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Oklahoma Football: Ruffin McNeill, defensive adjustments key to Big 12 title win

The Texas Longhorns bullied the Oklahoma Sooners with a rough-and-tumble ground game in their meeting earlier this season in the Red River Shootout. In the sequel, a 39-27 OU win, the Sooners appeared intent on forcing their blood rivals to beat them another way.

Interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill laid out a beefier game plan for the rematch that centered on getting better run defenders on the field. It produced what has to go down as the D’s best performance of the season.

Extra beef

Eschewing the nickel scheme that OU ran in the Cotton Bowl, the Sooners played the hybrid 4-3 base alignment installed by McNeill in the aftermath of Mike Stoops’ departure. Caleb Kelly played every defensive snap of the game at SAM outside linebacker; Ronnie Perkins shifted between defensive end and JACK OLB for the vast majority of plays.


From a results standpoint, having the extra run defenders on the field seemed to pay off. OU held UT to 112 rushing yards on 29 carries, excluding sacks. Texas’ average gain of 3.9 yards per carry fell well short of the team’s average of 5.1 in the previous meeting, making it more difficult for the ‘Horns to stay on schedule and manage drives. Notably, OU minimized the damage caused by Texas QB Sam Ehinger’s timely running. Ehlinger toted the ball 12 times for 66 yards, and the Sooners sacked him three times for combined losses of 24 yards.

So, how did OU accomplish this?

Kelly ended the game tied for second on the team with seven total tackles, but he lacked for standout moments in stopping the run. Most of his contributions in that regard came from helping to clean up runners already slowed by teammates. Meanwhile, even as Perkins fortified the weak side edge of the defensive line, he did his best work as a pass rusher.

We don’t know what was being said in the headsets on the Texas sidelines. (I’m sure it was very classy.) Keep in mind, though, that in game one Texas was facing smaller players on the edges of OU’s defense such as defensive end Mark Jackson and DB Bookie Radley-Hiles. It’s possible that after seeing OU’s defense lined up with a true front seven, UT coach Tom Herman just opted to put more of the game on Ehlinger’s right arm.

Screened out

In another twist, McNeill also moved Tre Norwood to safety with Robert Barnes, essentially putting three cornerbacks on the field with Norwood, Tre Brown and Parnell Motley. Even with three CBs in the game, the tradeoff for going big in the front seven was weakening OU’s overall ability to cover UT receivers Collin Johnson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Devin Duvernay down the field.

The trio combined for 284 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 18 catches, surpassing their output from the first game. Johnson, in particular, burned the secondary for 177 yards and a touchdown on eight catches. He also drew a slew of pass interference penalties to keep the chains moving.

On the other hand, by putting another LB to the strength of UT’s offensive formations, OU’s scheme seemed to choke off the horizontal passing game that gave the Sooners fits last time around.

The first play of the game in the clip above offered a good example. UT starts the play on the left hash with H-back Andrew Beck and Johnson split to the field side of the formation. Humphrey is in the backfield with running back Tre Watson and motions out to the right for a screen. Beck comes out to block Kelly, who has come out to guard him head-up. Kelly engages Texas’ H-back and drives him back into Humphrey’s path, forcing the ball carrier back inside to OU’s converging tacklers. Norwood drops Humphrey for no gain.

In the clip above, Texas lines up with three receivers split to the field side of the formation. On the snap, running back Keontay Ingram runs a swing route out of the backfield and Ehlinger drops the ball off for him with the potential to gain a head of steam. Instead, Kelly recognizes Ingram’s route and meets him in the flat to stop the running back for negative yardage. How many times have we seen runners slip the fingers of would-be OU tacklers in similar situations this season?

The cumulative effect of McNeill’s tweaks was to turn UT into a primarily vertical passing offense. A such, they didn’t put together clock-consuming drives to keep OU’s explosive offense on the sidelines. In October, Texas enjoyed a time of possession edge of nearly eight minutes (33:50 to 26:10). OU had the ball four minutes longer than the ‘Horns in round two (32:00 to 28:00).

Forcing the ‘Horns to play against type on offense probably wasn’t decisive in Saturday’s win, but it definitely had a big hand in helping OU secure its fourth straight Big 12 crown and a spot in the College Football Playoff.


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