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Orange Bowl Scouting Report: Oklahoma Sooners Offense

We expanded our pregame film study and dedicated an entire article to each unit. Herein lies our breakdown of the Oklahoma offense.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Game week! Here's the first in a series of expanded previews in which we welcome Chris (camadden) to the fold. With Clemson positioned on our sport's biggest stage, we decided to deviate from the usual opponent film preview and split our breakdown into four separate entities, in which we dedicate an article to the offense and defense of both Orange Bowl teams. This article focuses on the Oklahoma offense and the MAJOR KEY TO SUCCESS in slowing it.

Baker Mayfield leads an uptempo spread offense with talented weapons at every position. Sound familiar? Of course Tiger fans are familiar with an offense full of zone, sweep, draw and zone read plays with a mix of screens and deep looks. What can we expect from the Sooner offense on New Year's Eve? Is it as dangerous as statistics indicate?

On the surface, the Clemson and Oklahoma offenses are similar in both scheme and production. The most visible difference is the varied positioning of Oklahoma's top receiver, Sterling Shepard, who frequently lines up in the slot. Dbbm will cover Clemson's defense later, but a quick primer: Shepard in the slot means we will almost certainly see Mackensie Alexander at NB in nickel situations.

Against UNC, we kept Mack at field to take away Hollins and the UNC deep threat, which left Ryan Carter at NB -- if you read the film review, you know this was problematic, to put it mildly. Therefore we expect (and hope) to see Adrian Baker at field with Alexander (or Kearse) at NB unless Shepard splits out wide. It is the chess match to watch when OU has the ball.

Now, a look at the alignments and plays with which Oklahoma used to become one of the best offenses in college football:

Zone Read

Dec 24, 2015 12:27.gif

Any spread offense begins with an effective running attack, made particularly deadly by a dual-threat quarterback. Above, Oklahoma employs a 203 Shotgun look against a 3-4 with the strong safety on the LOS against the slot receiver, Shepard; WVU is in man C1 behind a 5 man rush. This package offers different options for Oklahoma, who want to spread the defense as much as possible to create space for the running game. Here, the linebacker was pulled from his gap by the backfield motion, and hesitated just long enough for Mixon to hit the hole.

Deep Ball vs Pressure

Dec 24, 2015 12:40.gif

Like we see from Deshaun Watson, Mayfield has an excellent feel for defenses. Watch him read a potential blitz and switch the routes and protection accordingly. Baylor puts 7 players in the box in man C0. This is the matchup Oklahoma wants, they trust their receivers to make big plays, especially if they only have to beat one man. You probably noticed that a rusher still had a free shot on Baker (6 rushers vs 5 blockers), but in this case it didn't matter. We will explore this further below, since pass protection is a huge concern for OU and probably the greatest Clemson advantage in the entire game.

Play Action

Dec 24, 2015 12:53.gif

Here we see 113 Shotgun vs Cover 3. Play-action freezes the LBs who then retreat into coverage. Since the WLB didn't slide towards the flat (his responsibility in C3), Samaje Perine finds 9 free yards. Perine is the check down receiver; Mayfield felt the pressure and rather than force the ball across the middle, he checked to Perine, something the Sooners do often and well. This is a huge concern for Clemson's well-documented troubles with underneath coverage from its linebackers.

Spread Shotgun Pass

Dec 24, 2015 12:55.gif

On 3rd and 10, 104 Shotgun vs a weakside overload blitz in front of Cover 3. Perine is a decoy to draw off the blitzing CB, which allowed the OL to handle a 4 man rush. Mayfield thus had time to find WR Jarvis Baxter on an 8 yard curl route in front of a soft zone for about a 12 yard gain. Oklahoma wants to spread the field, especially on 3rd down. The mindset is if they can spread the field out and use decoys, Mayfield still has the last resort to run through an open middle for the first down if all else fails.

203 Shotgun Zone Read

OU 203

Here we see a 203 Shotgun look with Mixon and Perine. Clemson saw this frequently against South Carolina, who found startling success with essentially the same zone read play; it forces the defense to account for all three backs as potential runners and provides a lead blocker in the event of a handoff. As the play develops, the RT and C pull a bucksweep to further enhance a numbers advantage.

You can see Oklahoma State generate fantastic interior penetration (seriously, the OU line looks horrible here), but Mixon slips the tackle and reverses field. There he picks up a block from Mayfield who sold the fake, and it's over. Here, we saw a play which has been effective against Clemson, yet more deadly since OU has the athletes to turn what was a 15 yard gain for South Carolina into a long touchdown run.

What Happened Against Texas?

Now that we've covered Oklahoma's basic looks, we want to focus on how a bad Texas team handed the Sooners their only loss, how it translates to the Clemson defense, and what Clemson must do to replicate the result.

As we mentioned above, Oklahoma's offensive line is big, but slow and easily turned. They have one of the worst sack rates in the country and are horribly susceptible to a speed rush. In fairness, Mayfield is partially to blame for the abundance of sacks; he holds the ball for a long time which allows him to extend and create explosive plays, but also finds himself unable to escape from a competent rush. It is a testament to the Oklahoma skill and particularly Mayfield that they put up such fantastic numbers. Against Texas, however, an early turnover and multiple first half sacks put OU in an early hole:

Dec 24, 2015 17:36.gif

In the gifs above and below, solid downfield coverage and interior pressure force Mayfield to keep the ball a split second too long and he can't escape; Clemson, meanwhile, excels at both downfield coverage and line havoc. The recurring theme in each "plus" play for Texas was interior pressure in Mayfield's face. What you see below should signal blood in the water for Clemson's front:

Dec 25, 2015 21:27.gif

Mayfield sack

On a surprising majority of snaps, Texas abused the interior of the OU offensive line both against the run and pass (to the tune of at least 6 sacks). Below, Mayfield makes the right read to keep on an inverted veer, but he finds a host of Texas linemen who fought off their blocks with ease.

OU ZR fail

Texas locked down on the OU running game with a superior effort from its front and put OU into passing situations, which then forced the Sooners to convert 3rd & long. Anyone who pays the slightest attention to Clemson knows this is the exact formula Clemson employs and enjoys under Brent Venables, as we've led the country in 3 & outs each of the last 3 years.

Additionally, and most alarmingly for Oklahoma, we must note that the Sooner offense has yet to face a highly regarded defense this year. We say this not to devalue OU or the Big 12, but to emphasize that the Clemson defense -- even with such poor depth -- is far and away the best defense Baker and the Sooners have faced.

If Clemson is to stop Oklahoma, it will of course depend on the defensive front in the run game and making the tackle at initial contact. Lesser defensive lines penetrated against Oklahoma's front, which bodes extremely well for Clemson's fantastic line. Chris watched each of Oklahoma's games this season and they consistently came across defenses who missed tackles. This isn't simply on poor defense, since Perine and Mixon are fantastic and can make good defenses look bad. The key to stopping Oklahoma will come down to three different defenders in our minds:

  1. Shaq Lawson -- Shaq will need to find a way to penetrate the line early and often. If we have learned anything about the Clemson defense, it's that the secondary does a great job of initial coverage. When the QB improvises, we break down. It is up to Shaq and his mates to disrupt the Sooner backfield. Remember, Shaq leads the nation in TFLs and against this OL there is opportunity to add more.

  2. Ben Boulware -- Boulware needs to play the best game of his career against a tricky Sooner team who wants to put him in space or force him into the wrong read. Venables will likely compensate with the usual Boulware blitzes/havoc plays, but he has missed more than his fair share of sacks and TFLs. Against a team who is seemingly at their most dangerous when a play breaks down, it is crucial that Boulware finishes the havoc he creates.

  3. Mackensie Alexander -- Mack owned his matchup with Shepard last year but it matters little now. OU will probably move Shepard into different positions and force Mack to shadow him, leaving potential mismatches elsewhere in the Clemson defense. If Mack takes away Shepard, it's a gamble Venables can live with.
In summary: this Oklahoma offense is dangerous, but not the juggernaut it is portrayed to be thanks to suspect offensive line play and subpar competition. Clemson has the defensive backfield to make Mayfield hold the ball too long (which he does anyway) and the linemen to make him pay for it. The danger lies in the the receivers and backs, who make defenses pay for busts or missed tackles. Clemson's defensive line is the MAJOR KEY TO SUCCESS in limiting the the Sooners, and its body of work tells us the unit is more than capable of doing so.