Despite a slow start featuring only 26 rushing yards for the No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners in Saturday’s improbable comeback victory over the No. 21 Texas Longhorns, a resurgent Sooners rushing attack controlled the game over the final three quarters, eventually finishing with 339 rushing yards on 8.3 yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns.
Oklahoma running back Kennedy Brooks was particularly dangerous with runs of 33 yards and 65 yards, gaining 217 yards on 25 carries with two touchdowns. Backup quarterback Caleb Williams, who eventually replaced starter Spencer Rattler in the second quarter, made his Cotton Bowl debut with a 66-yard touchdown run on 4th 1 and to jumpstart the Oklahoma comeback from a 28-7 deficit after the first quarter.
So what happened to Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense, which became the first unit to allow more than 300 rushing yards twice in a single season since Charlie Strong’s final campaign in 2016?
Selling out to stop Williams helped produce the momentum-swinging run on fourth down, but the larger issues all revolved around Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley’s longtime signature running play — variations on Counter, often run with a pulling guard and a pulling tackle, known as GT Counter.
The Sooners averaged 5.1 yards per carry against the Cornhuskers, but otherwise failed to average more than 4.1 yards per carry against other FCS opponents, including 2.0 yards per carry in the narrow victory over the Mountaineers.
While a switch to a heavier emphasis on zone runs helped somewhat against Kansas State, the absence of an effective Counter scheme was a major limiting factor for Oklahoma prior to the Red River Showdown.
Before evaluating how the Sooners managed so much success with Counter, let’s look at other factors contributing to the issues on run defense for the Horns.
Injuries and time of possession
Scoring quickly in the first quarter ended up taking a toll on the Texas defense — as the offense scored three touchdowns on six plays taking only 1:37 off the clock, Kwiatkowski’s unit spent most of the opening 15 minutes on the field as Oklahoma possessed the ball for 9:25.
When the Longhorns offense bogged down in the second half, the Sooners extended the advantage in time of possession by holding the ball for two more minutes in the third quarter and 3:41 more in the fourth quarter, establishing an overall margin of 35:23 to 24:37.
“That’s a long time having those guys on the field,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
On a day when temperatures reached over 90 degrees in Dallas, the Texas defense wore down, in part due to the attrition suffered throughout the game. Super senior Jack Jacob Jones left the game with a leg injury and didn’t return, while junior nose tackle Keondre Coburn and super senior Buck Ray Thornton also went down on the field and needed medical attention before returning to the game. The loss of Jones and the dings to the other two starters forced backups to play more snaps than usual and likely contributed to the difficulties beating blocks late in the game.
Selling out on fourth down
When Williams entered the game on 4th and 1 to open the second quarter, the short-yardage formation with the backup quarterback forced a timeout by Kwiatkowski. But the extra time to prepare for the play didn’t keep the Longhorns from making a mistake typical in short-yardage situations — allowing a big play by selling out to force the turnover on downs.
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's @CALEBcsw ✈️✈️✈️— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) October 9, 2021
ABC | https://t.co/JJGgBBysE4 pic.twitter.com/JDK0SEoEmq
Notice how all 11 players are within five yards of the line of scrimmage on the snap against the heavy personnel package by Oklahoma with only one wide receiver on the field.
From the backside, senior safety BJ Foster tries to crash down, but has to avoid junior Buck end Ovie Oghoufo trying to make the play in the backfield. With the inside linebackers, senior DeMarvion Overshown and junior Luke Brockermeyer, both crashing into the line of scrimmage, sophomore safety Jerrin Thompson quickly becomes the player who must bring down the 218-pound Williams to keep him from spurting into the open field.
No luck, and all Williams had to do at that point was outrun Foster, senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, and senior cornerback Josh Thompson to the end zone.
The touchdown for Oklahoma was significant — it dropped the win probability for Texas from 92.4 percent to 81.1 percent and stole momentum from the Horns.
With the Sooners only averaging 3.4 yards per play in the first quarter, forcing Oklahoma to march down the field and score on an extended drive wasn’t entirely likely — after all, Riley’s team only scored in the first quarter thanks to a big assist from the officials to convert a 3rd and 10 when Mike Woods went out of bounds and then returned to the field of play on a 29-yard catch.
The Counter returns with a vengeance
When the Sooners went to the Counter against the Horns, it was a devastating running play.
Oklahoma averaged 8.3 yards per rush vs the #Longhorns but when OU ran any variation of the counter run play they averaged 15 yards per rush. #Texas allowed 5 explosive runs (12+ yards) on counter plays & over half of OU’s total rushing yards came on counter plays. #HookEm #Horns https://t.co/i9BvFHwzUp— Rod Babers (@rodbabers) October 10, 2021
The biggest issues started late in the third quarter with the 65-yard run by Brooks resulting in a fumble forced by Jamison and recovered by Foster before replay correctly overturned it.
“They definitely got a charge in the run game when they changed quarterbacks,” Sarkisian said. “It became a little bit more of a zone read, quarterback reading things, potential pulls. I thought that slowed us down a little bit.”
Oklahoma uses a typical GT Counter read with the threat of a screen pass to hold the backside defenders. The maligned Sooners offensive line chalks up the blocks and no Longhorns defenders even get much of a shot at Brooks until Jamison finally chases him down after Thornton misses a tackle and trips up redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vernon Broughton in pursuit.
Riley also hit Texas with a direct snap look on Counter that used the running ability of Williams to hold the backside defenders and motion from wide receiver Drake Stoops to get another blocker at the point of attack. Late in the game, Brooks had gains of 17, 18, and 33 yards on those direct snaps, including the final two touchdowns.
“The direct snap, they did a nice job,” Sarkisian said. “They had kind of a little window dressing with the motion. We lost our eyes a little bit at linebacker with the motion. The timing was a little bit different from a traditional play on the counter.
“I don’t think it was necessarily a surprise that it was coming. We just didn’t fit the run right, and he had the explosiveness to crease it and find the end zone.”
On the direct snap, Brooks fakes a toss to Williams, an action that serves a similar purpose to the read version of the play — to hold the backside pursuit, keyed by the running threat from Williams that didn’t exist earlier in the year with Rattler at quarterback. The go-ahead touchdown run by Brooks is another chalk effort by the Sooners with Stoops able to lead block downfield to Foster, the playside safety.
So Sarkisian was a little bit mistaken in the game’s immediate aftermath — Stoops isn’t just window dressing after coming in motion, he’s able to either provide the support to help clean up a block against the Texas front, a cornerback, or work all the way to the safety.
The game-winning play is another variation on Counter with a guard and H-back Brayden Willis pulling instead of a tackle and while Oklahoma doesn’t quite execute the blocks as well on this play, it still works — the pulling guard arguably commits a hold on the play, allowing Brooks to bounce outside and then find a crease between two defenders as Jadon Haselwood makes an effective downfield block to allow Brooks to find the end zone and effectively end the game.
“I’m not necessarily concerned — three of the long runs came on the direct snap play, so obviously we have an issue there. We’ve got to get that fixed,” Sarkisian said.
While it may provide some small solace that missed tackles weren’t the most significant issue on the big Counter plays broken by Oklahoma, but Texas clearly does have issues it needs to clean up getting its run fits right and beating blocks.
Cooler weather and less time on the field could help there.
And it’s also true that the Longhorns won’t see another opponent this season able to execute Counter as well as the Sooners. It’s a play that presents particular challenges to defend, but there have been enough problems now in run defense that Kwiatkowski has some major fixes to make in a short period of time.
Oklahoma State has struggled to run the football this year, providing some potential for reprieve, but after the bye week, Baylor will represent a major challenge and there’s no question that the Cowboys will try to scheme ways to get its run game on track in Austin next week.