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January 4, 2013

A&M's defense vs. OU's offense and more

The Oklahoma offense has changed again and again over the years. When Bob Stoops first arrived in Norman, he brought Mike Leach with him from Kentucky and the Sooners were the first college football team to win a national title running the spread. However, after a lackluster 2001 season, Stoops brought in Kevin Wilson in 2002 to install the spread running game. When Oklahoma brought in running back Adrian Peterson in 2004, the Sooners became more of an I formation running team. Under Wilson, the Sooners moved between the I formation and four receiver sets but gradually became more of a spread offense, especially after Josh Heupel was installed as offensive coordinator last season. They are less of a perimeter running, slot oriented passing game that what they were even two years in Wilson's last season and have always tried to play to the strengths of their personnel. In addition, they've used tight ends and fullbacks to a greater extent than other spread offense in college football.

This year, Oklahoma has geared itself toward throwing the ball due to the presence of an experienced quarterback in Landry Jones and the lack of a dominant running back and offensive line. They have thrown the ball 57% of the time this season and most unusually for a spread team they throw to their outside receivers (141 combined catches for their starters) more than their slots (94 combined catches).

The Sooners had some attrition prior to the start of the season in their receiving corps and senior Kenny Stills was considered to be the only experienced, reliable guy they had coming into the season. However, Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders became eligible near mid season and senior Justin Brown stepped up at outside receiver. Brown and Stills offer some size at outside receiver. Neither are burners but they run good routes, read coverages well, and can outmuscle smaller corners. Saunders and freshman Sterling Shepard work the middle of the field and both can be deep threats on seam routes.

Jones has a reputation for not playing well in big games but this season has a 29/10 touchdown to interception ratio which is solid for a multi-year starter. He's made better decisions down the stretch than he ever has in his career. However, he has a tendency to hold the ball and look for big plays down the field and in particular to be able to get the ball to his outside receivers which means passes when the ball is in the air for 20 plus yards.

All of that takes lots of protection, especially because Jones is not a big threat to run. Oklahoma's offensive line is a tall group (four of them are 6 foot 4 or taller) with long arms and better suited to pass protection than the running game. They are very technically sound in terms of using their hands and they adjust well to blitzes and stunts. They don't give up many sacks (21st nationally) but they lack the athleticism to leverage people in the running game.

Oklahoma is primarily an inside zone running team this season. Junior Damien Williams is not a big play threat but his is a capable receiver and blocker in the passing game and can stay in for pass protection when the Sooners go to a one back set. Fullback Trey Millard is a very good blocker who is underrated as a runner and has emerged as a nice threat out of the backfield on play action.

The key for this game for A&M defensively (as it is when facing any passing team) is getting pressure on the quarterback. Jones likes to hold the ball and get the ball to his outside receivers and when he was pressured by Kansas State and Notre Dame (four sacks in the two games), he didn't get the ball down field as much and was forced to throw shorter passes to Shepard and Williams. That translated into far lower production offensively for the Sooners.

A&M's pressure begins with junior defensive end Damontre Moore who is the Aggies' best pass rusher by far. He's not only agile but has long arms and is technically advanced in terms of footwork and hands. He's not a first step guy but he can make you miss him when he's coming off of the ball or can quickly get his hands inside yours and escape. Outside of Moore, A&M is not a big sack team in terms of numbers.

The Aggies typically play a cover three or three deep look with man coverage in the secondary. They will give up shorter gains to the outside receivers and try to keep people in front of them. They struggled in the Louisiana Tech game due to suspensions and injuries which left them short on depth. Generally, they have done well at not giving up the big play except against Louisiana Tech and Alabama, both of which were able to go play action down the field after some success at running the ball.

A&M is very technically sound as a defense. The front seven uses their hands well, maintains their gaps, and doesn't overrun plays in the running game. Defensive tackles Spencer Nealy and Kirby Ennis have played well all season in stopping the run and freeing up linebackers Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and hard hitting safety Howard Matthews to make tackles.

The Aggies don't force a lot of turnovers and instead try to get people in long yardage situations by stopping the run and getting off the field on third down versus the pass. In addition, A&M has been inconsistent in getting pressure on quarterbacks. Oklahoma is not a big play action team and if they can't run the ball on A&M, then they are going to be one dimensional in throwing it.

If A&M stops the run, makes Oklahoma one dimensional, and is able to get some pressure on Landry Jones, it's going to be hard for the Sooners to stay with A&M scoring points. If the Aggies can't get to Jones, then he will have time to take shots down the field and also be able to move the chains with passes to Williams, Sterling Shepard, and Saunders. At that point, the game probably becomes more of a shootout with the last team to have the ball having the best chance to win it.

Special teams:

If there's a significant advantage for Oklahoma in this game, it's on special teams. The Sooners are in the top six nationally in both punt and kickoff returns and do a good job of blocking on special teams. In addition, they rank first in the Big 12 in kick coverage and fourth in punt coverage. Because the Aggies play a lot of starters on special teams, they cover kicks and punts well. If Oklahoma is going to match A&M point for point, they need a big play or two from the special teams in order to do so.

Intangibles:

The Aggies have had a lot of distractions since the season ended with multiple award winners traveling across the country and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury leaving to take the head coaching job at Texas Tech. Oklahoma seems to have a chip on its shoulder with all of the attention being focused on Manziel and A&M, a team that they have beaten 11 out of the last 13 times. However, A&M has had time to deal with the distractions and should be focused as it has been all season. Also, Sumlin learned from Bob Stoops about getting off to fast starts and Oklahoma generally hasn't been used to teams blitzing them like A&M has opponents, even teams that are better than Oklahoma like Alabama.

Most of all, A&M should be able to run the ball which means that it should be able to control the game for longer stretches than Oklahoma. As a result, Oklahoma is going to have to make up for this deficiency by generating big plays on special teams and turnovers. If the Sooners can't do either or both of those things, A&M will win the game.


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