy run to the sideline behind the RT.

I’d certainly classify OU’s offense as run-first. They call designed runs on just shy of 70% of 1st downs, and in short-yardage situations they run even more, rising to almost 80% on 2nd & short and holding steady at 70% on 3rd & short. The tipping point is 4 yards to go – that’s when they switch to a majority passing offense, about 60% passing in 2nd & medium or long, and about 90% passing in 3rd & medium or long. For defenses to be successful against the Sooners, they have to win on that 1st down rush attempt, and then get the offense to try two long passes and hope to contain an explosive deep shot or get a sack.

The Sooners are fairly effective at concealing the playcall with their formation – there are some clear tendencies, but they aren’t extreme enough for defenses to comfortably sell out against the run or the pass. When the back is offset in the shotgun they rush about 40% of the time, compared to about 63% rushing out of the pistol formation. Personnel groups are more of a tell, though still not particularly extreme – with one tight end on the field they run about 38% of snaps, rising to 49% with two. There isn’t a much of a strong multivariate correlation with TE count and down & distance situation, instead down & distance is simply controlling and TE count is only weakly tied to rush rate situationally.

So I don’t think ballcarrier or schematic issues are to blame for OU’s middling rush efficiency figures, instead I mostly see run-blocking breakdowns from the line and the TEs. Some examples:

  1. :00 – The defense gets this RPO right later in the game – take the throw away with the DBs, and have the backers flow with the pulling linemen to take away the QB run, because ultimately there’s really only two options for this play and it’s fairly slow developing.
  2. :08 – In the back half of the season, OU started incorporating more zone running, but other than QB keeps on read-options it doesn’t grade out nearly as well as power does on my tally sheet. The OL here is having trouble with a basic staple of zone, which is moving up one of the linemen off the initial combo block to the second level, and the unblocked backer unsurprisingly makes the play.
  3. :16 – Hall and Murray aren’t controlling their blocks here, Stogner flat misses his, and it’s an ineffective pull by Hayes.
  4. :24 – Plays like these are why Congel and Murray grade out as they do on my tally sheet.


Oklahoma v Oklahoma State Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Defense

Former DC Alex Grinch, who’s left with Riley for USC, installed his “Speed Defense” system when he arrived in Norman after stints coaching Wazzu and Ohio St. Again, Chris expects little in the way of philosophical changes with the promotions of existing staff to interim positions for the bowl.

It’s an even-front 3-3-5, meaning typically a weakside end with his fist down, two DTs, and a standup OLB on the line who only rarely drops into coverage and instead rushes the backfield nearly every snap. There are two ILBs and a nickel secondary, with the safeties mostly staying out of the box. There’s very little variation to this structure and not much in the way of blitzing, regardless of offensive personnel or down & distance situation, and only the obvious compaction in goalline defenses.

The defensive front is where the unavailabilities for the bowl are hitting Oklahoma the hardest. Four starters have opted out to prepare for the NFL – leading tackler #24 ILB Asamoah, leader for sacks and TFLs, #11 OLB Bonitto, #95 DL Thomas, and #8 DL Winfrey. On the podcast, Chris and I discussed the surprise of that many opt-outs; personally I think each could have used some more development time. It also appears that the most experienced backup to Bonitto, #19 OLB Kelly, is injured and unavailable.

There are some hallmarks of this defensive system that show up consistently - Oklahoma’s philosophy is to immediately attack off the edge with both the end and OLB without much in the way of twists to try and generate instant penetration and disrupt the play. Throughout the season they’ve been fairly effective at it, with 143 successfully defended designed runs vs 133 failed ones, or a 51.8% success rate. Their explosive rush defense numbers are in line with that efficiency figure – the Sooners allow 4.7 yards per carry on designed runs and about 14% gain 10+ yards, outside garbage time, which are solid if unspectacular numbers.

OU has plenty of backup experience in the front, with thirteen available players in the six-man front who had significant minutes during the year. Those are concentrated in the middle of the front, and I expect to see #31 DL Redmond and #40 DE Downs in the front, a mix of five different tackles, and probably #23 ILB White and #2 ILB Ugwoebgu at depth, with a healthy rotation behind them. So I suspect we’ll see a solid performance against the run, particularly inside rushing. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Here are several of the defensive front backups I expect to play in the bowl - #92 DL Roberson, #94 DL Coe, and #14 DE Grimes, with Ugwoebgu at inside backer. There’s no real falloff in up-the-middle rush defense effectiveness with these guys in.
  2. :06 – Watch the backside defense on this play, this is how the Speed D is supposed to work. Thomas’ immediate jump gets inside the block, Kelly is pressing inside with no edge responsibility at all, and Asamoah comes down to capture the back when he tries to bounce.
  3. :20 – Another win up front by a backup I think will play in the bowl, #90 DL Ellison. The back bounces but the #0 CB W. Washington, who seemed to win the starting job by the end of the year, pursues the whole way. Good angle by #10 DB Fields, whom Chris and I think is the sharpest of the secondary, to string it out, though I’m less wild about #25 DB Broiles’ angle and #32 DB Turner-Yell’s tackle attempt.
  4. :32 – Nice job by Turner-Yell to get Broiles re-aligned after the motion. Downs and #88 DL Kelley do a good job penetrating quickly, and #23 ILB White, the starter who should be available for the bowl, stays on backside contain.

The main schematic weakness of Oklahoma’s defense is how much the ILBs are put into conflict by their multiple responsibilities on every play. Neither end man on the line typically has any edge contain duty, instead the ILBs have to come down on outside runs to try and set the edge. That means in addition to the typical read of run vs pass, the ILBs also have to figure out inside or outside immediately off the snap. That makes misdirection plays like counters and press-and-bounce runs fairly effective against this system. It also means that they’re vulnerable to read-option keeps to the outside, since the unblocked edge player will always go for the back inside and the ILB will often stay inside on that back too, leaving nobody but a distant safety to account for the QB. Given how shorthanded they are with the opt-outs and injuries to the edge players and leading ILB, this might be a problem in the bowl. Some examples:

  1. :00 – I’ve got dozens of identical plays to this one on my tally sheet to choose from, including several from this game. The unblocked end stays on the back and Ugwoebgu goes with him, so nobody sets the edge. An RPO threat or crackback from the receivers to occupy the DBs is all it takes to allow the QB a lot of grass to run into.
  2. :16 – Pretty heavy run look here, with the personnel and down & distance, but true to form OU is staying in their normal defensive configuration without enough defenders against this many blockers. White comes down on the empty-handed QB since that’s his schematic responsibility, taking another defender away from the play.
  3. :23 – Watch how the entire defense gets going in one direction, only to get washed and sealed. The back just has to make one cut (and it’s not even a great one, he slips on his home turf) and there’s nobody to stop him running downhill.
  4. :40 – A pre-snap stem is fairly typical in this defense, but it lets us know that White has to take the gap between the OLB and 4i. That outside step is all the offense needs to split the defense.

Oklahoma’s pass defense has almost the same efficiency number, with 180 successfully defended dropbacks vs 170 unsuccessful ones, or 51.2%. But their explosive play defense is worse, giving up 8.4 yards per opponent pass attempt and 16% going for 15+ yards.

This quadrant of play is the toughest to predict for the Sooners in the bowl. On the one hand, I think much of their pass defense success during the regular season was driven by heroic efforts from individual pass rushers (since the scheme is all about simplicity). But the most effective ones in Bonitto, Thomas, and Winfrey won’t be playing, and many of the replacements on the edge that Chris and I discussed on the podcast have few to no snaps of experience. On the other hand, I think much of the difficulties the pass defense had stemmed from musical chairs they were playing in the secondary, with a different configuration of starting DBs in almost every game. But I think they’ve finally settled in and figured out who should be playing corner, and the DBs were playing their best ball at the end of the year with no injuries or opt-outs.

It’s difficult to say what effect a diminished pass rush and solidified secondary would produce, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s a slight net negative based on the correlations on my tally sheet – penetration by the front forced more bad passes than great coverage shut down clean-pocket throws. What I think will be interesting is if the interim staff dials up more stunts, and if the shored-up secondary is in a position to make more pass break-ups, because those were by far the most effective plays the pass defense had in the regular season. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Stunts aren’t too common in this defense but this E-T stunt is the most frequent one they do employ. Downs gets both the RT and RG engaged and still gets between them, and Winfrey circles around to contain the scramble and force a bad throw.
  2. :08 – There’s at least one of these on my tally sheet in all 12 games OU played – the corner (actually a safety, #12 DB Lawrence, moved over in one of the many secondary experiments during the year) is beat off the initial move but doesn’t give up on the play and successfully whacks it out of the WR’s hands right after the catch.
  3. :25 – Nice penetration by Downs to flush the QB, but the play is made by White’s recognition of the crosser and taking it away, one of the ILB’s many responsibilities in this defense.
  4. :34 – Redmond works the twist well to hurry the QB, and Broiles gets the break-up.

I’m also interested to see if the pass rush is able to generate pressure without blitzing, since that was a challenge during the regular season, and if the secondary plays with more conventional leverage, since they frequently gave up the sideline with flipped hips. Some examples:

  1. :00 – I don’t think I’ve ever seen DBs consistently play with this kind of leverage before, and I can’t say it’s been very effective. True freshman #5 CB Bowman was put in a tough spot playing somewhat out of position for much of the year, and eventually benched.
  2. :22 – This is a pretty typical pass rush for 3rd down – no blitz or stunt, and not much pressure – and the DBs are bailing pretty far when there’s only five yards to pick up for the offense.
  3. :30 – Tackling problems like these really haunted the secondary all year.
  4. :40 – Again, look at the leverage by the DBs here, the offense almost always has free access to the sideline on out patterns and comebacks and they just need the patience to move down the field 10-15 yards at a time.