Oklahoma's pass rush is playing about as well as it has since the Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama – not to bring up the past. But it’s that has found its rhythm.
Even amid all the injury shuffling, TCU's offensive line has remained as one of the best in the Big 12 – allowing just 12 sacks all season and buoyed by the consistent play of Preseason All-Big 12 first teamers Joey Hunt and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who might miss Saturday’s game with a knee injury.
It’s a clash of two of the better units in the Big 12, one trending downward and the other upward, thanks to the emergence of a forgotten star.
“We needed ( Charles Tapper) to come on to be the defense that we wanted to be,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “His production the last three or four games has really spiked. You’ve noticed the difference in our defense.
Whether TCU starts All-American Trevone Boykin or goes with his back-up, Oklahoma’s pass rush needs to make a difference. It has done an excellent job of rushing as a unit and not giving away interior run lanes for the quarterback while still putting pressure as a group.
Oklahoma already has surpassed last season’s totals for sacks and tackles for loss. It’s gotten a little bit of help from an improved secondary as well. It’ll be the pass rush’s job first to contain Boykin, but when he slips through, it’ll be all-hands-on-deck.
The Sooners have done a good job of that this season as well.
“We’re playing well as a unit,” Stoops said. “If you can play well at all levels, our greatest strength is we can play well in all areas. There are no glaring weaknesses. That’s shown through the course of the season. It’s benefitted everyone at all levels as well. D-line is doing a great job and the linebackers are doing a great job and the secondary is covering people. We’re taking advantage of all our strengths.”
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. the hype and TCU’s secondary
The hype machine has to be growing louder and louder in Mayfield’s ear and the story keeps replaying – twice a walk-on and now a contender for the Heisman and the national championship. Mayfield will have enough to worry about by facing a secondary this week that is bested only by Baylor in terms of Oklahoma’s competition.
Mayfield was smooth against Baylor though, showing that he can live and succeed in the big moment. The Horned Frogs have just five interceptions all season, second-least in the conference.
Oklahoma’s growing run game vs. the Horned Frogs’ rush defense
Running back Samaje Perine seems like he’s back to normal with the offensive line in front of him playing its best football of the season. Through the first five games of the year, Perine averaged just five yards per carry one time. Through the last five games? He hasn’t been under five yards per carry and has eclipsed seven yards per run on three separate occasions.
He also has nine touchdowns in the last four games – only three before that stretch.
Ty Darlington said Monday that the offensive line took Perine’s early-season funk as its own issue. Against one of the better run defenses they’ve seen all season, the Sooners will need to make it a point of emphasis to keep getting better.
They’ll have to watch out for All-Big 12 first-team selection and Millwood (Oklahoma City) graduation Davion Pierson.
When TCU has the ball. . .
TCU run game vs. Sooners’ front seven
Hidden in the Horned Frogs’ penchant for using no-back sets is a unique running game, one when the quarterback is almost as good a runner as any running back in the Big 12. Boykin averages 59.6 yards per game, eighth-best in the Big 12, which is behind senior running back Aaron Green, who comes in just shy of 100 yards.
Whether Boykin plays or not changes nothing. If he plays, Oklahoma has to be ready for him and Green. If he doesn’t, the Sooners could make TCU susceptibly one-dimensional by slowing down Green and forcing likely back-up Bram Kohlhausen to beat Oklahoma with his arm.
The clash ultimately comes down to the second-best rushing offense in the Big 12 – 231.1 yards per game – against the top run defense, which held the top rushing offense in the conference (Baylor) to almost half of its average.
It’s time for Round 2 for Thomas, who will face his second-straight All-Big 12 receiver in as many weeks. Doctson though poses a different challenge that Corey Coleman did last week. There aren’t many weaknesses to either’s game, and both are likely to be first- or second-round draft picks in the NFL Draft – if Coleman chooses to join Doctson.
Where Coleman has blinding speed, Doctson is more of a possession receiver who uses elite route running and his 6-foot-3 frame to carve out space in the opposing secondary. Like Coleman though, he averages more than 130 yards per game but has a league-high seven catches per contest.
This all is moot if Doctson can’t play because of his hand injury. Oklahoma is preparing like he will play, and Thomas better do just that.