Now and forever, football is about match-ups. It really just takes one decisive mismatch to turn a game completely in favor of one side or another.
Unfortunately for Oklahoma tonight, that one-sided match-up was Clemson’s running game versus the Sooner defense. The Tigers churned out more than 300 yards on the ground in a 20-point Orange Bowl win.
Big Game Bob didn’t blow it. OU wasn’t unprepared. The Sooners didn’t choke.
Clemson battered OU’s front seven with a heavy dose of brutish running back Wayne Gallman and elusive quarterback Deshaun Watson. In particular, the Tigers exploited the voids created by the absences of defensive lineman Charles Walker and linebacker Jordan Evans.
Clemson put OU in a hole early in the second half, making the Sooners one-dimensional on offense as they tried to climb back into the contest. With Joe Mixon on the sidelines and Samaje Perine hobbled, OU’s offense became more predictable than Dabo Swinney’s postgame rant: Baker Mayfield slinging into clogged passing lanes.
When a team as good as Clemson gets that ball rolling downhill, it’s tough to stop.
I said it many times in the weeks leading up to the game: Clemson is really good, and the Tigers posed major problems for the Sooners from a style standpoint. The game played out exactly the way Clemson wanted, in large part because the Tigers made it so.
A few other observations:
*The same cracks in OU’s offensive line that were exposed early in the season were on full display tonight. Even with Shaq Lawson sidelined, OU’s big uglies had their hands full with the Tigers’ beastly pass rushers, and Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables overwhelmed them with his pressure packages.
Baker Mayfield’s elusiveness helped the Sooners work around their blocking deficiencies throughout the season, but Clemson’s front seven just wasn’t having that.
*Mayfield running for his life was a painful reminder of the youth on OU’s line. Blocking that front seven is a tough ask for a unit that includes a true freshman, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore. Fortunately, that trio will form the backbone of the line for a couple years to come.
*If I have any real qualms with the coaching tonight, it would be ignoring the running game in the first half. OU took to the air too often after an opening drive in which the ground attack was humming. That led to negative plays in ill-timed spots early in the game as a result of OU’s inability to handle Clemson’s pass rush.
It wasn't Lincoln Riley's best day. Even so, it was far from the biggest problem for the Sooners.
*A big silver lining: the play of OU’s receivers who will be back next year. Dede Westbrook, Mark Andrews, Jarvis Baxter and even Jeffrey Mead showed there’s reason for optimism next year without Sterling Shepard.
*On the other hand, the Sooners proved they still have work to do in terms of rebuilding the depth on the interior that is required to win national championships. When the Tigers started pounding in the second half, OU needed more bodies to shuttle in.
That goes for linebacker, too.
*I know no one wants to hear this now, but OU was a year ahead of schedule. The Sooners bring back a number of key contributors in 2016 from a squad that won the Big 12. The roster finally has stability after a multiyear spate of exorbitant attrition.
I don't know if this is good or bad, but OU will be as good a bet as any to make it back to the postseason tournament in 12 months.