During the next three weeks in the lead up to Oklahoma’s national semifinal matchup in the Orange Bowl against Clemson, Sooners Illustrated will examine the key matchups between the two teams.
We’ll introduce one key matchup every Wednesday until the Orange Bowl kicks off at 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
Here’s your third key matchup:
3. Finding a way to slow down Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson
It’s not exactly Baylor’s highly potent attack, but it’s close. And it comes with a wrinkle that the Bears don’t have – a highly mobile quarterback.
Watson has gone from freshman to third place in the Heisman Trophy voting in less than 18 months. While he doesn’t have the weapons around him that Bryce Petty or Trevone Boykin or Seth Russell had, Watson might be a tougher individual matchup for Oklahoma to handle.
Watson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns in his career. This year, he averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Boykin never averaged that much per carry and has never surpassed 800 yards on the ground in any season – a plateau Watson reached in his first full year as a starter. He has now rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the past five games.
But Oklahoma won’t do anything differently with its scout team. They won’t put a position player at quarterback. They won’t try to emulate him too much, because it’s very difficult to do so. Oklahoma just has to keep Watson in front of them.
“You make him play off you, we're not playing off him,” defensive end Charles Tapper said. “I'm making him react. He has to react off me. I'm rushing him so if I get to him, I'm going to try to apply as much pain as I can so every time I'm hitting him. He's going to say, 'I need to try to scramble out and I need to try to either throw the ball out of bounds to get away from all these big guys up front. We're going to make him react off us.”
In big situations, Watson gets the ball directly but a big portion of his rushing yards has come off ad-libbed plays – something that has given the Sooners’ defense trouble in the past.
“They definitely have a lot of quarterback run game with him,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, comparing him to Boykin. “They’re similar. You see a lot of the same stuff you did a year ago, but now you add his flavor to it and it’s even more to defend than it was a year ago.”
Watson might be the starting point, but the Tigers’ offense is soaring right now. Clemson has gained at least 500 yards in its past nine games. Wayne Gallman has rushed for more than 1,300 yards this season, and Artavis Scott has 84 receptions.
But it has to start with Watson, at least from Oklahoma’s defensive standpoint.