Oklahoma’s loss to Iowa State last Saturday was not your typical upset.
This was not an upstart team hitting a couple of shot plays downfield and flipping the script with turnovers. It was worse than that.
This was Matt Campbell and his Cyclones offense consistently creating mismatches and out-leveraging Mike Stoops’ defense. In doing so, Campbell’s crew handed Tom Herman and the Texas Longhorns a perfect blueprint to pull off their own upset ahead of the Red River matchup on Saturday.
The warning signs were there early and often against Iowa State. Mike Stoops failed to recognize them. Or, perhaps worse, he ignored them — arrogantly refusing to adjust, thinking the team could eek its way to a closer-than-expected win.
The coaching staff refused to shift from base to nickel sets, staunchly keeping four linebackers on the field at all times. It cost them against the run and pass.
They lost the X’s and O’s battle when it mattered most. The Sooners’ defenders lost their discipline and leverage throughout the second half. When plays were there to be made, they whiffed.
Stoops and coach Lincoln Riley worked throughout the offseason to build in more four-man fronts. They built in a creative wrinkle earmarked to help the side against spread-option attacks. I detailed the change in a film breakdown before the Sooners’ game with Ohio State. The concept: Make sure a hybrid linebacker is in space at all times, leaving him free to fly all over the field, while the other edge defender could be a designated pass rusher.
The best way to match pace-and-space offenses is to add more speed on the field. It looked like the Sooners had hit on a solution, all while maintaining their ability to get after the quarterback.
Yet in their last two games against Baylor and Iowa State — two pace-and-space teams — Stoops and company reverted back to playing with a three-man front, putting four linebackers on the field at all times and dropping all of them into coverage.
Campbell challenged the discipline of those linebackers all day. He put them in constant conflicts, and he presented them with multiple options and forced them to figure out where the ball was, before running sideline-to-sideline to track it down.
Campbell’s goal was to overload one side of the field, match up shifter backs on linebackers, or circumvent the linebackers entirely by using screen passes as an extension of the run game — putting his top playmakers one on one against corners and safeties on the ground.
(By the way, Iowa State has some dynamite playmakers. They sneakily have one of the best collections of skill talent — and variety of talent — in the country.)
The results were OK in the first half.
The Cyclones did a nice job of creating some initial post-snap confusion by shifting the strength of the offensive formation late in the play clock. They would motion the tight end across the formation late, move a receiver from one side to the other, and rarely snapped the ball with a balanced look (an equal number of eligible players on each side of the field).
They favored a look in which they isolated one receiver to the field side in a plus-split (outside the numbers), while sticking two receivers into the boundary in minus splits. If that reads like a jargon-filled word salad, it looks like this:
That’s a lot of open grass to attack.
It turned the game into a contest over positional leverage. Could Iowa State hold the linebackers in the middle of the field with some pre-snap window dressing, out-leveraging the defense to the wide parts of the field? And could Oklahoma’s defenders hold of their blockers, with the correct leverage, to allow support to rally over to the ball?
Early on, the Cyclones ran plays into the crowded boundary, if only to keep the wolves off the scent — and to make things easier on third-string quarterback Kyle Kempt, thrust into his first starting action.
Stoops’ insistence on sticking with four linebackers helped toward the short side, as they slivered through the convoy of bodies and prevented the big play.
It did, however, leave the defense vulnerable to downfield passes. Safeties were left in coverage on receivers, without a nickelback able to slide over to help. They were left helpless as they watched bigger, longer, receivers streak downfield. Get a tall guy on a short guy, and this game can be pretty easy.
Still, Oklahoma was up by 11 at the half. The Cyclones adapted. Stoops didn’t.
As the game wore on, Campbell used swing passes, bubble screens and RPOs as an extension of the run game — pushing the ball into wider areas quicker, creating one-on-one opportunities to the field side.
Oklahoma stuttered. Poor discipline crept in. The team out-leveraged itself through mistimed play calls and numerous individual errors.
The Cyclones rocked the Sooners with back-to-back touchdowns late in the third quarter and early in the fourth. They pressed, probed, then finally took a sledgehammer to Oklahoma’s unbeaten season.
Everything they set up early on paid off. Two plays. 85 yards. Two touchdowns.
I mean, look at this:
A perfect (and somewhat fortuitous) play call against an overload blitz. Campbell’s side was finally able to outflank the defense by attacking into the blitz (a weak-star, linebacker, slot blitz) with a swing pass to the field side. The outside players did an excellent job of scissor blocking — one driving outside, the other cutting inside — springing the ball carrier to go untouched until he was at the 5-yard line.
It was a scheme touchdown — one set up by the team’s earlier exploits and well executed.
The second score was all about the players: a bubble screen taken the distance from 57 yards out.
Ugh. Where do you begin?
Let’s go with the cornerback committing a cardinal sin and undercutting his block, pinching inside rather than holding the outside shoulder. His job was to set the edge and attack the outside shoulder of his blocker, holding the block long enough so that his buddies at safety and linebacker could whizz down and across to snuff out the play. Instead, he gifted the sideline to the ball carrier.
Wait. There’s more. The weakside linebacker bit hard on the play fake – the Sooners had finally jumped into the four-man front that’s specifically meant to free up that linebacker to help against RPOs.
Wait. There’s something else: the angle of the safety. He thundered downhill anticipating the corner would funnel any runner inside. He didn’t even consider the idea that the ball would go toward the boundary. By the time he got up to the line of scrimmage, he was forced to go under the pick, opening up a wide-open gulley for the receiver and turning the play into a track meet.
With the game on the line, the Sooners defense lost their discipline. That’s not good enough for a team with championship aspirations.
Discipline isn’t just maintaining your cool when opponents are mouthing off. It’s playing in front of 80,000 people, late into the game, after a five-touchdown underdog has punched you in the mouth, and holding the edge as the force defender, rather than jumping inside and abdicating your responsibility because it’s easier to try to undercut a block.
Iowa State continued to deliver shot after shot at Oklahoma. The Sooners buckled.
They will face a similar challenge Saturday.
Tom Herman will roll into the Cotton Bowl with a familiar-looking offense. He is a game-plan specific coach. You best believe his side is working hard on some of the wrinkles the Iowa State defense rolled out last week, adding some fakes and bluffs on top of them.
It’s one of the oldest coaching tricks in the book. Young players are sick of being barked at all week by coaches for the mistakes they made against a specific play concept. They’re sick of seeing the film. They’re fed up with the same critiques. They rampage downhill, eager to make amends. It usually exacerbates the problem.
Expect a fake bubble screen tagged with an out and up early on Saturday. Herman and his staff will come right after the Sooners’ discipline and leverage. The play was there for Iowa State on Saturday, as Oklahoma’s secondary drove hard on anything underneath. This should have been a touchdown (note the receiver at the top of the screen):
The boundary corner bit on the underneath throw, leaving a receiver wide -open down the field. Kempt failed to find him.
Herman’s staff must be licking its chops. Perhaps no coach in the country relishes being the underdog more than Herman. Now he faces an Oklahoma team trying to overcome some self-inflicted wounds.
Campbell’s men laid out the plan against a defense that’s been unwilling or unable to make changes midstream. Create chaos in the backfield through formations and motions, take vertical shots against safeties, and get the ball to the perimeter quickly — putting trust in players to make plays.
It’s now Stoops’ responsibility to circle the wagons and instill that perfection and discipline are required on every down, against every opponent. And, hopefully, adapt his system.
But based on what we saw against Iowa State, I’m not holding out hope.
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