Oklahoma nominally bases from a 3-4 defense, much in the vein of Stanford or Oregon, with the nose tackle asked to take the center on and control the A gaps while the defensive ends generally crash the b gaps, looking to penetrate and do much the same job as a 3 tech in a 4-3 defense. The defensive ends can and will slant into the C-gaps on occasion, but generally speaking the goal of the defensive line is to soak up blockers in rushing situations. Having a defensive end crashing the weak side B-gap also makes it much harder for teams to pull blockers. 80% of the Sooners tackles come from linebackers or defensive backs for a reason, with inside linebackers Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans free to roam around the middle and drag ball carriers down. Both weigh in at over 230 lbs and are more than up to the punishment.
Oklahoma will not likely be playing much of their "base" defense against Clemson. Clemson’s receiver talent and depth, combined with the versatility Leggett has as a WR/TE hybrid would often make that foolish. Being from the pass happy Big 12 Oklahoma actually lists nickel personnel as their base defense. What Clemson is far more likely to see is a hybrid 3-3-5 front. By hybrid front I mean that it will switch from 3-3-5 to essentially 4-2-5 depending on where Striker lines up.
This allows a few things to happen. Firstly it allows the underrated Charles Tapper to serve as the strong side defensive end. Tapper is another of OU’s hybrid pass rushers, large enough to play 3-4 defensive end but quick enough to be a defensive end in a four down front. The nose tackle will either align almost head up or shaded on the center and is tasked with much the same job either way. Matthew Romar is tasked with eating up blockers so that the rest of the defensive line and any linebackers are free to make plays. A pair of Charles (Tapper and Walker) have both proven more than adept at penetrating and getting to the passer, with thirteen sacks between the pair. What makes the front the most potent though is Eric Striker. What makes Striker dangerous is his freakish talent. He has the athleticism to have played nickel back and the size to play outside linebacker. From the nickel package Oklahoma likes to move him around a lot to take advantage of his versatility. Sometimes he lines up where a 4-2 end would, bumping the 3-3 end into the b gap, where he is also free to penetrate.
Sometimes Striker aligns at linebacker, particularly on passing downs, and roams around before blitzing or dropping into a zone. The offensive line has to be worried because he is quick enough to blitz nearly any gap from any position in the box. He does not have seven and a half sacks for naught. Having a pair of good penetrating linemen as well as Striker as an OLB/DE allows Oklahoma to put a lot of pressure on opposing offenses. With that said, as far as pass rush goes that is really it. Three guys have at least a half a dozen sacks, only two other players clear two.
It’ll be interesting to see if Hyatt is able to hold up against Striker when Striker lines up at outside linebacker/DE. While Striker is, to put it best, stupid fast he also isn’t particularly strong. That plays to Hyatt’s strengths right now (fundamentals and athleticism). The rest of the offensive line may have issues keeping up with Striker's quickness, especially since both defenses have been scheming blitzes for weeks. Where things may get dicey for Hyatt is when Oklahoma switches to a 3-3 look. With Charles Tapper weighing in at 282 pounds he is absolutely a threat when he is bull rushing Hyatt, it’s no insult to Hyatt, you just can’t expect a true freshman to have the weight room strength a senior does. I don’t expect Hyatt to do too well run blocking, unfortunately, given he will have two very good players in his face all night. At right tackle I feel pretty good about Gore vs the 260 lb DE/DT Dimon, who is likely the worst of OU's three linemen as well as someone Gore should bully in the run game. When Oklahoma switches to a 4-2 front the Gore vs Tapper matchup becomes much less appealing. I don’t particularly fear either of the nose tackles as pass rushers, the two combined for only a sack a piece. Their job is to occupy blockers so a middle linebacker can make a play.
Where things get dicey is if either nose tackle is able to overpower either Guillermo or Norton. In that case, one of the guards will have to slide over to help, leaving the offensive line vulnerable to stunts and blitzes. I’m pretty sure Mac Lain can handle the combination of speed and size offered by the DE/DT hybrids, I do worry a bit about whether Crowder or Morris can hang with the speed of guys at least thirty pounds lighter than they are, but I am also certain that either is perfectly capable of driving them off the ball. But all in all, the main mismatch I see is asking a human being to block a first round Linebacker/DE/NB/War Hammer currently known as Erik Striker. Even his name means to hit.
In the secondary Oklahoma almost exclusively elects to play a mix of bend but don’t break coverages from a two high shell. Having four secondary members who can cover deep and medium zones, all of whom are at least decent tacklers, leaves Oklahoma options. Often the Sooners will play cover four, having the safeties responsible for making the tackles near the line of scrimmage. Oklahoma’s safeties are pretty good at causing chaos near the line of scrimmage, particularly Ahmad Thomas. Combined with a pair of ballhawking corners willing to make tackles near the line of scrimmage and a serviceable nickel back who is not asked to do much there aren’t a ton of weak spots in the coverage. On standard downs Oklahoma likes to line up and play either cover two or cover four from the exact same look. This ensures what looks like a safe throw may be the most dangerous one to make. Making things even more cruel is that Oklahoma will occasionally roll into cover three from any of the exact same look, and it might be cover three cloud or cover three buzz. In essence Oklahoma can run all of these looks, provided they're willing to play slightly out of position before the snap, from the exact same look. The quarterback will see something like this before the snap more often than not.
After the snap the quarterback could easily see any of these.
On passing downs Oklahoma is much more prone to moving Striker and other defenders around and running a fire zone blitz, and again, usually out of the same two high look. Corners and safeties are asked to be able to interchange between covering the deep zones of the field, the flats and the seams depending on the coverage. For the most part linebackers are tasked with picking up anything that crosses into the hook zone or potentially blitzing. Due to the speed on the field the potential array of pass rushers can be extremely difficult for offensive lines to pick up. Every so often the Stoops will line up in a flagrant, everyone but the defensive backs on the line of scrimmage cover zero blitz but generally Oklahoma is a team that lives and dies with two safeties deep before the snap. Where things get interesting are the array of blitzes Oklahoma throws. Erik Striker is going to rush the passer a lot, but on third and long Oklahoma is perfectly willing to have Striker fake a rush and blitz the free safety instead. Most of the time third and long usually ends in a pretty aggressive blitz or eight defenders dropping into zones. Clemson’s blitz pick up will be tested, nine of Oklahoma’s starters have recorded at least a partial sack. Some of that is scheme, some of that is a coaching staff that has had to get creative due to only really having three good pass rushers.
How Oklahoma would win:
Oklahoma could win if any combination of four things happen
1. The Sooners would need to confuse and rattle Watson enough that he makes critical mistakes in the passing game. With the Sooner defense in the top ten in the country in both sacks and interceptions it is entirely possible that that could happen. Of course, Watson almost never is sacked and rarely turns the balls over.
2. Oklahoma needs to contain Watson. Texas was able to run up and down the Oklahoma defense with their QB, Heard. Watson is perfectly capable of running for one hundred yards when defenses are giving him it. I remain convinced that had he not been out due to injury Treyvone Boykin, a comparable talent to Watson, would have ran all over this defense. Oklahoma has shown little ability to stop good QB running games.
3. Gallman and Watson have to be worse than efficient. Oklahoma as a team is very good at keeping teams from gaining consistent success. Teams can spring off a big play, but it is extremely hard to rely on twenty yard runs to keep drives alive. That's not to say that Oklahoma is giving up explosive plays left and right, only that they are very, very good at shutting down opponents ability to run the ball consistently. Both Watson and Gallman are good runners, but rarely are they breaking off the sort of twenty plus yard gains that change games. If Oklahoma can contain both Watson and Gallman their pass rushers are free to pin their ears back.
4. Defensive back depth. The top end of Oklahoma's defensive backfield is very good, but even by the time you get to the nickel back cracks begin to show. Can the Oklahoma DB's keep up with We Too Deep?
Three Sooner weaknesses spring to mind when matching up Oklahoma vs Clemson.
1. Clemson currently has the best dual threat quarterback in the country. Deshaun Watson changes the game. There's little needed to be said there.
2. Defensive backs. There is one starting Sooner defensive back above 6'0, and he's 6'1. Like so many teams Clemson has played I am not certain that anyone on Oklahoma matches up well with Jordan Leggett. While both starting corners and safeties are active tacklers, no other secondary member has proven able or willing to do much tackling. In addition I just don't know how fair it is to ask any team in the country to cover all the weapons Clemson has
3. Depth, Oklahoma is a very good team. Their starting eleven can go toe to toe with anyone at the start of a game. Oklahoma is also a team where the vast majority of sacks and activity in the secondary come from the starters. The backup linebackers combined to contribute little as well. According to S&P+ the Sooner defense gets worse with each passing quarter. They even get worse from first down to third.
In short, for Clemson to win this game they have to be able to, if not totally stop at least stall a ferocious pass rush. Watson's ability to run will be very important in terms of opening up the defnese. Oklahoma can be beat, the last quarterback to do it wasn't much of a passer but was a talented runner. The wide receivers need to be able to find holes in the primarily zone coverage they are seeing, particularly if they can get matched up against one of the lesser DB's. Jordan Leggett needs to bully smaller defensive backs. Gallman will likely not have the game of his life, to be honest, but that is fine. The threat he represents to grind out yardage is important.Clemson is not a team that plays at race car pace, but Oklahoma is a team which has shown little defensive depth and it would behoove Clemson to try to run more plays in order to tire out a thin defense. None of this is stuff Clemson can't do, but it is all challenging.
One thing I noticed from watching film of the Red River Rivalry was that Oklahoma had a lot of trouble defending different variations of Texas’ end-around plays.
A mix of poor tackling in the secondary, and a good run by Texas’ WR resulted in a Texas TD. I expect Clemson to use Artavis Scott in a similar capacity in the Orange Bowl. Scott has shown the ability to make plays in the open-field running game, which Oklahoma has shown that they are susceptible to.
Texas added a wrinkle to the end-around play later in the game after they had success on the conventional end-around twice. In this play, Heard fakes the end around, which the Oklahoma defense is forced to respect, Heard then keeps it on a QB sweep to the left, totally fooling the defense.
I guarantee that the Clemson offensive staff has seen this weakness on film, and they know that they have the necessary weapons (Watson, Scott) to exploit that weakness.
Oklahoma’s defense was also embarrassed by Texas’ QB power run game. Texas simply ran the same play 3 times in a row in the Red Zone with the final attempt ending in a Touchdown. Stoops couldn’t have been happy with his front 7 being bullied by the Texas offensive front. As you can see, this looks more like a high school football game where the defense knows exactly what is coming (Texas even uses the exact same pre-snap motion on each play), but they are totally unable to stop it.
The OU defensive front had a terrible game getting gashed by the QB run game all day. Texas’ dominance in the QB run game set up this 81 yd run in which they show QB sweep to the right, which the OU defense is forced to respect, and then Heard gives it off to the RB up the middle. Oklahoma’s defense shows more examples of poor tackling in the secondary leading to a huge gain for Texas
From what I saw on film, Texas was able to get positive yardage on every run, which allowed them to win the game despite throwing for just over 50 yds.
I think the QB run game is going to be a huge strength for Clemson’s offense in this matchup with the Oklahoma defense. Obviously the Oklahoma defense won’t be able to stack the box to stop the run game because of Watson’s ability to throw the deep ball. If Clemson is able to mix a power run game with their dangerous deep passing game, they might be able to break some Orange Bowl offensive records on Thursday afternoon.