OU is learning to balance the brilliant creativity of a freshman phenom against the mistakes of youth.
A week after the Oklahoma Sooners looked like a disjointed mess on offense in a disappointing loss to Baylor, they showed signs of cohesion in a 28-21 win over the Iowa State Cyclones. Unfortunately, that alone won’t be good enough this week as OU travels to Stillwater for the annual Bedlam rivalry game against Oklahoma State.
A few thoughts on the state of the OU offense ahead of the upcoming showdown with the Cowboys:
Why Caleb Williams is OU’s quarterback
You don’t make the switch from Spencer Rattler to Caleb Williams at quarterback with the intention of putting the freshman in a straitjacket. Williams’ running and ability to throw in scramble mode set him apart.
Williams offered a glimpse of what makes him such a special prospect on OU’s second play of the game. With the left side of the offensive line pulling right to block GT counter, Williams made what looked like a pseudo play fake to running back Kennedy Brooks. Williams pulled the ball from Brooks and glanced left at receiver Mike Woods, who had come in orbit motion across the formation to the wide side of the field. Williams then tucked the ball and ran through a hole in the original B gap between right guard Chris Murray and right tackle Tyrese Robinson. He hit pay dirt 74 yards later with Brooks acting as a lead blocker.
The spectacular play showcased Williams’ explosiveness. Forcing defenses to play “11-on-11” football is always a plus, but doubly so when an athlete of that caliber is your 11th.
Learning on the job
Ironically, it looks like the aforementioned touchdown run by Williams came on a busted play. According to OU radio reporter Gabe Ikard, the play was supposed to be an RPO. It called for Williams to throw a bubble screen to Woods or hand it off to Brooks based on how the QB read the run box.
I’ve watched this play 5 times. I’m 100% sure that this wasn’t a designed play. Caleb Williams was supposed to hand it to Kennedy Brooks on the GT counter play or throw the bubble screen. He realized he messed up not handing it off and just made something happen. Wow! https://t.co/ysJxXCa1a5
— Gabe Ikard (@GabeIkard) November 21, 2021
Why did Williams tuck and run? Who knows, but everything worked out this time.
On the other hand, a similar lapse against Baylor ended in disaster. On the Sooners’ first possession of the second half, OU was facing second down and a yard to go from its own 44 yard line. The offense lined up in an empty formation with Williams in shotgun. Brooks was supposed to motion into the backfield from his spot out wide to take a play fake from the QB, but Williams never sent him in motion before calling for the snap. (Again, per Ikard.) Williams tried to throw the ball away once he realized what happened, but his attempt landed in the arms of a Baylor defensive back about 20 yards downfield.
You have to live with those kinds of mistakes when you roll with a freshman QB. The same goes for habits such as Williams’ propensity to hold the ball too long in passing situations. Expecting Williams to play like a veteran simply isn’t realistic. No doubt Lincoln Riley understands that, but it seems fair to say OU’s head coach is still learning how to “let Caleb cook” and work around Williams’ inexperience.
Riley has to figure out a plan of attack this week because OSU’s salty defense will punish Williams for making youthful mistakes.
A new option?
So what might that plan entail?
If that’s a roundabout way of asking about the Cowboys’ weaknesses on defense, they don’t seem to have any. The Pokes play with physicality and decisiveness, and they can cover ground quickly. Moreover, the unit has built up chemistry over time and works well as a cohesive whole. It embodies the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
Texas found modest success against OSU by working laterally. The Longhorns frequently sent players in motion and used them on sweeps and flip passes going around end. Their primary run plays included a standard off-tackle call for Bijan Robinson. By testing the Cowboys on the edges, UT was able to create some openings in the middle of the field in the passing game.
TCU used similar misdirection tactics to work the edges. The Horned Frogs also used the Cowboys’ aggressiveness against them at opportune times with screens and leak plays through the air.
With all of that in mind, it’s easy to envision OU rolling out a spread option scheme on Saturday to take advantage of Williams’ legs and the elusiveness of players like receiver Mario Williams when he builds up a head of steam. Running back Eric Gray also seems well-suited to operating out of that kind of scheme.
However, making an overly dramatic scheme shift at this point in the season sounds like asking a lot, especially when a young QB is involved. Riley will likely use some of the same general misdirection and motion concepts, but don’t expect OU to debut a brand new offense on Saturday.