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Why Oklahoma’s G/T Counter is so difficult to defend

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According to Todd Orlando, the Sooners execute this play so effectively because they can pick up pressure and split defenses. But Oklahoma can also produce “blackboard plays” against base looks.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Pull. Pull. Crease. Gone.

Compared to run-game staples across college football like inside zone, outside zone, and power, the guard-tackle counter isn’t nearly as ubiquitous, but the Oklahoma Sooners arguably run it as well as any team in the country.

As a result, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has the task of preparing his defense to face a running play that, at best, isn’t a base play in the Longhorns offense. Certainly, even if Texas ran it, the scout team could not and can not replicate Oklahoma’s overall aptitude running this play, which is a credit to Sooners offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and his evaluations and developmental ability. Bedenbaugh produces an environment where his line and Lincoln Riley’s offense can do this really well.

Last weekend against Baylor, Matt Rhule’s team discovered late in the game just how quickly a running back like Kennedy Brooks can turn a crease in G/T Counter into a touchdown from 49 yards out.

The play, which starts at 1:50 of those highlights, features a 2x2 formation for Oklahoma with the tight end and another wide receiver to the boundary and the running back to the field. As the defense tries to get a pre-snap read, note that the formation favors running into that boundary due to the alignment of the tight end and the running back. Note as well that the offensive linemen provide a “high-hat read” in two-point stances, so they aren’t tipping off whether the play is a run or a pass.

However, it does appear as if the right tackle is lined up with a less staggered stance than the left tackle and the left guard is leaning back a little bit further than the right guard. If the hats of the offensive linemen aren’t going to give a pure run or pass read to the defense, part of the job of quality control assistants is to break down the film and pick up any tells, especially for highly-featured plays like the G/T Counter is for Oklahoma. That means looking for any slight differences in stance, any cues for what that offensive lineman is going to do as soon as the ball is snapped.

Another thing to note here — Baylor is playing the boundary defensive end in an extremely wide alignment here next to the nose tackle. Texas prefers to play with both defensive ends heads up or shaded into the B gap on running downs like 1st and 10. By formation, the Bears are already creating a natural seam by not playing a defender in that B gap.

As a result, the right tackle isn’t even going to bother with a double team on the play-side defensive tackle. Depending on alignment and schematic preference, this play-side double team on the defensive tackle or end is the single combo block on the play and an important one for the G/T Counter — the goal is often to push the double-teamed defender right into the linebacker behind him.

Instead, in this instance the right tackle climbs instantly to the play-side linebacker while the right guard and center execute angle blocks on the two defensive tackles. There’s no double team here. The goal on the interior is to wash those defensive linemen out to the back side of the play. If they want to get upfield quickly, then all the better.

Meanwhile, the left guard and left tackle combine for the two most important blocks on the play. The guard will pull around and kick out the first defender that he sees, in this case the defensive end who was playing so wide. The tackle follows through the B gap looking for the linebacker or generally finds work if things break down.

As Brooks has started to find the seam created by the pulling guard, the tackle has pulled around and is in position to make the crucial block (No. 1), while the defensive end behind him on that side is unable to squeeze the play enough to slow up the running back. He’s successfully leveraged the play, but that’s not particularly helpful since he’s gotten so far upfield that he has no impact on the outcome.

No. 2 just looks like the back-side defensive end trying to hustle into the play, but he’s actually obscuring the linebacker, who had tried to spill the play outside and was ultimately blocked by the right tackle three yards away from anywhere that he could possibly provide any help. The punch and footwork by right tackle Cody Ford, a 6’4, 338-pounder, were extremely impressive on this play. The linebacker got blown up.

Now there’s a serious crease developing as long as the left tackle and tight end successfully execute their blocks.

By this point, this is essentially what coaches would call a “blackboard play” — it’s been perfectly blocked. The tight end, freshman Brayden Willis, does a solid job here, but it’s certainly arguable that he held on a little bit too long. Texas sophomore tight end Cade Brewer certainly got called for an extremely similar play in the second half against Tulsa that resulted in a nice gain.

So it goes.

The flag stayed in the official’s pocket and Brooks was off to the races. Neither back-side player was able to catch him and the back-side safety didn’t take a great angle, perhaps because it looked like he had coverage responsibility on the No. 2 receiver to the field.

Notice as well that the unblocked back-side end on this play was also responsible for the quarterback. Murray is athletic enough that Texas won’t be able to crash that back-side defensive end on this play in hopes of making a tackle for loss in the backfield, unless it decides to replace that defensive end’s assignment with a defender like the nickel back.

That’s a risky proposition since the back-side defensive end probably won’t be able to catch the running back unless there’s some chaos created by the unblocked edge defender on the play side. And that nickel back is still probably firing on identification of the running play and would leave a numbers advantage for a packaged play to the field like a bubble screen or quick slant if the Sooners notice that tendency. And the safety might even get slightly out of position because of that resulting coverage responsibility, as it appears happened on this Brooks touchdown run.

The best bet, from this perspective, is just to have the back-side defensive end account for the quarterback and maintain the numbers to defend any passing plays that Oklahoma might want to use as constraints on the GT Counter.

Since the GT Counter is such an effective play for the Sooners, I asked defensive coordinator Todd Orlando what makes it so difficult to block and how he likes to play it.

As the guard comes through and attempts to kick out the first edge defender, the ideal scenario is for that defender to knock the guard back into the path of pulling tackle, Orlando said. Now, that’s not an easy task for that player, but making that play allows the play-side linebacker to fit against the running back — it adds an unblocked defender to the point of attack.

So, good luck blowing up that guard, Jeffrey McCulloch.

The choice for the offense, therefore, is whether to run this play to the field or boundary, thereby choosing whether to kick out a defensive end, B-backer, or nickel back, depending on alignment. In Orlando’s defense, it’s probably not going to be a defensive end due to his preference for controlling the B gaps with those two players, unless he opts to run a 3-3 stack (5:25), the defense used by West Virginia.

One choice for the defense is whether to commit an extra player like a safety or dime back in an attempt to pressure the play side of the formation. And that isn’t easy, especially given the formational complexities of Lincoln Riley’s offense.

“They do an exceptional job of doing that out of so many different formations, which is their bread and butter,” Orlando said. “I will say this, going back to when I was at Houston and played them, they do as good a job — when you try to pressure their counter — they do as good a job in terms of anybody I’ve seen of picking up people and splitting you.”

Understandably, Orlando didn’t want to talk about whether he asks critical defenders to spill, squeeze, or leverage the play — and there are factors that influence those decisions from play to play and formation to formation — but as with every other aspect of playing against a team that has an extraordinarily athletic quarterback, excellent running backs, and elite skill position talent, the idea is to avoid a numerical disadvantage and to create one instead.

“At the end of the day, it’s about being able to get numbers to that side to be able to handle it,” Orlando said.

Doing so without leaving other massive vulnerabilities is the difficult part.

As a result, the Longhorns are busy working on defending the G/T Counter in practice and trying to figure out how to attack some specific areas, like the pulling guard and tackle trying to get through similar lanes while the guard makes his kick-out block and what happens with the combo block on the play-side tackle or end up to the middle linebacker.

Ideally, the edge defender blows up the pulling guard into the pulling tackle or the defensive alignment forces and impacts that critical play-side double team. Those are two key inflection points, so to speak, in dealing with the G/T Counter at the point of attack without devoting extra resources to the play. Some teams like to have the double-teamed defender cut the two offensive linemen to keep that linebacker free. Orlando specifically mentioned the role of the play-side edge defender in clogging the running lane the pulling lineman are attempting to create.

Ultimately, however it happens, the defense has to take away the advantages created by formation and play call on the G/T Counter.

If Texas can’t get the numbers there and finish — and especially if a safety takes a poor angle or the cornerbacks can’t defeat blocks by the Oklahoma tight ends and wide receivers — a running back like Kennedy Brooks is a threat to take it the distance on any play.