I like to watch film before I give too many sweeping opinions on a weekend’s action but I tuned in closely enough to the various B12 games to come up with a few strong impressions.
Gundy throttles Boise State
Not only was I expecting this to be a massive Boise win but I even related a story of urging someone who (foolishly in my estimation) had wagered on USC to hedge by betting on Boise State (and Iowa State).
I hadn’t watched Oklahoma State very carefully this season, only enough to know that Taylor Cornelius wasn’t Mason Rudolph but that the Poke skill talent is probably close to being good as it was in 2017. That was even more of a cementing of a previously held assumption than anything.
But Gundy had a couple of aces up his sleeve. The first was a QB option and RPO run game featuring big, gangly Cornelius that caused some real problems for the Boise defense. The second and perhaps bigger issue was a pressure package that moved the Pokes’ experienced DEs and LB Calvin Bundage around all over the place to absolutely destroy the Boise State protection schemes.
With a D that knows how to bring really smart and efficient pressures combined with a QB that has some skill to unlock the rest of this offensive talent, Oklahoma State just SHOT up in my internal power rankings of the Big 12. We’ll get to that at the end of this piece.
Iowa State bends and then breaks against Oklahoma
This was one of the first times that I didn’t think Matt Campbell and his staff had a great gameplan for an opponent. After a weeklong debate over the nature of Iowa State’s pressure package and how effective it might be against the Sooners, we instead watched the Cyclones drop eight and spy Kyler Murray, daring the Sooners to work their way down the field.
That’s not a good way to handle this team. My scouting report on Kyler Murray and the Oklahoma offense through the first three games is that they have more dangerous weapons outside than a year ago with Ceedee Lamb and Marquise Brown coming into their own and Murray is completely capable of finding them and delivering back-breaking strikes down the field. The Oklahoma run game is not as good as it was a year ago, which is kinda funny because an offseason argument I often had with Sooner fans was whether Murray’s running ability would make up for the loss of Baker Mayfield in constraining opponents from attacking the OU run game.
It doesn’t, so I was right about that, but for some of the wrong reasons. Murray’s ability to attack off play-action is excellent and Brown seems more dangerous now than he was a year ago, kinda like fellow mighty mite Dede Westbrook who had a solid junior year and then exploded as a senior in this offense. The “Ant-man and the Wasp” connection made a terrifying hook-up early in the game.
That was a straight line bomb so you don’t really have to use the Pythagorean theorem to calculate that this ball traveled 53 yards in the air before landing right in the bread basket.
My sense after the FAU/UCLA games was that Kyler Murray is predictably not a huge fan of contact. He’s a terrifying runner until you can actually get your hands on him, then he goes down easily. If he goes down in a way he doesn’t like, such as right after delivering a pass, he’ll immediately appeal to the officials for more protection. His body language and the way he runs makes it clear that he’s not out there trying to be a hero when it comes to breaking tackles or running through defenders.
This team has too many weapons and Murray is way too good at hitting them on the move or from the pocket to try and drop everyone back and hold up against this team. Instead defenses need to make Murray feel heat early and often and get his eyes focused on where pressure is coming from rather than where his receivers are down the field. That’s the MO for Texas and Oklahoma State is another defense that appears to have an effective formula for that, I don’t know if either Army or Baylor are going to test him much.
The Oklahoma defense had some of their usual issues with DB tackling, I need to look closer to get a better feel for how their front is playing against the run. I know they stacked the box against David Montgomery (who wouldn’t?) who sometimes seems to be better at picking up 3-6 tough yards in the face of contact then he is at picking up 10-15 yards by running by people. Getting beat down the field by big wideouts like Hakeem Butler isn’t the worst sin, although it’s not a weakness you want to carry into the Red River Shootout. Their ability to bring pressure against the Cyclones, particularly late in the game, was huge.
What I perceive as potential weaknesses in the 2018 Sooners don’t appear to be the sort that will stop this team from being in the running for the B12 title deep into the year.
The Cyclones are still in it as well, this defense is playing at a high level and most teams won’t find it as easy to beat their schemes for long scoring drives as the Sooners did.
Texas stomps USC
Texas is just a bad matchup for these Trojans. Todd Orlando’s knack for disguising coverages and bringing inside pressure is a nightmare for a team that can’t protect their run game and has to rely on a true freshman pocket passer to move the football. While doubting Texas is a popular pastime of late and many people were ready and eager to believe that the Longhorns would find a way to blow it against USC as a home favorite, I doubt that Orlando’s success against J.T. Daniels really shocked anyone or changed many opinions about Texas.
What may not be as well recognized yet is the fact that the Texas offense is considerably better than a year ago, particularly at tackle where they have gone from “abysmal” to “legitimately very good” in just a year.
The trick of it is this. They added Rice grad transfer Calvin Anderson, who’s very athletic and reliable in pass protection and then RS freshman Sam Cosmi finally flipped the switch in fall camp and has started at RT the last two games while true sophomore and returning starter Derek Kerstetter has slid inside to RG. Then Elijah Rodriguez, who was slated to play RT a year ago before being lost for the year to an injury in fall camp, is now at center. Consequently, this is the most athletic OL Texas has had since 2013 and maybe even much longer than that, with four starters with the length and quickness to be at least passable at tackle.
I’m sure they’ll still have their doubters, but the defense just hit their stride after an only decent start to the year and the offense has played pretty well with a lot of growth potential.
TCU holds their own against Ohio State
I’ve just started breaking this game down, it was one of the first I pulled up to get a closer look at since I’ll be previewing the Texas vs TCU showdown at Inside Texas later this week.
I noticed the TCU OL played fairly well against SMU, particularly on runs to the left side behind JUCO transfer Anthony McKinney and (more importantly) returning starter at LG Cordel Iwuagu (anyone know how that last name is pronounced?). For the Ohio State game they ditched the rotation of overmatched RS senior Trey Elliott and unimpressive JUCO Chris Gaynor to slide backup tackle Austin Myers into that slot. As a consequence, the Frog OL is now actually closer to being as talented as Frog fans insisted while pointing to some of the better recruiting rankings of the younger players on the roster.
They still weren’t able to make hay running on Ohio State outside of the long run by Darius Anderson but they did some damage, especially early in the game before the Buckeyes started to adjust. The TCU secondary had the problems I thought they would against the Buckeye WRs and also at DT where their rotation of “guys not named Ross Blacklock” had predictable struggles against Ohio State’s massive OL and talented backs.
Still, they had a smart plan of attack, played hard, and were in that game only to be ultimately undone by the Buckeyes’ talent advantages. Before this game my impression of the Frogs was that they had something similar to last year’s formula: run game + defense + ball control = lots of wins, but with weaker execution in every phase despite some young talent infusions. That still sounds about right but I think they’re closer than I did a week ago and this coaching staff combined with these athletes can allow them to add “more regular explosive plays” to the formula in a way that may even things out.
The other games
Kansas State zeroed in on utilizing Skylar Thompson against a bad UTSA team and picked up a needed win. I saw too much against Mississippi State on rewind though, this team has a lot of holes to fill.
Texas Tech lit up a bad Houston defense (how are they so bad tho?) with freshman QB Alan Bowman (liked him a lot for this system) and appear to more or less be the same team they are every year.
Kansas is sneaky good, mostly because they’re a little deeper overall and they have Pooka Williams running wild for them. I’m sure they’re still terrible but perhaps the gap between them and the rest of the dregs isn’t so great.
When I watched Duke run over Army on a Thursday or Friday night game earlier in the year I thought, “here we go, let’s see how Baylor does against this and that should say a lot about their coming season.” Sure enough, even without their starting QB Duke ran over Baylor. Bear fans seem very perturbed also by how Matt Rhule keeps pulling his QBs, much like he did a year ago, rather than giving Charlie Brewer a chance to play through problems and develop for the future.
My take is that Matt Rhule’s specialties are in developing hard-nosed, multiple defenses and then physical OL that can join forces to control games at the of scrimmage. Well, the Baylor defensive personnel isn’t very good yet and neither is the OL. His recruiting plan has been to go find ultra raw players with the athletic upside to be dominators but the need for a few years of college S&C and grueling, Rhule practices. That’s the very opposite of a quick fix. The jury is going to be out on the #RhuleofLaw for a few years yet. The Bears could have hired some Air Raid head coach and been much better much faster but that coach likely wouldn’t have had the potential ceiling of a Rhule squad.
Who can win the league?
Whatever they are on defense, Oklahoma still has the Riley O and raw athleticism and overall firepower to be in every game against B12 competition. Even if some of these teams catch them with a good gameplan and tougher or more sound play, Oklahoma can probably still keep up just by virtue of their talent.
Texas and Oklahoma State stand out right now as teams that have some weapons and formulas on offense combined with defenses that play hard and know how to get pressure when it matters. TCU and Iowa State have some of that as well but the Frogs don’t have as reliable a QB play yet and the Cyclones are obviously still working out the OL. West Virginia I still need to see more from, they seem like Oklahoma light. Right now I’d say Oklahoma, Texas, and Oklahoma State are the three teams most likely to produce a champion. TCU, Iowa State, and West Virginia are definitely still in the running but they look less likely to be able to impose their strengths and will on a game often enough, everyone else is probably out of it.