It has become a bit of a punchline among Sooner fans, but the Oklahoma State Cowboys truly are one of college football's team on the rise. In fact, you could argue that aside from Oregon, no major program in the country has enjoyed the same level of sustained gains on a year-to-year basis as OSU in recent years.
If the 2011 team isn't the Pokes' best ever, it has to be damn close. OSU's calling card is its high-powered offense, so let's take a look at what OU is dealing with in the latest edition of the Bedlam Rivalry.
The good news for the Sooners: Brandon Weeden, the Cowboys' AARP quarterback, will not beat you with his legs. He has decent enough feet in the pocket, and when he steps up there, he's typically throwing strikes. He's not an extend-the-play, elusive signal caller by any stretch, though.
The rest is mainly bad news. Weeden has a live arm that enables him to make all the NFL-caliber throws. He's accurate, too. Despite his "escapability," or lack thereof, he doesn't panic much in his drops.
Not Just Justin
Led by All-American Justin Blackmon, who's apparently making his final appearance in Stillwater, Weeden has a strong receiving corps to throw to. Blackmon can use his imposing size to outmuscle defenders and attack the ball on any number of routes.
OSU's other pass catchers are solid, providing complementary pieces to Blackmon. Josh Cooper and Tracy Moore definitely won't blow anyone away with their raw ability, especially when compared to their top-flight teammate. They will, however, bite you in the ass if your defense ignores them to stop Blackmon.
The passing game puts up big numbers, but OSU runs the ball far more efficiently than it is generally given credit for. The Pokes rank second nationally in Rushing S&P+ and are sixth in the country on standard downs, according to Bill Connelly's S&P+ numbers at Football Outsiders. OSU is averaging more than 5 yards per carry, with sophomores Joseph Randle (5.82 YPC) and Jeremy Smith (6.58) leading the way.
OSU's running game feeds off of its vaunted passing attack. It is much better leveraging what the defense is doing to slow down the pass than it is working in a vacuum, but that's why it's operating at such a high level this season. Catch-22.
Looking at the Football Outsiders numbers, OSU's offense presents a conundrum. There is a relatively significant discrepancy between the S&P+ rankings (fourth overall) and Brian Fremeau's drive-based FEI+ (24th).
It could be that FEI+ uses a greater discount factor in this case than S&P+. The FEI+ ranks the overall strength of the defenses faced by OSU 66th in the country. If that is the case and it's simply a matter of quality of competition, OU has the most defensive talent of anyone the Pokes have faced since Texas. So there's that.
Setting all that aside, what's the best way to slow OSU's offense down?
On a meta-level, the Cowboys' big-play ability sticks out more than anything else. Roughly 20 percent of the Pokes' drives average at least 10 yards per play, good for 12th in the country. On the other hand, at just more than 15 percent, OSU ranks 46th in Fremeau's "methodical drives" stat, which reflects drives of 10 plays or more.
That screams "umbrella coverage," especially when you consider the Sooners' penchant for giving up big passing plays.
OU generally loves to cheat on early downs to stop the run. The danger in that is that Weeden will use that aggressiveness to beat the Sooners off of play-action. If I'm Bob Stoops, OSU's backs don't scare me nearly as much as Weeden hitting Blackmon time and again one on one on fade routes with no safety help.
This seems like a good occasion to break out the three-man front that OU used with greater frequency earlier this season. That gives OU a chance to get personnel better-suited to stopping the pass on the field and could minimize the loss of Ronnell Lewis. I'd ease up on early downs a bit and try to encourage the Pokes to nickel and dime down the field. On passing downs, rather than relying on the down linemen to get pressure, I'd run delays and zone blitzes at Weeden from different angles on the field.
I realize what I'm advocating here isn't that exciting, and it's not particularly exotic, either. It is, however, at least the start of a solid plan for potentially slowing OSU.
OU won't be able to shut down the Pokes – get that out of your head right now. Keeping the score manageable, however, isn't too tall of an order.