FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Oklahoma’s offense has long been known for its passing game, but the Sooners are focused on their running game ahead of the Orange Bowl.
The pass-heavy misconception comes with the territory of Lincoln Riley’s Air Raid system. It doesn’t help that OU has produced four Heisman-winning passers, and several other finalists, since 2003.
Riley’s offense is clearly capable of throwing the ball, but in the days leading up to No. 4 Oklahoma’s matchup with No. 1 Alabama, the Sooners are fixated on finding ways to run the ball.
“I think it all starts with (the offensive line),” senior left guard Ben Powers said. “We start with the run game and then we move into the passing game, and that makes it to where we’re able to do what we do.”
Oklahoma uses speedy quarterback Kyler Murray and a pair of effective running backs, Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon, in the rushing attack. Brooks led the team with 1,021 rushing yards this season, followed closely by Sermon’s 928 and Murray’s 892. All three players reached double-digit touchdowns on the ground.
Despite its pass-happy reputation, Oklahoma ran the ball 57.6 percent of the time in 2018 at a clip of 6.7 yards per rush. If the Sooners are going to prevail, they will need to have success on the ground.
“Establishing the run is going to be a big factor for us,” Sermon said. “We know that we have to run the ball in order to open up everything else.”
Sermon says he’s finally healthy after battling injuries for most of the season. He got a taste of this stage a year ago in the Rose Bowl — he carried the ball twice for 34 yards in OU’s overtime loss to Georgia. He took a backseat to Rodney Anderson in that game, who made a name for himself as one of the best running backs in the country with a 200-yard performance.
Oklahoma didn’t have enough to hold on against the Bulldogs, but Anderson gave the Sooners more than just a fighting chance.
“I think it all starts with our offensive line, and obviously what those guys have done and what (offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh) does to prepare those guys,” co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy said. “So when you can control the line of scrimmage, you can do a lot of different things.”
Oklahoma’s offensive line won the 2018 Joe Moore Award earlier this month, given annually to the nation’s top offensive line.
Still, controlling the line of scrimmage against Alabama could prove difficult. Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams is projected to be a top-five pick in the 2019 NFL draft. He leads a unit that was No. 4 in defensive rushing S&P+ and No. 1 in S&P+ success rate.
“They know the challenge ahead of them,” Gundy added. “They know when you start talking about the Alabama defense, you can talk about every position.
“They’re gifted. They’re talented, and it’s going to be a challenge for us.”
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