Oklahoma's comeback win over Tennessee in 2015 stands out in my memory as one of Sooners' more exciting games in recent years.
I have a different takeaway watching it two years later.
The Volunteers' defensive line wrecked OU so badly up front that it's a miracle the Sooners even made this a game, let alone won it. Tacklers consistently met Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine behind the line of scrimmage. Whenever Baker Mayfield dropped back to throw, he found himself under assault from oncoming rushers. Lincoln Riley called for waggles and rolling pockets in futile attempts to keep his quarterback upright.
OU needed star receiver Sterling Shepard to make NFL-caliber plays to win that game. Mayfield had to scramble and improvise. If Mixon and Perine couldn't drag tacklers and avoid hits, the Sooners go home with an L.
Fast forward a year. In Oklahoma’s marquee non-conference game, the Sooners got clobbered by Ohio State. Ironically, OU's offensive line acquitted itself much better that time around.
Even though the Sooner blockers didn't overwhelm the Buckeyes' talented front seven by any stretch, they did open holes for Mixon and Perine on the ground. Meanwhile, although Mayfield felt his fair share of heat from the OSU pass rush, it was nothing like the way UT kept him running for his life.
That proved to be a sign of what was to come throughout the season. Even with Perine missing a sizable chunk of the action, OU’s average yards per carry ramped up from 5.0 to 5.4, thanks in large part to the holes opened up for OU ball carriers. Mayfield took about one sack per 20 passing attempts in 2016, cutting that rate in half from the year before.
Not coincidentally, Riley built the offense from the ground up last season. Play calling skewed slightly more in favor of the run, up from 57-43 run-to-pass to 60-40. Marginal returns on running attempts grew. Meanwhile, Mayfield played a diminished role in the rushing attack – probably because his contributions weren’t really necessary.
The good news for the Crimson and Cream: All those big uglies are back this season. The initial starter in 2016 at left guard, Cody Ford, returns from a broken leg and might knock an incumbent from the first team. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect the linemen to kick even more ass this fall.
It might be the best offensive line in the nation.
What does that mean for OU in 2017? Despite losing their backfield bell cows, it might serve the Sooners well to ask the running game to shoulder even more of the offensive load.
Granted, while guys like Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams hold plenty of promise, no one will mistake them for their predecessors. Even when Mixon and Perine didn’t have the ball, they opened up plenty of opportunities for teammates.
Take this, for example:
No offense to Marcelias Sutton and Trey Sermon, but I doubt opponents will bite that hard when they flare out or fake a handoff.
Fortunately for OU, you don’t need a Perine or a Mixon in the backfield to do damage when your line is opening up gaping lanes in the defense. At the same time, a run-heavy orientation alleviates some of the pressure on a green group of receivers.
Complementing downhill running with a play-action passing game doesn’t sound like much of a fit with Riley’s preferred version of the Air Raid. Of course, he has shown a willingness to ugly it up when the situation calls for it. It’s not a stretch to envision Riley going mad scientist to find ways to deploy a more physical, ground-and-pound attack.
Given that OU has such an accomplished QB, it would seem natural to expect the Sooners to run more of their offense through Mayfield’s right arm in 2017. Playing to their strength, the offensive line, might dictate otherwise.