New Orleans, La.--The architect of one of the top offensive units in the country, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley says his Sooners will be facing a unique challenge in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 when they face an Auburn defense that prides itself on being physical at the point of attack.
With Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams leading a front four that has set the tone for Coach Kevin Steele’s defense all season long, Riley said Oklahoma will need to do a great job of matching that physicality when the square off in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“We can be as physical as we can be for nine straight weeks but if we’re not physical on Monday night then it doesn’t matter,” Riley said of his offense that is averaging 237.5 yards per game on the ground this season. “We’re concentrating on trying to be very physical in this game. We know it’s going to be a key. We’re playing a very talented and very physical front.
“Obviously our ability to run the football here over the last couple of months of the season has been very, very important to what we’re doing and it will be again. We’ve also got to be very physical in pass protection with these guys because these guys aren’t just athletic guys that are going to run around you, they attack you so you’ve got to attack them back or you have no chance.”
Slowing down the running game has been a big talking point for the Auburn defense since bowl practices opened before Christmas on the Plains, but it is quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook that gets the headlines when you discuss the Sooners, and rightfully so.
Leading the country in pass efficiency and completion percentage, Mayfield has thrown for 3,669 yards and 38 touchdowns with only eight interceptions while completing 71.2 percent of his passes. Those numbers are impressive and a big reason why Riley trusts his guy to make plays on Monday night, even in the face of one of the best defenses they’ve seen.
“We’re pretty confident in the guy we have,” Riley said. “It will obviously be a huge key and it is every week for us, especially against a group like this. They’re going to test us in every facet of our game. They’ve done a great job of stopping the run and they’re really athletic in the secondary and they rush the passer as good as anybody in the country.
“Those three things tell you why they’ve done what they’ve done defensively. We’ll be tested, Baker will be tested. If there’s any guy that will be ready for it, he’s the one. He’s practiced very well. He’s had a great run here at the end of the season and I think he’s been able to maintain, if not get better, these last couple of weeks. I think he’s looking forward to playing that way here in a few days.”
Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
When Mayfield is on it’s usually Westbrook on the other end of his throws. The Biletnikoff Award winner for the nation’s top wide receiver, he has 74 receptions for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.
Those numbers should make him target number one for an Auburn defense that has done a good job of not allowing big plays this year. Riley recognizes that, but he said for his offense the key is going to be doing all things well.
“I think the key to that will be our balance,” Riley said. “We’ve always said and always believed that defenses can only take so many things away. Everybody is going to come in with a plan. Most of the time they are good plans, but you’ve got to be able to, first to assess what are they giving you and what are they trying to take away. Whatever they are giving you, you’ve got to be able to execute that. We’ve been able to do that the last several weeks of the season. We don’t ever sit there and say that we’ve got to throw it deep or we’ve got to throw it 50 times.
“I could care less about any of that. My main concern and our main concern is whatever they present to us and whatever they give up, we’ve got to be able to take advantage of that. If we can do that then we’ll be able to move the ball. Kevin Steele is as good as it gets. We’ll see a lot of different looks I’m sure. We’ll have to be able to do a lot of things well to be able to play the way we want to play.”
In the end this game defensively may very well fall on the broad shoulders of Lawson, Adams and company up front. Controlling the Oklahoma running game and forcing the Sooners to be one-dimensional is the goal for the Tigers and Riley said it’s their job to not allow that to happen.
“They’re really good,” he said of the duo up front. “I would say the thing that stands out to me, again you’ve got a lot of these teams we play when we play a good D-Line there may be one great player and a bunch of other solid players. They’ve got two or three great players up front. The thing that makes them tough to me is that if you’ve got one guy that’s only great at rushing the passer, maybe you can do some things against that. Of if you’ve got one guy that is only great at stopping the run you can maybe scheme some things around them or try to get help in certain situations.
These guys are really good at both and that makes it a lot tougher to scheme and game plan for and makes it a lot tougher to play against. And they are surrounded by other really good players on that D-Line as well. They play hard. They’re really, really good at what they do. They’re both very versatile players. Both of them are guys that in my opinion will play for a while on the next level. We’ve played some good D-Linemen here in the last few years, but they stack up really well with any of them.”
Kickoff for the Sugar Bowl on Monday night is scheduled for just after 7:30 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN.