Tom Herman built his name as an offensive guru who punched all the right buttons for Urban Meyer’s 2014 Ohio State team. Offensively, the Cougars lived up to the Herman hype last season, finishing 10th in the country in scoring O.
But the strides made on the other side of the ball really helped separate UH from the rest of the AAC and turned the Cougs into the most intriguing mid-major program in the country heading into 2016. In year one, they climbed from 70th in Def. S&P+ overall in ‘14 to 58th, primarily thanks to a run defense that gave up a measly 3.2 yards per carry.
Herman infused some funk into his D by hiring coordinator Todd Orlando away from the staff at Utah State, which fielded fantastic units in his only two seasons with the Aggies. His exotic 3-4 scheme calls for attacking opponents relentlessly with blitz combinations from a variety of angles and places on the field. Watching UH’s games from last season, it’s easy to see how quarterbacks might struggle with figuring out where the heat would be coming from.
On the other hand, while it’s fun to watch a defense force the issue, the Cougars also tend to expose themselves to big play opportunities. That should be key to Saturday's game with Oklahoma.
Let's take a quick look at two games from last season to get an idea of what the Sooners will be facing schematically.
Houston’s Peach Bowl win over Florida State served as something of a coming out party for the D nationally by bottling up star running back Dalvin Cook and holding the Seminoles to about a yard per rush.
Orlando had his D selling out so much to stop the FSU ground game that even Reel Big Fish thought it was excessive. UH frequently stacked the box with eight and even nine players. The Cougars’ safeties also hammered down to support against the run.
On this play in the second quarter, the Cougars essentially have eight men in the box on 2nd and 11.
The 'Noles still plunged Cook into the stacked front. He promptly fumbled:
Which gave us bemused Jimbo:
UH clearly wanted to put the game on Sean Maguire and the Seminoles’ receiving corps. Maguire actually had FSU off to a solid start before suffering a leg injury in the first half. The ‘Noles threw for 133 yards in their first three possessions, the vast majority of which came from deep completions off of play action:
As would be expected, though, Maguire started lollipopping throws once he lost the ability to plant his feet. FSU rang up nearly 400 yards through the air, but four oskies on throws like this rendered all that yardage moot:
Unfortunately for the Cougs, there isn’t much carryover from how they put the clamps on the ‘Noles to defending the Sooners. Whereas FSU’s more conventional offensive scheme enabled UH to crowd the box, OU’s spread formations will keep Orlando from stacking the deck against the run.
The Bearcats presented a similar challenge for the UH D to what the Cougars will likely see from OU. UC’s spread offense essentially forced Orlando to call a more straight-up game. That didn’t keep him from aggressively deploying blitzes to get after Cincy and QB Gunner Kiel.
The stats suggest that Houston stifled the Bearcats’ ground attack, similar to the way the Cougars kept FSU in check: 66 net yards on 18 attempts. Adjusting for sacks, however, the Bearcats ground out a healthy 6 yards a clip running the ball (89 yards on 15 carries).
In this case, for instance, the Bearcats used the Cougars’ aggressiveness against them with an inverted veer call that sucked linebacker Tyus Bowser (No. 81) towards the middle of the line of scrimmage, giving Cincy running back Mike Boone (No. 5) just enough room to scamper around the right edge for a decent gain:
On this play, the Bearcats run counter trey out of the pistol. Kiel opens away from the play side, making it look like an inside zone run. The aggressive UH defenders read run to the left side of the offensive formation, and the UC guard and H-back to seal off the edge on the right side of the line to spring Boone for a 23-yard pickup.
Cincy damn near won this game, though, thanks to a number of big plays in the passing game. Despite dropping back more than 50 times, the Bearcats still averaged nearly 10 yards per pass attempt.
UC got eight explosive plays (gains of 25 yards or more) off of passes. Often, the Bearcats did so by simply spreading out their receivers and exploiting one-on-one opportunities down the field. It worked well, although the plan left Kiel open to taking shots from UH blitzers in the process. On this play, for example, Kiel gets crunched by a blitzing safety, but still completed the jump ball down the sideline for six:
The Sooners will present a challenge unlike anything they Cougars saw last season. Their offensive diversity gives them the ability to punish UH for all of its gambling on defense.
Lincoln Riley will want to protect Baker Mayfield, but even in doing so, OU's QB should find plenty of chances to push the ball downfield to Dede Westbrook and big targets such as A.D. Miller. Joe Mixon should have a chance to do some damage sneaking out of the backfield as well.
If the Sooners don't put up a lot of points on Saturday afternoon, it will mean that Orlando did some serious scheming in the offseason.