Oklahoma Game: Expectations

Our columnist, Steve Waters, takes us through the expectations and potential realities of UCLA facing #1 Oklahoma this Saturday. What are the keys to UCLA's offense moving the ball against Oklahoma's defense?

Oklahoma is the Barry Bonds of college football.

Make a mistake, and they'll make you pay. The word "opportunistic" defines the Sooners best.

Like every great D, they love that high cheese. "Please, challenge me!" they implore the opposing O. "Try to blow one by me." Only those with a serious death wish comply time after time. Those that do usually get smoked if they don't have comparable talent. Those that nibble around the corners, throw some junk, and aren't afraid to walk Bones, even with men on base, often live to make a game of it. Just watch the Alabama game from this year.

Oklahoma's philosophy on D is simple. In Bob Stoops' words, "You have to destroy the run game. From there, try and pressure the quarterback. Try and pressure them into turnovers. Be great on third down and in the red zone."

It's not hard to imagine what the Sooners' game plan on D will be.

First, a brief scouting report based on the Alabama game.

Oklahoma doesn't have huge players on defense: Tommie Harris is ‘only' 290 or so. But they are all very fit, they're smart, they swarm to the ball, and they can play for the entire four quarters. They're also very quick and avoid getting blocked. If an OL gets into a DL or a LB, they move…even fall over! But the trouble is hitting them…

Guys who epitomize OU's style are LB Teddy Lehman, DE Dan Cody, and S Brandon Everage. Lehman has decent size for his position (230ish), but Cody and Everage do it with speed, fitness, aggressiveness and intelligence. Multiple times v. Alabama, Everage made a tackle for a loss or no gain on a tailback blast up the middle…from his safety spot. UCLA's safeties usually don't make tackles for loss on dive plays up the middle…

Which brings us to Oklahoma's schemes. OU's D presents an amorphous, unstructured front to the opponent. They line up all over before the snap, yet never seem to be out of position. You need ‘football-smart' guys to pull this off. There are often 9 guys in the box, meaning they put their CBs on islands. Since they're not big, they have to destroy the running game with numbers and with confusion. And that is the essence of their game: outnumber the O inside, use speed/quickness to run down everything wide, hope the CBs have good games, and try to kill the QB so that the CBs have an easier time of it. Use superior football intelligence to read plays and make on-the-fly adjustments as the game goes on.

OU is great at defensive play calling. ‘Mind reading' may not formally be listed as a required skill for the position of DC, but it sure helps. OU seems to guess right an inordinate amount of the time. Obviously, predictable play calling plays right into their hands.

However, because they are highly aggressive and gamble a lot on D, they are susceptible to big plays. Alabama WRs got open deep a number of times…but the WR dropped the ball (d'oh!) or the QB completely missed the shot. In a 20-13 game, like the one the Sooners and the Tide had, making those plays is the difference between staying #1 and becoming another team for pundits to moralize/lecture about.

The Sooner O is as opportunistic as the D. Right now, the Sooner O is the quintessential offensive philosophy in college football. Here are the defining principles:

1) It is more important to pass than it is to run. Balance, shmalance.
  a) It is easier to get yards passing than running, i.e. the chances of success are greater, and the payoff is bigger.
  b) It requires less physical exertion to pass the ball than it does to run the ball.
  c) It requires less recruiting prowess to build a passing team than it does a running team.
  d) A passing team has more chance to come from behind than a running team.
  e) Fans like passing. Hey, Stoops isn't a frickin' country bumpkin, he just plays one on TV…

2) If you're going to pass, make your formations pass friendly.
  a) Spread the field with four and five receiver sets.
  b) Operate out of the shotgun.
  c) Always have a couple of short routes available to counter blitzes and to move the chains.
  d) Run a lot of bubble screens, slip screens, hitch screens, and swings to get the ball into your playmakers' hands.
  e) Recruit QBs who can make plays with their feet. Scrambles for 1st downs/TDs break a D's spirit.
  f) Stick a RB back there with the QB so that draws and screens are available.

3) Make big plays in the passing game.
  a) Throw deep really, really well. The difference between the great teams and the okay ones…
  b) Catch the D when they're emotionally low:
   i) After a turnover.
   ii) After giving up a 3rd down conversion.
   iii) After missing a tackle.
   iv) After a long TV time-out.
  c) Avoid sacks to keep the opponent frustrated.

There are about 70 teams who follow this philosophy in CFB. Passing attacks in CFB that are read-based, the theory goes, are hard to execute because both the QB and the set of receivers have to see the defensive coverage in the same way and, with perfect synchronization, decide to choose the same options routes.

So the antidote is an O that looks like what we played on the sandlot. Well, the asphalt street, in my case. "Timmy, go deep. Johnny, stop at the tree. No, the OTHER tree, nitwit! You other guys, get open. On one…BREAK!"

QB Jason White used to be a wheels QB, but not after two ACL surgeries. He compensates by getting the ball out quickly and being very accurate deep. Luckily for UCLA, guys like WR Mark Clayton sometime forget to catch the ball. Hopefully OU has problems catching the ball on Saturday. Former UCLA recruit Jamal Brown is the marquee OL for OU at OT.

Add to OU's state-of-the-art schemes the bravado of Bob Stoops. He is not afraid to lose. And his gambles prove it. 4th down from inside his own 40 with a 3 point lead…and he calls a fake? And it works? Spectacularly? Against IL, on the game-deciding FG attempt, UCLA had 11 guys going for the block. If Stoops were IL's HC…he'd have called a fake, run the TE straight down the field, and the kicker would have hit him in stride for the game-winning TD.


My fear is that OU's D will completely overwhelm UCLA's O with superior schemes, speed and aggressiveness. UCLA's frequent blasts between the tackles will be stuffed by a D that stacks 9 in the box. After watching Illinois blitz UCLA with overwhelming success (5 sacks, numerous flushes) on passing situations, Stoops et al. would be stupid not to follow suit. With defenders streaming in (run or pass) and controlling the center of the field, UCLA and Drew Olson can neither run nor pass, inside or out, and have to resort metaphorically to curling up into a ball to avoid getting killed. If Manuel White goes down, a lot of the air in UCLA's balloon will escape like…air escaping from a balloon. You feeling me?

I'd love to see Oklahoma present a conventional 7 (or even 8) man front to UCLA, like Illinois did. This would give UCLA the chance to find the numerical mismatches in the running game, and let the talent, size and skill of Manuel White, following Pat Norton, level the playing field (not to mention a few high-and-mighty Sooners along the way). If OU presents 9 in the box, then I'd love to see UCLA spread the field, get Drew Olson into the ‘gun, and spread the ball around quickly two-thirds of the time, running the ball on draws the other third.

Sometimes the best game plan to beat a great D is to mimic that team's O. Think about it. The OU O wants to be successful in scrimmages, etc. They want some bragging rights. So their offensive system has evolved to be ideally suited to compete with their D. They know they have to take what the D gives, and not play into the D's strengths, and the result is the spread offense they now employ. I'd love to see UCLA's game plan resemble OU's normal O…

Statistically, it would be great to see UCLA get over 300 yards, with 200+ coming from the pass and 100+ from the run. Having some success offensively will make a huge difference in how this game feels to the players and the fans. Capitalizing on big pass play opportunities would be a beautiful thing; when the opportunity, the protection, the route, the throw and the catch come together, it's a moment of elation. Almost as elated as it would be to watch Manny bowl over the Sooners and get some national attention for UCLA and himself.

In order to have this success, I'd love to see UCLA have a great day catching the ball, and being successful with whatever misdirection plays Karl Dorrell has up his sleeve. I'd also love to see the officials throw the flag when UCLA's receivers get interfered with. But that's too much to ask for…

I expect to see more of the UCLA offense we've seen in games 1 and 2: 50/50 run-to-pass ratio, QB under center, run between the tackles (which Tyler Ebell and the Manster have the option to angle, not bounce, outside), use waggles to offset some the rush pressure, and (finally) use the draw play on 1st or 2nd down. If Manny White goes down, I wouldn't be surprised to see J.D. Groves get some carries. Bigger backs are the way to go, IMO, against fast but undersized defenses. In the passing game, I expect to see UCLA hit some big plays to Junior Taylor and Craig Bragg for a couple of TDs. But I don't expect UCLA to complete a high percentage of throws. The rush will be too disruptive, and the OU DBs too aggressive and too well-schooled, for UCLA to get into a groove throwing the ball. The crowd noise will also cause UCLA some problems. The UCLA O is about a year away scheme- and personnel-wise from really competing with OU's D.

Bottom line, I expect UCLA to produce about 250 yards of total offense, 175 through the air and 75 on the ground. They'll have to fight for every yard they get.

Defense: My fear is that the "ghost of UCLA tackling past" will rear its ugly head from some haunted Native American burial ground (to which it had been banished by The Exorcist, Larry Kerr). The OU power running game doesn't inspire fear, but OU's backs are surprisingly fast and balanced. If they break tackles consistently and move the chains on the ground, UCLA could end up giving up more than 400 yards of offense. I also fear that Matt Clark will come back a little rusty/tentative and provide a safe, soft spot for Jason White to go with the ball whenever OU needs a cheap 2 to 8 yards.

I'd love to see the UCLA D dominate the OU O like they did v. CU and Illinois. While a spread passing attack is great at moving the ball, it doesn't intimidate a D like a devastating running game does. What was that about "air power alone has never won a war"? I've heard that somewhere…Anyway, I'd love to see a tense, tight defensive battle, with the Bruins giving on D as good as they get on O.

I'd love to see the game announcers acknowledge the fine play of Dave Ball, Rod Leisle, Mat Ball, Ryan Boschetti, Brandon Chillar, Justin London, Matt Ware et al. instead of labeling OU's performance (halfway through the 1st quarter, no less) "horrible offense." Just this once. Because OU does have a very effective O in a no-name, no-superstar way. And shutting them down will mean something. The RCB triumvirate of Clark, Keith Short (who's Kevin?), and Marcus Cassel will, of course, step up and break up a few pass plays to their side when it counts to get UCLA off the field. Just keep everything in front of you, guys, and tackle like men, and it will be IL all over again.

More than anything, I'd love to see UCLA start to get a little respect for toughness and ability to play D. And score a couple of times off turnovers. And hold OU to around 200 yards of total offense. And stay completely focused the whole game with an almost very high level of paranoia to avoid getting burnt by trick plays. That's it, Santa.

I expect UCLA to give up about 300 yards total offense, to give up at least one big play off of a moment of "transition," and to miss a handful of tackles. But on the whole, I expect UCLA's D to play very respectably.

Special Teams: My fear is that the pressure of the big stage will get to the young guys UCLA has in the critical spots of Placekicker, Long Snapper, Punter and Kick Returner. A critical error at a really, really bad time will scuttle an otherwise amazing team effort from the UCLA Bruins, leading to calls for one single, dedicated assistant to oversee every special team, although very few teams who are good at special teams do it this way. Special team play could decide this game; UCLA can't afford to lose this battle and hope to win the game. I'd love to see UCLA dominate special teams play, and win because of it. Like I said, for the first time ever, I'm looking forward to watching UCLA's special teams. Craig Bragg and the punt return team are getting it done. Please kick the ball to him, OU. With the O likely to struggle, every play that UCLA can make returning punts (the most likely place for a big play to occur) is critical. I'd love to see one TD from special teams' play. Chris Kluwe's punting will rise to the occasion and keep OU pinned deep in its territory all day.

I expect to see UCLA continue its fine overall special teams play. Down punts inside the 20, continue great punt coverage, and, most importantly, assuming UCLA can make OU punt, go after the first punt and block it.

Overall: My fear is that Dorrell and UCLA are not in OU's league talent- or scheme-wise; they get rattled by the crowd noise; key, irreplaceable guys get knocked out of the game, UCLA gets no respect from the officials, and, as a result, OU blows out UCLA 38-7.

I'd love to see UCLA fight OU blow for blow, right from the 1st snap, struggling on O, but stuffing them on D. A couple of big plays in the passing game and the return game put 21 points on the board for UCLA. The D holds OU to one TD and three FGs, stiffening as they get to the red zone. If the O doesn't commit costly turnovers, UCLA holds its own in the battle for field position, and wins the turnover battle. It could happen. UCLA needs to play a game free of major mistakes (not a perfect game) for this to happen. As a reward, Adrian Peterson blows off OU and hangs with Eric Bieniemy for the night…

All things considered, though, I expect the Sooners to prevail in a tight, come-from-behind 20-14 game. UCLA's D is too solid to get blown out, and the DO is too cagey to fold and throw the game away. He'll pick his spots, and live to fight another play if the opening isn't there. However, the OU momentum will be too great at the end of the game, and QB Jason White and WR Brandon Jones will combine for a game-winning TD. The Bruins will gain a measure of respect, but it will have a hollow feel compared to pulling off a big upset.

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