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Football: How the defensive issues persisted for Oklahoma in Bedlam

After his team’s 48-47 shootout win on Saturday, Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley revealed that his team’s defensive game plan revolved around making the Oklahoma State Cowboys “one dimensional” on offense.

Mission accomplished. OSU generated nearly 80 percent of its total offense versus the Sooners through the air.

Implicit in that strategy is the idea that the defense’s preferred dimension puts the offense at a disadvantage. Given that the Cowboys produced 640 total yards and nearly 50 points, it seems safe to say that Oklahoma’s staff miscalculated.

Let’s take a look at what OU’s defense was up to in this year’s Bedlam game and what we should take away from yet another torching.

Caleb Kelly is a flat circle

McNeill rolled back one of the most significant changes that Mike Stoops made to the defense in the offseason, offering a context clue that suggested OU’s coaching staff wanted to put this game on Cornelius’ arm.

After sitting behind weak side interior linebacker Curtis Bolton for most of the previous nine games, Caleb Kelly played 60 of the game’s 90 snaps at outside linebacker. Similar to the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Kelly lined up at the SAM position playing in space to the field side of the offensive formation. (Yo-yoing Kelly between OLB and ILB is symptomatic of the indecisiveness that has plagued OU’s defensive leadership in recent years, but that is a conversation for another time.)

Essentially, when OSU was operating out of 11 (one running back and one tight end) and 21 (two running backs and one tight end) personnel, OU matched with Kelly on the field. The Sooners pulled him off to sub in a fifth defensive back against more pass-oriented player groupings and down-and-distance situations.

Going with a third linebacker in the base package over a nickelback seemed to fortify OU’s defense against OSU’s ground attack. Adjusted for sacks, the Pokes ran for 153 yards on 31 carries, an average of nearly five yards per rush. If you take away the 46 yards gained on OSU’s two longest runs of the game, OSU averaged 3.7 yards per attempt. As such, the Sooners did a decent job of holding the Pokes in check on the ground from play to play.

Up to you, Corn Dog

In addition to trading out a DB for Kelly, OU’s coverage schemes indicated that the coaches wanted to see Cornelius try to beat them with accurate throws in the short-to-intermediate range.

The shot above offered a pretty standard example of how OU was lining up. OU’s cornerbacks predominantly played loose coverage, giving up huge cushions to OSU’s wideouts. The safeties offered limited help over the top so they could support against the against the run. It’s a fan favorite.

This scenario above comes from a third-and-one situation in the third quarter. The Sooners are playing their 4-3 personnel, and safety Bookie Radly-Hiles is in position to help defend the outside running alley to the field side of the formation. Left cornerback Tre Norwood lines up eight yards off Z-receiver Tylan Wallace (OSU No. 2).

In theory, Norwood is taking away a deep shot to Norwood at the expense of defending an inside slant. ABC analyst Brian Griese even noted during the broadcast that the Sooners had left that area of the field essentially uncovered. The message seems pretty clear: OU feels better about their chances of getting a stop if Corn Dog tries to make that throw over any other option.

Time and again throughout the game, Cornelius came to the line of scrimmage, surveyed the lay of the land pre-snap and saw similar DB alignments on the outside. In response, he would fire the ball out to receivers running quick-hitting routes – hitches, slants, screens.

Beat deep

So here’s the rub.

The Pokes went against tendency in this game. OSU ended up running the ball on just 31 of its 86 snaps. Compare that with the Cowboys’ 48-to-26 distribution of runs to passes when they played Texas, for example. Aside from when they were getting blown out by Texas Tech, the Pokes haven’t been a pass-heavy team this year.

In other words, it would appear that OU got the kind of offensive execution that it wanted from OSU. Frankly, you could see why the Sooners would want to pin the game on Cornelius’ accuracy. He misfired on shorter throws often enough to short circuit a fair number of drives throughout the game.

On top of that, OU took away Cornelius as an option in the running game, which had flummoxed OSU’s opponents in previous games.

The larger problem was this:

And this:

And this:

If you’re going to build a game plan around influencing a team to throw short, it doesn’t work when you get burned repeatedly down the field.

Yet, there’s a corner in press coverage giving up an inside release. There’s a safety not playing at proper depth. There’s a corner getting Mossed because he couldn’t find the ball.

The defensive issue in this game wasn’t all the nickel-and-dime completions the Sooners allowed, even though they did add up to big passing yardage. It was giving up three touchdowns on deep balls in the first half. Those scores kept the Cowboys competitive going into halftime and turned the defensive game plan into a liability in the second half.

All the carping about Mike Stoops’ defensive schemes over the years ultimately missed the point. A scheme is only as good as its implementation. Errors in technique and fundamentals – poor coverage, shoddy tackling, misalignment – have burned OU’s defenses repeatedly. Changing coordinators at midseason can’t undo all the bad habits that were festering.

Assuming Riley gives OU’s defensive staff a makeover in the offseason, he might want to make finding top-notch teachers a priority. We’re seeing now how destructive sloppiness in the basics can be.

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