Oklahoma Football: Talking tempo and the OU offense

Syndication: The Oklahoman

OU’s struggles on defense last season shouldn’t force Brent Venables to abandon the Sooners’ fast-paced offense.

Lately, people who get paid to talk about such things are tossing around the concept of “complementary football” with reckless abandon. For instance, the inability of the Oklahoma Sooners to play it seems to be the biggest criticism of head coach Brent Venables and his staff following their first season at the program’s helm. Venables even alluded to it this week at his spring football press conference.

But ask 10 pundits what complementary football is, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. Take this studio clip with former New York Giants head coach Joe Judge titled “Importance of complementary football.” No one says what constitutes complementary football in the segment, which runs nearly 20 minutes. Instead, Judge breaks down three positive plays in the G-Men’s game from the previous week – one each from special teams, defense and offense.

But I guess we know what he means. Broadly speaking, we could probably say complementary football refers to the process by which the symbiotic relationships between the three phases of the game work to a team’s overall benefit. When a team’s punt coverage unit pins the ball on the opponent’s one yard line, for instance, it facilitates the defense’s success. Similarly, if the defense bowing up deep in an opponent’s territory leads to advantageous field position on the change of possession, it helps the offense produce points.

In the age of the spread offense, the dominant question vis-à-vis complementary football is the impact of uptempo offensive styles on a team’s own defense. Conventional wisdom holds that the performance of a team’s defense tends to move in opposition to the tempo of its offense. In other words, the faster a team plays on O, the more detrimental the effect on its D. The typical rationale: Faster offensive tempo means a team’s defense spends more time on the field, which leads to more fatigue and creates a bigger drag on the D’s efficiency on a per-drive or per-play basis.

Syndication: The Oklahoman

At OU, offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby’s has the Sooners playing as fast as any in the sport. Between two seasons with Ole Miss in 2021 and 2020 and his one-year stint as offensive coordinator at Central Florida in 2019, Lebby’s offenses finished no lower than sixth nationally in plays per game on offense. They ranked in the top three overall each year in Adj. Pace, a metric created by Bill Connelly that accounts for the amount of time it takes for teams to run a play and their run-pass ratios.

Lebby kept the pedal to the floor in year one with the Sooners, and OU finished sixth overall in plays per game in 2022. Whereas the Sooners finished 92nd nationally in Adj. Pace in 2021, they rocketed up to second overall under new management.

If the consensus about the hurry-up, no-huddle offense is true, none of what OU is doing on that side of the ball screams complementary football. Beyond the subpar performance by the defense over the course of the season, we could cherry pick plenty of stats to paint a picture of a unit buckling under the strain of playing alongside a HUNH offense. Consider this handful of data points about the 2022 season:

  • OU gave up at least 10 points in the final quarter of five of 13 games.
  • Out of the five games OU lost by one score in ‘22, the opposing team scored double-digit points in the fourth quarter of four of them; the fifth opponent, Baylor, scored one touchdown and then salted the game away with a nine-play, 65-yard drive to run out the clock.
  • In the five one-score losses, the OU D was on the field for an average of 82 plays, which is about 17% higher than the national median for defensive plays per game last season of 70.

Seems like good fodder for the theory that wearing out the defense costs the Sooners games. With that in mind, it stands to reason that Venables should order Lebby to ease off the throttle this fall.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Nebraska
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But there is a likely trade-off.

At an introductory event following his hiring in 2021, Venables didn’t play games about what he wanted to see when OU had the ball: “We will employ an exciting, fast, explosive and diverse offense.” You could write that off as standard cliches at a pep rally, but hiring Lebby fit the description. He clearly has the Sooners playing fast, and they finished the season in the top 10 nationally in Offensive SP+ and top 30 overall in the FEI Offense Ratings in ‘22.

After replacing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback with a Central Florida transfer who missed most of the previous season, that’s a strong year one for an offensive coordinator. If playing at a fast pace is a key ingredient in Lebby’s offensive formula, does it make sense to mess with it?

Furthermore, the idea that uptempo offenses drags down defenses primarily comes from intuition. There isn’t a lot of hard data or analysis backing up the claim. After all, teams with slow-paced offenses can play poor defense, too, as OU witnessed repeatedly when Lincoln Riley was its head coach.

Stats maven Rob Bowron of Sharp College Football has done research indicating the hypothesis “teams with uptempo offenses will have bad defenses” is, in fact, a myth. (According to Bowron, although faster offenses tend to give their opponents more possessions, there’s no evidence to suggest that facing more possessions decreases the efficiency of their defenses.)

If slowing down the offense to its detriment doesn’t boost the performance of the defense, OU would have gained nothing. It would actually represent a step backwards.

Maybe playing at a slower pace would have helped the Sooners manipulate the flow of the game enough flip one or two of its losses in ‘22. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything. And maybe it would have made things worse by stifling the productivity of OU’s offense.

But the best solution now is more direct: Build a stronger defense.

Venables himself has ample experience constructing a quality defense to pair with a warp-speed O. He was at Oklahoma when Bob Stoops helped kick off the HUNH revolution in college football. His defenses at Clemson ranked fourth and sixth overall in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The Tigers finished in the top 10 in Adj. Pace in both seasons. They also played for two national championships and won one.

Ultimately, we’re really talking about fighting last year’s war when it comes to tempo. Playing fast may have hurt OU’s defense last year, but that doesn’t mean the Sooners should slow down. If Venables is convinced uptempo offense should be part of his team’s identity, he shouldn’t compromise now.