Ruffin it for the playoffs

The Big 12 championship game raised an interesting question for me about Oklahoma’s 2018 season and moreso their 2017 campaign. What if Lincoln Riley had promoted Ruffin McNeil to DC sooner?

Against the Texas Longhorns in a championship game with a playoff berth on the line, McNeil finally found his best 11 from the Oklahoma roster and got them playing together in what was one of the best defensive performances by this team of the last several years. Watching the Sooners execute a viable strategy that included shading help to the right players at the right times and mixing in some attacking moves was like watching one of LeBron James’ Cavs teams suddenly flip a switch in the playoffs and play passable defense.

Ruffin’s solution for this game included:

  1. They benched the freshmen safeties and rolled with junior Caleb Kelly and sophomore Tre Norwood over the slot while Robert Barnes remained on the boundary.
  2. They rolled help to ensure that Lil’Jordan Humphrey was always bracketed or that the Texas run game was always outnumbered with a credible run defender (Barnes or Kelly).
  3. They showed awareness of the Texas offensive playbook, personnel, and tendencies and mixed in calls to stay ahead of the Texas adjustments (mixed in some sky coverage on play-action downs) and to attack tendencies (the corner blitz).

Texas still did a fair amount of damage in the game but OU made them work harder to hit their base plays. It was obvious that OU’s defenders had done their homework and actually absorbed the teaching of McNeil and the defensive staff.

Here’s an example of the kind of overload, playoff-style defense that OU played in that game:

Ou Cheat Coverage On B-Overload GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Robert Barnes gets the pick but Tre Norwood incurred a DPI that negated it by holding Lil’Jordan Humphrey. What’s most interesting is that OU is playing a “single-high” coverage here except that the deep safety (Robert Barnes) basically starts on the boundary hash and immediately cheats to the boundary. Texas had the TE and RB flexed out to the field and then Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Devin Duvernay, and Collin Johnson (in that order) lined up from the RT to the boundary sideline.

OU responds by playing what amounts to cover zero on the RB and TE with Parnell Motley and Caleb Kelly. Curtis Bolton, Tre Norwood, and Tre Brown are aligned on the three receivers to the boundary with Barnes over the top. Kenneth Murray is spying on Sam Ehlinger to prevent the scramble. Obviously they busted this coverage and Bolton failed to carry Duvernay but OU was ready to live with that in order to keep Tre Norwood (often with assist) on Humphrey.

Here’s the corner blitz that produced the safety, utilized earlier in the game:

Ou Gameplan Corner Blitz GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

That’s a gameplan blitz, an auto-check for the defense that they had were executing when they had Texas with the RB and TE both aligned to the field and were expecting a play-action pass off the tight zone play. Texas had their RB helping that way this time to pick it up (not so on the safety) but they lost Ronnie Perkins on the inside stunt before Ehlinger could find Humphrey.

Next up are the Alabama Crimson Tide, who have more weapons amongst their skill player group than Texas as well as better pass protection, better run game, and probably a healthy-ish Tua Tagovailoa. However, at least Ruffin is figuring out some guys he can trust and has them buying into his gameplans. That gives OU a much better chance of outscoring their opponent than if things once again hinged on Kyler Murray and the offense scoring on virtually every possession.


  1. Matt

    Cool, thanks for this writeup. Will you/ have you be doing (done?) a breakdown on what Alabama’s offense is this year under Locksley?

  2. Joey

    If you’re Ruffin, how do you even begin to prep this defense for Bama? Load the box (which won’t matter with this group) and pray the qbs can’t find their rhythm after a month off?

    • ianaboyd

      Yeah probably. I want to encourage Alabama’s already latent and uniquely 2018 tendency to chuck the ball around because I’d rather try to beat them in a shootout than watch them run the ball five times a drive.

      OU’s offense against that D is going to be interesting though. Saban has seen the spread now and he has a dime package for situations like this. It’s possible that OU’s D could beat expectations and then the team still lose big because the OU had a surprisingly tough time.

  3. ryan

    Thanks for being a good sport and providing level headed commentary.

    The defense certainly seemed better against WVU despite the score. Outside of Q1, they were a lot better against Texas
    The Norwood move was a complete surprise but it has played nicely…I feel like Kelly has elevated his play as the season closed

    • ianaboyd

      McNeil knows how to use a space-backer in the 4-3 defense without getting clobbered. Comes back to my old “rule of three” philosophy about spread defense, you need at least three guys on the field that can basically hold up in man coverage. They put Norwood at SS and that literally gives them 3 corners on the field. That’s why Venables had Aaron Colvin at SS back in the day.

      So now Kelly is back in a position where he has a ton of reps and experience rather than trying to read the triangle inside at ILB.

  4. Chris

    Curious on what your thoughts are on how OU should defend Alabama: is it ridiculous to to play a 5-1-5, with Kelly down on the Eagle Front and Bolton as the lone linebacker? I have to be honest, Kenneth Murray seems to be a liability on the field when it comes to his run fits. I’d much rather have Bolton and/or Kelly on the field at all times.

    • ianaboyd

      Who’s the 5th DB? They barely found four that are worth a lick.

      I think that kind of aggressive front would draw Bama just running the ball for 10 yards a pop, perhaps from double TE sets.

      They need to show the same kind of awareness of tendencies they did against Texas. Try to shade help over Jeudy and make them win by throwing the ball elsewhere.

      • Chris

        In the spirit of your write up on Alabama, is there a spot that OU can out-talent Alabama, defensively?

        You mentioned that Bama’s receivers don’t have a lot of size and lack versatility. Albeit Haughton gets healthy, can you get away with playing both him and Barnes? Meaning, you play Motley, Brown, Norwood, Haughton and Barnes. It just seems like Haughton and Barnes offer some size and physicality which translates to some versatility for the Sooners.

        I’m a Sooners fan and have watched our team get torched all season. I’m just wondering what we can throw at Bama, because it can’t get much worse than the Tech-OSU-WV stretch, right?!?!?!

        Thanks for the post and the responses to my questions.

  5. Matt

    Ruffin moved Norwood to safety and aligned him behind Kelly most of the game. How similar is this to how Mike would deploy Striker with Parker behind him? Is it similar only in alignment or were the coverages and responsibilities the same too?

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