Last summer, in an effort to get a better handle on what to expect from Oklahoma’s defense in 2012, I reviewed some of the schemes that Mike Stoops had employed against spread offenses in his previous stop at Oklahoma and his ill-fated time as Arizona’s head coach. Even though these breakdowns made for a few nice exercises in film study, ultimately, they offered little insight into what the Sooners did defensively last season.
With that caveat in mind, I’m going to try a similar endeavor this year and look to expand to include both sides of the ball. My goals include extrapolating some understanding of Mike’s philosophy towards defending Big 12-style offenses, identifying major issues with the defensive schemes that OU used and figuring out what it all means for the defense going forward. Offensively, I’m more interested in examining how teams defended OU and how Josh Heupel might try to counter some of the more effective strategies.
In a lot of ways, this kind of analysis is as much about helping me process what is happening on the field, so I’d definitely encourage readers to chime in with observations or other opinions.
We’ll start with a multi-part series on OU’s wild 50-49 win over West Virginia in November, a game that laid bare all of the Sooners’ defensive deficiencies.
The Oklahoma Sooners managed to pull out a win in their first visit to Morgantown to play West Virginia as a conference foe. Ask anyone who watched what they remember about the game, though, and the first thing out of their mouths won’t have anything to do with the Crimson and Cream.
West Virginia’s Tavon Austin gave one of the most spectacular individual performances of the 2012 season. The diminutive playmaker rolled up 344 rushing yards on 21 carries and tacked on another 82 through the air on four grabs. Not a misprint – Austin got the ball 25 times and averaged a stunning 17 yards each time.
It didn’t end there for the Sooners, either, as wideout Stedman Bailey had a field day with the OU secondary. Bailey had 13 receptions for 205 yards and 4 TDs. Yet, he was reduced to a sideshow next to Austin. (Have fun with that, Sam Bradford.)
All in all, it was a Theon Greyjoy kind of night for the D.
Holgo flips the script
(Earlier this year, Nickel Rover of Football Study Hall authored a fantastic piece on this game in which he illustrated how WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen utilized Austin as a multi-purpose threat. I’d highly recommend checking that out, because he did a superb job of explaining the Xs and Os.)
The real story of this game can be summed up in one image:
WVU ran 39 of its 82 offensive plays out of this set. The Mountaineers are lined up in a Pistol formation with trips to one side of the field and a single receiver split wide to the opposite side. In a Red Bull-fueled stroke of genius, however, Holgo the Conqueror added a nifty twist, putting Austin in the backfield at tailback. (We’ll call this the “Austin Pistol.”)
I didn’t pay enough attention to WVU closely enough prior to this game to know if this was the Austin Pistol’s actual debut. I do know that this game represented a clear shift in focus and tactics for the Mountaineer O, as the formation became a staple of the squad’s playbook.
Holgo essentially flipped Austin to halfback to close out the year. In the first nine games of the season, Austin carried the ball a total of 14 times. Austin went from a season high of five rush attempts prior to the Oklahoma game to 21 versus the Sooners. He got 59 carries in the final four games of the year. Overall, WVU averaged 46.3 pass attempts per game versus 33.1 rushes over the course of the first nine games. That ratio pretty much flipped down the stretch: 42.8 rushing attempts per game against 28.8 passes.
Choices, choices, choices
The Sooners primarily ran variations on a Cover-2 Man Under defense last season to combat the spread offenses of the Big 12. This allows the defensive backs playing man coverage to press up on the receivers split wide to disrupt the short passing game and quick-hitters that are so prominent among spread and Air Raid teams.
Meanwhile, Mike used the opposing offenses to dictate OU’s personnel groupings, matching every receiver with a defensive back. As seen in the above image, a four-receiver offensive package meant OU would be running a Dime-ish package of four down linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs.
Versus WVU, Holgo forced Mike to play football’s version of “Choose Your Own Adventure” using the Austin Pistol. By shifting Austin to running back, WVU was giving OU what was technically a five-wide personnel grouping. Working within the confines of Mike’s defensive scheme, the Austin Pistol presented the Sooners with three options:
1. OU could treat Austin as a running back and go with the usual Dime personnel. That might help against the run, but it would also mean that a linebacker would have to cover Austin as a receiver coming out of the backfield. Not to mention, what happens if Austin motions out of the backfield and into the slot?
2. Playing seven DBs, on the other hand, helps in covering Austin in pass patterns, but it also shifts the onus to high safeties Tony Jefferson (No. 1) and Javon Harris (No. 30) to play even bigger in run support.
3. A third option would be to put the game plan on the shelf and change schemes altogether.
OU picked door No. 2 and countered with a straight-up bizarre look that you rarely, if ever, see any team play: four down linemen and seven defensive backs. The Sooners lined up in this set on 34 of 39 plays in which WVU deployed the Austin Pistol.
Again, the Sooners are running a Cover-2 Man Under variation in the image above. Four of the DBs (No. 14 Aaron Colvin, No. 6 Demontre Hurst, No. 9 Gabe Lynn and No. 15 Lamar Harris) are lined up in man coverage against the WVU receivers split wide. Safeties Jefferson and Javon Harris (who's out of the frame playing deep middle) have the dual responsibilities of helping deep in coverage and supporting against the run.
The player in the middle of field where you’d generally find a linebacker is Julian Wilson (No. 2). Wilson played as the sixth DB in OU’s Dime personnel package throughout the season. Under normal circumstances, he’d be matched up on the perimeter against a receiver in place of Lamar Harris.
So, how did this particular play work out?
It proved to be a common them on the evening for the Sooners. In the next part of this series, I'll dissect the results and look at the larger implications regarding OU's scheme and personnel.