Falcons flexbone worries Sooners

Oklahoma faces tough task against disciplined Air Force offensive attack

This game is strange in that OU hates playing Air Force, yet they are a 20-point favorite. Playing the Flexbone of Air Force drives the OU coaches nuts, but the OU athletic administration has a big smile on their collective faces, because the game will be shown across 97 percent of the nation on national TV. That means big TV money comes rolling into the OU bank account, so the hassle of playing the Flexbone is worth the risk.

On paper this game looks like a total mismatch, and so much that I am not even going to bother with rating the positions matchup. OU would win each position hands down, so why bother?

However, the truth is OU is as worried about this game as any game they have played in some time. Sure, they realize that Florida State, Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas are all much better than the Falcons and OU handled each one of those teams last year. Athletically, the Falcons don't matchup with the Sooners at all and very few players recruited by the Falcons were offered by the Sooners.

Still, the Sooners have the utmost respect for the Falcons and they dread going up against the Falcons Flexbone option offense.

"Their offense just standardizes our defense and brings us out of our normal mindset, which is to attack,' said Co-Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables.

"We have to play with more responsibility, disciplined football and it slows down our aggressive attack. You have to place somebody on the fullback, quarterback and on the pitch on each and every snap. It tempers us a little bit, takes away our aggressiveness and certainly our packages are a little more vanilla against a team that runs the triple option."

Fortunately for the Sooners, they have seen option football enough the past couple of years that it is not totally foreign to them. In last year's 42-14 win over Rice, the Sooners held the Owls to 145 yards rushing and 263-yards of total offense. The Owls also ran the triple option.

The Sooners also hammered Nebraska 31-14. The Cornhuskers no longer run the triple option, but some of the blocking schemes are the same.

However, nobody runs the true triple option better than Air Force and that is what makes the Falcons a competitive team each and every week.

"They do more of a spread-bone, but they do run the true triple option," said Venables. "They do it out of a double-wing set instead of a full bone that Oklahoma fans are used to seeing. It is a true triple option, yet it is a spread offense giving them a more balanced passing attack."

Air Force takes advantage of that as well, as wide receiver Ryan Fleming is an All-American candidate.

"Ryan is an outstanding football player and he is our big play player on offense," said Air Force Head Coach Fisher DeBerry. "Ryan has outstanding size, is a disciplined receiver and has a tremendous knack for getting open. He is certainly a player that we look to in our passing game and he normally delivers for us."

Fleming earned first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors a year ago catching 52 passes for 930 yards and five touchdowns. Fleming enters the season ranked ninth in Air Force history in career receiving yards with 1,099 and he led the MWC in games receiving over 100 yards with four.

Like the Sooners, the Falcons start an inexperienced quarterback. Keith Boyea is a senior, but will be starting his first game for the Falcons.

"Our situation with Keith is very much similar to Oklahoma with Hybl in that we think our quarterback is very talented, but he hasn't played a lot of football lately. For our system, Keith has the skills to handle everything that we are trying to do. He has good poise and good speed on the corner and seems to have a knack for pitching the ball."

The Falcons finished third in the country in rushing with a 294.9 per game a year ago right behind Nebraska and Ohio State. Last year in the Falcon's season opener, they exploded for 583 yards at Cal-State Northridge.

"We just feel like the option gives us the best chance to compete," said DeBerry. "You see a lot of teams still running the option and in fact, we see a couple of potential option plays in the Oklahoma offensive attack. Everybody has some option in their offense. Maybe they don't major in it like we do, but I just feel it is the offense that is best suited for the academy. We can't go out and recruit the 6'4 or 6'5 or even the 6'3 quarterback like Hybl. We also can't get those big offensive linemen that it takes to pass protect. It's just not the style of people that we have here. Plus, it's an offense that requires some discipline in defending and it's an offense that is tough to get ready for."

Every day in practice this week the Sooners worked on defending the option and by Thursday the Sooner coaches were still not satisfied in their players assignment retention. However, what the Sooners have is an advantage in speed on both sides of the ball.

"We run pretty well here at Air Force, but very few teams run like Oklahoma," said DeBerry. "They have the quickest defense we have seen in years and (Rocky) Calmus is the best linebacker we have seen in years. Roy Williams is as fine a safety as there is in the country and because of his abilities they have been very good at stopping the option game. Somehow, we have to block Williams if we are going to have success."

The strong safety is always important in defending the option and with Williams the Sooners have a hammer. However, Williams knows that he will have his hands full against Air Force.

"They are such good cut blockers that they are difficult to play against," said Williams. "Their running backs and wide receivers are always trying to cut you and you have to fight that off and that isn't easy. Even their offensive linemen get down field and try to cut you. We can't make a mental mistake this weekend or they will put six on the scoreboard."

On defense, Air Force is also a disciplined unit that relies on team play and not individual stars."

"Air Force is a very fundamentally sound defensive unit that is very good up front," said Offensive Coordinator Mark Mangino. "North Carolina had one of the best front four's that we had seen in a long time around here and Air Force isn't far behind. So, we will have our hands full blocking them at the line of scrimmage and they play great zone coverage in the secondary."

The battle of the special teams is going to be something to watch. Last year Air Force blocked nine kicks. The Sooners Antwone Savage already has one 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and few teams play special teams like the Sooners.

All week, Sooner quarterback Nate Hybl worked to get more comfortable in the Sooners offense. Throughout the week Hybl threw the ball down field and threw to his tight ends and to Josh Norman. Without question, the emphasis during workouts was on getting the ball down field. Hybl drew rave reviews with the Sooner coaches this week and he is primed to have a good game.

The Sooners are not totally healthy for the game. Starting offensive guard Mike Skinner is questionable for the game and if he can't go redshirt freshman Cliff Takawana would get the start.

The Sooners are confident they will play solid defense. Tommie Harris has proven that he is very tough to block and Calmus might ring up 20 tackles.

Sooner Defensive Tackle Coach Jackie Shipp scrimmaged every day in practice against the greatest wishbone offense in history during the early 80's. Leave it to the Sooner linebacking legend to put the Air Force Flexbone in perspective.

"Believe me when I say that Air Force is not the University of Oklahoma when they had J.C. Watts, Thomas Lott and the Billy Sims running their wishbone," laughed Shipp. "However, Air Force is a good option team. They are disciplined, they will play you hard and they are precise in what they are doing. But are they the Oklahoma of the past that I practiced against? No, I don't think so. Not even close."

Enough said. Air Force has pulled some mighty upsets in the past, but the bottom line is that they are 10-26-1 overall against the Big 12. The last time Air Force played a Big 12 team was in the 1995 Copper Bowl when they lost to Texas Tech 55-41. Air Force is 0-4 against defending national champs, last losing to Notre Dame in 1989, 41-27.

Air Force was 9-3 a year ago and they have gone to a bowl four of the last five years. This year Air Force will have a similar record and will go bowling again, but they are not good enough to hang with the Sooners. The Sooner offense will come to life and Air Force will struggle with the Sooners' speed on defense.

The Sooners will have a fight on their hands and may struggle early with the Flexbone, but when the gun sounds the Sooners will ground Air Force 41-14.

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