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What To Watch For: Previewing the “OU Sucks” Sooners

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Texas Tech v Oklahoma Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

With just over a quarter of the 2019 season in the books, it’s finally rivalry week as the Texas Longhorns prepare to take on the Oklahoma Sooners in Dallas on Saturday morning in the Red River Showdown.

Both teams enter the matchup ranked and with their sights set on winning the Big 12, so this game is set up to be another classic between the two storied rivals. The 5-0 Sooners find themselves ranked 6th in the latest AP Top 25 rankings while the 4-1 Longhorns will arrive to the Cotton Bowl ranked 11th.

Through five games, each team has displayed strength on offense while working to bolster its defense. The Sooners currently pace all 130 FBS teams in total offense with an average of 643.8 yards per game and rank second to LSU in scoring offense with 53.4 points per game. The Longhorns rank 18th in total offense averaging 483.6 yards per game and rank 13th in scoring with an average of 41.8 points per game.

Sure, strength of schedule and the opponents to this point play a factor in these stats, but Vegas also thinks the game Saturday will still be a high-scoring affair.

The over/under for this game is set at 75 points, which is the highest over/under for FBS matchups this weekend. For Texas to win another high-scoring game like it did last season, the defense will need to be prepared to match up against a handful of different fronts and formations from the Sooners offense.

What could Texas see from the Oklahoma offense?

As a former Red Raiders quarterback and coach, Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley has built an Air Raid offense that has caught the attention of coordinators and coaches across the country.

It’s an offense that can spread the ball around to various levels and areas of the field, and it’s one that uses a handful of different looks and personnel to put players in positions to win match ups and find space.

Riley will use everything from three- and four-wide receiver sets to formations that include two tight ends or two running backs. The offense can attack a defense in a number of ways, and the versatility is one reason Riley’s Oklahoma offenses have been so potent.

21 personnel zone slice where No. 27 pulls to block

21 personnel play-action pass to No. 27

One interesting aspect of Riley’s offense is the use of tight ends/H-backs. Typically, these players on the Sooners’ roster come in one of two molds as either a hybrid TE/WR or a hybrid TE/FB, and it’s not uncommon to see both versions on the field at the same time.

In the plays above, we first see TE/FB Jeremiah Hall pull on a zone slice play to block the edge defender. At 6’2 and 240 pounds, the redshirt sophomore can be an effective blocker moving around the line. In the second play, we see Hall’s versatility come into play as he releases out on a route after drawing the defender in as if he’s blocking on the play.

Hall essentially plays the Dimitri Flowers role, who was also about the same size at 6’1 and 240 pounds. Flowers finished his Oklahoma career with 886 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns and Hall is likely to approximate those numbers. Through five games, he’s currently tied for fourth on the team in receptions with eight and has 92 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

Two other players of note at these positions are Brayden Willis, who is listed as a fullback on Oklahoma’s roster, and “tight end” Grant Calcaterra, who plays more like a big-bodied inside wide receiver.

Willis is a 6’3, 235-pound sophomore who often lines up at tight end inline next to one of the tackles. He has three receptions for 52 yards on the season.

Calcaterra, on the other hand, was selected as a preseason All-Big 12 tight end after hauling in 26 receptions for 396 yards and six touchdowns last season. Two of those touchdowns came against Texas in the Big 12 Championship game.

The 6’4, 227-pound junior has gotten off to a somewhat slow start with just five receptions for 72 yards and no scores. Typically, Calcaterra lines up in the slot as a receiving weapon on offense.

Calcaterra with a first down reception for the Sooners

Riley’s use of hybrid players at tight end and H-back is one reason the Oklahoma offense can operate as quickly and effectively as it does without a need to sub out players for pass or run plays.

Leading the way in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns is junior wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. A 6’2, 189-pound speedster, Lamb is often on the receiving end of a big pass and has the ability to turn most plays into a big gain.

Below, we see Lamb targeted deep over the middle out of an inside receiver position. The Sooners spread the Tech defense out in a 2x2 10-personnel set that draws underneath coverage in with a play-action. After Hurts finds him over the middle, it’s all Lamb for the score.

In the two games against Texas last season, Lamb averaged six receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown. Longhorns fans better hope sophomore corner D’Shawn Jamison can have a big day in Dallas after he impressed against West Virginia. He and the Texas secondary will need to know where Lamb is at all times.

Other notable receivers for the Sooners include 6’1, 180-pound redshirt sophomore Charleston Rambo and true freshman Jadon Haselwood, a 6’2, 206-pound five-star recruit from the last recruiting class who nearly ran around half of the Houston defense on this 42-yard reception.

The leading rusher for the Sooners is quarterback Jalen Hurts, who’s run the ball 57 times for 499 yards and seven scores. But to this point, the Sooners have also utilized three capable running backs in Trey Sermon, Kennedy Brooks, and Rhamondre Stevenson who have all combined for 870 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The Sooners could have a fourth option at running back with sophomore T.J. Pledger returning from surgery on his hand that took place back in August.

Below, we see Sermon take a hand off to the house on a G/T counter play that lined up Willis in the backfield and Calcaterra in the slot. Willis looked a little lost in the traffic but it didn’t stop Sermon from taking it to the house. The G/T counter is a staple of Riley’s offense and a play that the Sooners run as well as or better than anyone else in the country.

A wrinkle Texas could see is the addition of jet motion to this play or one similar, as shown below.

Riley has once again surrounded his quarterback with a plethora of playmakers at the skill positions. The combination of quick wide receivers, hybrid tight ends/H-backs, and capable running backs creates versatility on offense that can put up points in a number of ways.

Hurts has also done his part so far in spreading the ball around to play makers while limiting mistakes, entering the game with a 14:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has completed about 75 percent of his passes.

Hurts has also displayed his ability to make plays with his legs, and that threat will be one that Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will need to be mindful of throughout the day on Saturday.

If the Oklahoma offense has a weakness, it’s currently the offensive line. A group that was already re-tooling itself heading into the season could now be without both starting tackles this weekend.

It’s probably safe to assume that Orlando and the Texas defense will test the edges of the opposing offensive line early if it can get the Sooners in some third-and-long situations.

On paper, it looks like the Texas defense will have its hands full on Saturday when it takes the field against Hurts and the Oklahoma offense. Undoubtedly, Riley and the Sooners will look to take shots against the back end of the Texas defense that will be without starting corner Jalen Green and starting safety Caden Sterns.

What could the Texas offense expect from the Oklahoma defense?

First-year Sooners defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was brought to Norman to rebuild a defense that had lost a step over the past few seasons. In rebuilding the unit, Grinch will be transitioning the defense from a two-gap 3-4 front that former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops deployed to more of a one-gap 4-2-5 that can mix in some 3-3-5 looks.

Leaders on the Oklahoma defense include Kenneth Murray, a preseason All-Big 12 selection at linebacker, defensive lineman Ronnie Perkins, and defensive backs Delarrin Turner-Yell and Parnell Motley.

When Oklahoma does shift to a 3-3-5, it typically spins down linebacker Kenneth Murray to play off the edge. Below we see Murray start on the line before dropping into coverage on the play side.

To date, the Oklahoma defense has been solid as it ranks in the upper half of the Big 12 in a handful of notable stats, but the match up against Sam Ehlinger and the Texas offense will easily be the unit’s hardest test yet. There’s a reason the over/under is set as high as it is.

In all, the rivalry game Saturday between the Big 12’s true blue-bloods is set up to be one for the ages. Each team enters the game with various ways to put points on the board along with their own combo of strengths and weaknesses on either side of the ball.

The line for the game is hovering around Oklahoma -10, and if I was a betting man, I’d take Texas and the points. I expect this one to be close, though, of course I’d be in favor of a Longhorns blowout over their rivals from north of the river.