Face-to-Face: OU vs. Tennessee

Sooners look to get passing game going, Volunteers hope to keep it grounded

Some of the first words out of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ mouth on Saturday night after the victory against Akron was that the Sooners have to get better.

The most glaring issue for the Sooners wasn’t a defense that allowed the fewest points in two years or a passing game that set a school record. It was the offensive line that averaged just three yards per carry and left quarterback Baker Mayfield scrambling for his life early in the first quarter.

Akron scheme-based pressure was good, but Tennessee’s defensive line is a completely different animal.

“They try and get a lot of pressure, very active up front with their front four but also they’ll blitz five and six quite a bit,” Stoops said Monday.

Highlighted by second-team All-SEC defensive end Derek Barnett, the Volunteers defensive line will get after Mayfield. The goal for Oklahoma is to force the Volunteers to bring All-SEC linebacker Curt Maggitt, who had a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries against Bowling Green in the season opener.

If Tennessee has to bring linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who had nine tackles, two for loss and a quarterback sack in the opener, then Oklahoma’s offensive line will be without a doubt much better than it was against Akron.

The Volunteers are good enough to not have to bring extra blitzers. Oklahoma has to force them too bring numbers.

“They’re good enough to get pressure, too without it,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “I think they do a nice job of mixing it up. That’ll be a key, obviously, how we handle their pressure.”

That is the main battle this weekend. Here’s a quick look at a few other key spots:

When Oklahoma has the ball. . .

Baker Mayfield vs. Tennessee’s secondary: Statistically, this comes as a huge mismatch in Oklahoma’s favor. Mayfield set a season-opening school record with 388 passing yards. The Volunteers allowed 433 passing yards to Bowling Green, which was picked to win the MAC East Division by the league’s coaches.

It’s not quite that simple, though.

Top corner Cameron Sutton is solid but nickel back and the opposite corner are major questions. Tennessee’s No. 2 corner is out for the season, which could give Oklahoma’s array of receivers a real chance to shine.

Like the Oklahoma offensive line’s battle in trenches, the Tennessee secondary might not be able to win this battle outright. It’s all about how much the Volunteers can force Oklahoma to run the football against a run defense that is much further ahead than the Tennessee secondary.

Neyland Stadium vs. the Sooners: All week long Stoops has been trying to downplay the effect of a rowdy home crowd on Oklahoma. But it’ll definitely have an impact.

Stoops says the Sooners aren’t young, but Oklahoma has 12 starters this week who will be playing their first major non-conference road game. It’s the biggest road game overall for all 12 with Oklahoma. The only one close is a trip to TCU last year.

The crowd will have an impact – even if Tennessee’s effort to “Checker the Stadium” doesn’t play a role. If nothing else, it’s on Oklahoma’s collective mind to take the crowd out of the game early. That’s something else to think about.

When Tennessee has the ball. . .

Oklahoma run defense vs. Tennessee two-headed running back monster: If the Volunteers are going to win the game, they have to dominate close to the line of scrimmage.

Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are a lot to handle. With a dominating offensive line in front of them, these two would be as close to unstoppable as it gets. The thing is: Tennessee doesn’t have a dominating offensive line.

Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker joked Tuesday that Hurd “goes down like the rest of them” and that Striker “ain’t got nothing special” to think about. That’s not entirely true.

The Tennessee rushing attack was one yard shy off 400 against Bowling Green, and the Volunteers won’t pass much unless they’re behind. Tennessee was 75-to-25 run-pass ratio. So to start, all Striker has to think about is stopping the run.

Oklahoma’s defensive line, which was stellar against Akron in allowing its linebacker to make plays at and behind the line of scrimmage, can play a big role in slowing down the running attack. The Volunteers offensive line is questionable.

It was young last year and isn’t overly experienced this year.

Only one offensive line starting this year started every game at the same position last year. Tackle Coleman Thomas has moved back to center, and left tackle Kyler Kerbyson was named the SEC offensive lineman of the week after last season.

There’s some momentum building for the Volunteers’ offensive line, but the question surrounding the unit is whether or not they are proven yet.

Marquez North vs. Zack Sanchez: At some point Tennessee will have to try Oklahoma deep in order to loosen up what will definitely be a tight box.

North, who practiced last week but didn’t catch a pass against Bowling Green despite starting, will be the Volunteers first target. He might catch a match-up against Sanchez (or it could be P.J. Mbanasor or Jordan Thomas as well).

If the Sooners can shutdown the Volunteers’ receivers one-on-one, it’ll allow Hatari Byrd, Ahmad Thomas and Steven Parker to sneak down in the box.

Tennessee will take its shot. Oklahoma will have to be ready.

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