While stars such as Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Rodney Anderson and Roquan Smith were waging war for the Georgia Bulldogs and Oklahoma Sooners in the Rose Bowl last season, a handful of smaller battles between lesser-known names played a decisive role in the contest.
Georgia played some of the best ball on special teams of any squad in the country in 2017, an area in which the Sooners floundered. UGA ranked No. 3 nationally in Special Teams S&P+; OU came in at No. 71. The difference showed up when the two teams met head-to-head in Pasadena.
The Sooners committed two huge special teams gaffes in the thriller. A botched squib by kicker Austin Seibert put Georgia in position to steal three points on a 55-yard field goal by UGA’s Rodrigo Blankenship with just seconds remaining in the first half. Later, a blocked field goal try by Seibert in overtime all but extinguished OU’s hopes of victory.
In between the two foul-ups, the Bulldogs put the screws to the Sooners by dominating field position. As UGA mounted its comeback in the second half, OU began five of its seven offensive drives inside its own 20 yard line, including one that started at the two. The Sooners’ best starting spot: its own 25. Meanwhile, on average, the Bulldogs started their second-half drives at their own 34, a net advantage of nearly 20 yards over OU.
It apparently served as a tough lesson for Lincoln Riley about the importance of special teams. During the offseason, OU’s head coach prioritized cleaning up OU’s play in the third phase. Doing so has provided the Sooners with an under-the-radar advantage against the other College Football Playoff participants.
Riley’s solution to his program’s special teams deficiencies? Hire away UGA’s ace.
Shane Beamer, the son and former right-hand man of legendary Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, left Georgia in January to join OU’s staff as an assistant. Beamer took the reins on special teams, and the Sooners climbed to 32nd overall in Special Teams S&P+.
Fortunately for Beamer, he inherited a dependable jack-of-all-trades in Seibert, who currently sits six points away from tying the all-time record for points by a kicker at 494. Seibert hit 15 of his 17 field goal attempts this season and also converted 83 of 84 extra points.
Seibert also continued to be a weapon in helping OU control field position as a kickoff specialist. Ninety of his 111 kickoffs went for touchbacks this season, the sixth-best rate in the nation. (It’s difficult to gauge his contributions as a punter because the Sooners only punted 29 times this year, the lowest total in the nation.)
Under Beamer’s watch, OU made even bigger strides in returning and blocking kicks. Whereas former coach Bob Stoops often seemed content if his kickoff and punt returners didn’t screw up, the Sooners are now seizing those opportunities to generate big plays.
Although lead punt returner CeeDee Lamb failed to take a kick to the house this season, OU’s average return gained more than 15 yards this year. In addition to blowing away last season’s mark of 5.6 yards per return, it represented the Sooners’ highest mark since 2009. Lamb’s portfolio of 16 punt returns included a 65-yard gain versus Oklahoma State and one that went for 66 yards against UCLA.
With cornerback Tre Brown doing most of the heavy lifting on kickoff returns, OU averaged 23.4 yards per return, which ranked 25th nationally.
Meanwhile, the Sooners blocked three kicks this season, more than the team had accumulated in the previous three years combined. Linebacker Curtis Bolton returned two blocked punts for scores.
In terms of kick coverage, OU’s opponents attempted a mere six punt returns this season. Only one resulted in a positive gain, a 25-yard jaunt by TCU’s dangerous return man KaVontae Turpin. Turpin also scored the only touchdown given up by the Sooners on a kickoff this year.
Overall, it would be a stretch to say this OU team plays special teams at an elite level. For instance, when Seibert isn’t booming the ball through the end zone on kickoffs, OU is allowing 25.2 yards per return, one of the highest rates in the nation.
On the other hand, you can find major flaws in the special teams play of the other three final four teams, none of which ranks better than 62nd overall in Special Teams S&P+. Notably, the Alabama Crimson Tide come in at No. 93. The Tide’s notorious placekicking woes have reared their head again this year, with freshman Joseph Bulovas missing four of 16 field goals this season to go along with five misfires on extra points.
The brutal truth is that when you play defense as poorly as the Sooners, you can’t afford to suck on special teams, too. OU’s special teams units have come through time and again this year. Other teams haven’t been so lucky; keep in mind that the difference in OU’s 48-47 Bedlam win over the Oklahoma State Cowboys this year was a missed extra point by the Pokes.
Strong special teams play might give OU enough of a boost on the margins to upset Bama on Saturday. Every little bit helps.