Bedlam Preview: Defense is the key

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Iowa State
Bryon Houlgrave-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma State’s offense has been hampered with injuries and become less explosive. Can OU’s defense keep it that way?

What’s good?

What a weird season. Oklahoma is still fighting for bowl eligibility, and Oklahoma State is still holding out hope that things break in the right direction.

A week ago, when looking at the schedule for Oklahoma, we say “West Virginia just lost to Iowa State”, “Oklahoma State is without their starting QB and playing their coach’s son like it’s fourth grade football”, and “Texas Tech is meh”. Also, “Oklahoma will be favored in all of these games and, frankly, expected to win”.

Welp. Oklahoma lost to West Virginia in a game in which they won the turnover margin by 2 and had a two-hundred yard rusher. Their defense got some stops in key moments. Suddenly nothing seemed so obvious. Then, late in a rock fight in Stillwater, another wrinkle was added. Spencer Sanders took over and led a comeback against a crappy Iowa State team.

Now the math equation changes. Oklahoma looked awful. Oklahoma State got their best player back. Man, everything didn’t quite feel so straightforward anymore. This game is never as easy as it seems on the surface, but you factor all that in and then Oklahoma being a seven point favorite at home… and I find myself in a mad libs situation of reality.

My gut? Oklahoma State is really hampered with injuries but playing hard. Oklahoma is largely healthy but hasn’t seemed to come into a game the aggressor all year. Oklahoma State will love to hear that. I think this could be a lower scoring game than we think, and Oklahoma State could play the physical card well.

Storylines to watch

  • These offenses are eighth and ninth in the Big 12. These are not two offensive juggernauts coming in to throw blows despite what the history is. I think early we will see that. Defenses will get stops on both sides because they are playing hard… and some unforced errors on both offenses. However, if one team can put up a big point total early — let’s say score seventeen points or so on their first three drives, we might audibly hear the other sideline gulp. Both teams technically can do this because the opposing defense is so bad but.. consider me the man of little faith.
  • Cowboys have really, really struggled to run the football. Oklahoma, much like the Iowa State game, can’t let this be the time a team fixes all their mistakes. Now, unlike the Cyclones I don’t think that OSU will get abandon it quite so easy, even if it isn’t going well. Oklahoma State knows that OU tends to erode defensively as games go on, and that those two or three yard gains could pop for 12 or 15 in the fourth quarter. The Sooners have to keep it bottled up early and keep that way forcing Spencer Sanders to play Superman on every snap.
  • We all saw it last week. A kid with a noodle arm came in, ran around like backyard football and then got double digit yards consistently. Sanders is drastically more dangerous in the scramble game than Garrett Greene was. Sanders is decisive and much more efficient on a down to down basis. Forcing Sanders to run into the teeth of the Oklahoma defense on scrambles will be key. What does this mean? Can Oklahoma set and edge and keep contain? Haven’t all year, but maybe this is the day to do so.
  • Oklahoma has largely avoided the deep threats recently. Kansas and Iowa State didn’t have the QB to take advantage of them. Baylor didn’t need to with how well they were running the ball. West Virginia was playing a non-QB at QB. Oklahoma State presents a downfield test that they haven’t faced since Texas, TCU, and Kansas State. Do I think the coverage busts are fixed? I think so. However, maybe Oklahoma has been fortunate that they aren’t being exploited. Green, Presley, Johnson, and Johnson Jr. all could test OU in that way with Sander’s arm. Now, Oklahoma State dealing with injuries throws a monkey wrench into this, because we don’t necessarily who will be out there.

Knowing your opponent: Oklahoma State Cowboys

  • Sanders is the best QB that Oklahoma will have played since Max Duggan. He is imperfect. He is a little bit of a risk as a thrower. He is sometimes too dependent on his legs but… he wins football games. His teammates rally around him, and this season he has been clutch. How healthy is he? I don’t know, but frankly I don’t care (from a game perspective, as I obviously hope for someone to be healthy on a human level). If he is able to play, he puts OU in a really tough position.
  • Oklahoma State’s defense is not the one we saw last year. They are worst in every single category. However they are elite at one thing — Third down. Ninth in the country allowing teams to convert on just 28 percent of attempts, the Pokes make you punt when given the chance. OU fans are jealous! Following the worst third down offensive performance that has ever been put on a field (a small exaggeration) that should be cause for concern. However if you can get into the red zone, Oklahoma State does not get many takeaways. Sitting 121st in the country, they give up a field goal or a touchdown on 34-37 attempts. Between the twenties and third downs will be key.
  • Dominic Richardson’s health has been an issue for Oklahoma State. By far their most consistent tailback, Richardson has been in and out of the lineup and very clearly on a pitch count. Oklahoma State interestingly has used most of the those rushes in first halves of games, and they’re saving a small amount for the last two drives. Leaving Richardson sidelined for big portions of the second and third quarter. I find that strategy really interesting by the Pokes. OU needs to know that if they can weather the first quarter of Richardson, the rushing attack falls off substantially the rest of the game. That’s counter to trends for OU’s opponents.
  • Who is playing wide receiver for Oklahoma State matters. They have had a rotating door from older players like Braydon Johnson bringing in the lion’s share of targets, to breakout starts like Bryson Green, to preseason favorite like Jaden Bray all have games in this offense. You sprinkle in the freshman Stephon Johnson Jr. and it really is an impressive room. The hangup? I don’t know if they have played one quarter with four of their top seven receivers on the field at the same time. If Oklahoma State gets healthy at the wrong time, could be a death sentence for a struggling Oklahoma secondary. If OSU’s back luck continues? Woodi Washington might be staring at a true freshman as the main receiving threat on Saturday. Really, anything is on the table.

Prediction

At the end of the day, none of this matters to me. Usually I try to be very logical and think through my picks and opinions and do my best to keep “talking from the gut” guy to a minimum. Here is what this comes down to for me — I trust Spencer Sanders to make winning plays late, and I don’t trust Gabriel. I think both could have a big day. I think both could avenge a lot of demons. Staring down 3rd and 9 with four minutes left though, I want Sanders taking that snap.

Oklahoma State – 23

Oklahoma – 20