The State of Oklahoma: OU Travels to Miami

I've been thinking lately that people should start competitions on accurately predicting the Top 25 before the season, similar to how we do NCAA brackets for the March basketball tournament.  As last weekend showed, nobody really knows anything.  Texas, Florida, and Alabama cruised, but everyone under them went for a wild ride on a wooden raft.  Some survived that ride, and others, well, went under.  We'll see if they resurface anytime soon.

One of the teams that went down was the Miami Hurricanes, riding high after two impressive wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech.  They were #9 Saturday morning, with some arguing they had the best resume through the first three weeks.  By Sunday, they had plummeted to #21 in the Coaches Poll and #17 in the AP.  Unlike other ranked teams, they did not lose to an unranked foe, with Virginia Tech coming into the game at #11.  However, nobody expected the whipping the Hokies gave them, scoring the first 21 points and ultimately finishing with a 24-point victory.  While it is possible for Miami to win the rest of their games, the margin by which they lost probably cost them any chance at a national title.  Ouch.

Oklahoma, on the other hand, moved right on up the polls... by resting.  They probably watched the carnage on TV and stuck their middle fingers out at all the analysts who made fun of them for falling against BYU.  Make no mistake, the Sooners are now very much alive, and winning this weekend at Coral Gables may vault them back into the Top 5 if teams ahead of them falter again.  The stakes this game are still high, and may even be higher (arguably) than if both teams came in undefeated.  If Oklahoma loses one more, they are done as national title contenders.  If Miami drops this one at home, they more or less fall off the radar.  With the Horns off this week, this would be a good game on which to focus your attention.

Last Week's Fun

While Oklahoma was chilling, Miami was busy crapping the bed against Virginia Tech.  I won't spend much time talking about the game; needless to say, despite their assurances to the contrary, the 'Canes were NOT ready for the weather and let turnovers kill them.  In fact, the folks over at Gobbler Country seem to think the rain was the player of the game, so to speak.  Of course, it didn't help that the Hokies dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and hammered Miami with Ryan Williams.  Oh, and they blocked a punt for a TD, too.

To get an idea what Pouring Rain + Good Pressure does to an offense not prepared for it, let's take a brief look at Miami's high and mighty offense.  Before this game, the Hurricanes averaged 465 yards of total offense at 7.27 yards per play.  Jacory Harris averaged 328 yards per game at 11.12 yards per attempt, completed 69.5% of his passes including a 20-25 performance against Georgia Tech, and threw for 5 touchdowns to 2 interceptions to earn a passer rating of 184.07.  In the pouring rain against V-tech, with his trusty receivers having a bad case of the butterfingers, Harris was an abysmal 9/20 for 150 yards and one interception and a passer rating of 78.4.  While Graig Cooper had a decent day running the ball, the 'Canes as a team averaged a terrible 1.74 ypc on the ground after averaging 4.7 against Georgia Tech.  Other than their one scoring drive right after halftime, which was the result of a shorter field due to a good kickoff return, Miami was frighteningly bad on offense, gaining an average of 3.5 yards per play as a whole.

Defensively, Miami wasn't that much better.  Tyrod Taylor did nothing in the passing game save a 48-yard touchdown, but there was no need for him to; the Hokies ran the ball on Miami, and then ran it again.  They piled up 272 yards on 55 carries, and Miami couldn't get a whiff of Ryan Williams at the line of scrimmage and then made things worse by tackling poorly at the second level.  It was a sharp difference from their performance against Georgia Tech.

It is difficult to say how much we can take from this.  Obviously, everyone has their bad games, and the conditions of the game were not normal.  However, I'm not sure how much you can blame getting manhandled at the line of scrimmage on the pouring rain.  Maybe it made their jerseys heavier?  In any case, Jacory Harris was not good but he didn't get any sort of help from his O-line or his receivers.  A very painful day for the 'Canes.

Oklahoma and Miami Key Matchups

And with that, we move on to this week's game, which probably isn't looking nearly as good for Miami as it did a week ago.  I'll briefly discuss a few key matchups:

Oklahoma's D-line vs. Miami's O-line

I'll be blunt:  If Miami's offensive line plays anything like they did against Virginia Tech, Oklahoma is going to beat them and probably beat them badly.  Even given better conditions that will help the passing game, Jacory Harris is going to have a steady diet of Gerald McCoy, Auston English, and Jeremy Beal if that happens again.  V-Tech has a good defense, but I would put OU's defensive line over theirs.  If OU quickly dominates in this area, Graig Cooper is going to have a rough day and Harris will have an even rougher day.

This unit was identified in the preseason as the weak link to the offense, lacking both experience and depth.  Before Saturday, optimism reigned.  After Saturday, pessimism "rained" (okay, bad joke).  While Virginia Tech only got two sacks, they were on Harris all game.  Jake Fox, the senior at left tackle, will have to play well against Oklahoma, and their new guards will have to hold their own against the monster that is Gerald McCoy.  Cooper is one of their best players and they have to give him a chance to succeed this week.

Miami's D-line against Oklahoma's O-line

On the flip side, Oklahoma still has questions on their offensive line.  They have eliminated some of the mistakes we saw against BYU and changed personnel a bit to try to find a good mix of players.  Brody Eldridge, the best center in OU history, moved back to TE while Ben Habern took his spot.  Cory Brandon lost his starting job at right tackle with Jarvis Jones sliding over from right guard.  To replace Jones at RG, freshman Tyler Evans got the nod.  This unit looks improved, but it's hard to judge much from victories over Idaho State and Tulsa.  If Miami wants any hope at success, they need to test this line as BYU did. 

Miami didn't get any sacks against Virginia Tech, but I don't look too much into that because Taylor only threw nine times.  The Hurricanes have some speedy pass rushers that will need to be ready, because Oklahoma will most definitely throw more than that with Bradford or Landry.  Still, Oklahoma is not deficient at running the football, and no doubt they saw Virginia Tech's success on the ground against this defense.  Miami's defensive line was supposed to be a great strength of this team, and it has not quite lived up to that hype, although to be fair, a couple guys were out against V-Tech.  Guys like Allen Bailey and Eric Moncur will need to have big games, among others.  Miami has the requisite speed to pass rush; the issue will be in the middle, with an undersized guy in Bailey and a relative disappointment in Marcus Forston, a 2008 Freshman All-American.  Forston was not active against V-Tech due to injury, but he did not produce as much as expected the first two games.  I am not sure if he will be available against Oklahoma.  If not, it doesn't help the situation.

Oklahoma will not run with the same style as Ryan Williams and the Hokies, but with Chris Brown and Demarco Murray, they are capable of doing damage in their own way.  Not only that, Oklahoma possesses a much more dangerous passing game, so this line needs to make Landry Jones look like a freshman again or otherwise make Sam Bradford wish he stayed on the bench if he indeed comes back.

Miami's receivers vs. Oklahoma's secondary

Miami's receivers just seem to ooze talent and potential.  This unit has speed, size, and big-play capability.  Let's take a look at the main guys:

Travis Benjamin:  Texas fans, meet Miami's version of D.J. Monroe, except his touches come primarily through the passing game.  He stands at 5'10 and weighs a smallish 170 pounds, but boy, he can move it, even rumored to run a sub-4.3 forty.  Whether or not you believe that is true, the point is taken: He's got speed and lots of it.  The problem, however, is consistency; he was nowhere to be found against Virginia Tech, having zero catches including a drop.  He also has not had too much success in the return game.  The conditions will be better for him this Saturday, so Miami needs to do a better job finding ways to get the ball in his hands in space.

Aldarius Johnson:  Johnson was supposed to be their stud receiver this season and he looks the part, listed as 6'3, 215 pounds and drawing comparisons to some guy named Andre Johnson.  Unfortunately, [he pulled his groin against FSU and has been inactive], so right now, he's been a big disappointment, whether or not it's actually his fault.  However, if it's time for a breakout game, now is the time to do it.

LaRon Byrd:  Another big target who can run downfield, Byrd stands at 6'4 and weighs 215 pounds.  He was held without a reception against the Seminoles but he had a big day against Georgia Tech, catching five balls for 83 yards and a score.  He had 4 of Harris' 9 completions on Saturday. 

Leonard Hankerson:  Wait, are these receivers just all the same guy?  It looks like it, as Hankerson is also listed at 215 pounds and stands at 6'3.  Hankerson brings a lot of experience with him relative to the other receivers, and he is currently leading the team in receiving yards.  His ceiling is not as high as the younger guys, but he's dangerous in his own right and provides a bit more consistency.

Dedrick Epps (Tight End):  Tired of 6'3-6'4, 215 pounders?  Well, here's a 6'4, 250-pound tight end.  Epps is a quality player who can both block and catch the ball.  He suffered an ACL injury before last year's bowl game and made it back for this season, albeit slightly slowed, but he's had decent production.  Considering Oklahoma's troubles against BYU's tight ends, Epps will be a good target to look for.

Verdict:  Oklahoma has not seen anything near this receiving corps.  Oklahoma's secondary has played well after the BYU game, but even an offensively competent Tulsa has nothing like this.  If Oklahoma's defensive line can be held in check, look for big plays from this group against Oklahoma's new safeties and average corners.

Other things to watch for

-Linebacker Sean Spence will need to have a strong game and do a good job of covering and tackling in space for Miami.  V-Tech was way too successful on the ground after they cleared the line.

-Oklahoma is hoping that Brandon Caleb continues to step up, but keep an eye on the limited weaponry the Sooners have in the passing game.  Miami doesn't have a great secondary, but Oklahoma's receivers aren't all that scary at the moment.

-Special teams.  Miami can do some damage in the return game, though they might want to avoid getting another punt blocked.

-Miami has a fast defense, but perhaps an overly aggressive defense.  Virginia Tech had success using misdirection plays, so look for OU to do the same.

-And of course, keep an eye on Sam Bradford.  If he plays, that will be a big boost for the Sooners, even though Jones has played admirably in his place.  Nonetheless, it will be a bit much to expect Bradford to return to form his very first game.

Useless Prediction

Before Miami got walloped by Virginia Tech, I was thinking that the Sooners might be in trouble.  Now that Miami's O-line was exposed as the weak link it was thought to be in the beginning of the season, I'm not so sure.  The game is at Coral Gables, which helps Miami a lot, but while I can excuse a poor passing day on the rain, I really can't excuse poor O-line play the same way.  I like Miami's big receivers against Oklahoma's secondary, but that won't matter much if Jacory Harris can't get a clean look downfield.  Harris, at the least, is a somewhat mobile quarterback, but he's not (pre-injury) Robert Griffin or anything.

In addition, the way Virginia Tech dominated the line of scrimmage on offense is concerning.  Oklahoma does not have an elite offensive line, but if they have any sort of success on the ground, their more balanced offense can potentially do much more damage than the Hokies did.  If Sam Bradford is back, he will still make use of Oklahoma's relatively average group of receivers and move on down the field.

Prediction time:  I expect Miami's offensive and defensive lines to play much better, but their O-line will still not be good enough to keep Oklahoma's D-line out of the backfield on crucial plays.  Due to this, Oklahoma will generate some turnovers, and they will have enough success running the football to keep the heat off of Bradford (assuming he plays) and put points on the board.  Miami will have a few big plays to keep pace, but ultimately, Oklahoma will wear them down.  Oklahoma wins a big road game, 31-21.

I obviously would not mind one bit if Miami proves me wrong :).

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