(Editor’s note: With Brent Venables gone to Clemson and Oklahoma folk hero Mike Stoops back to take charge of the Sooner defense, I figured we could take the opportunity this summer to break down the potential changes that may be in store for the D this season. Keep in mind that Bob Stoops, Mike and Venables have all coached together in some capacity for a while now, so they’re essentially building on a lot of the same schemes and principles. I doubt that much will change, but my goal in this series of articles will be to illuminate whatever those changes may be using analysis of past games that I consider instructive. First up, Brad Smith’s breakout performance damn near leads Missouri to an upset of OU in 2002.)
Ask most Oklahoma fans what they remember from the Sooners’ 31-24 win over Missouri, and nine times out of 10, they’ll work themselves into a lather reliving a gutsy fake field goal call by Bob Stoops that led to the game-winning score.
In hindsight, though, that night at Faurot Field in Columbia marked something of a turning point in Stoops’ tenure as head coach. Beginning in 1999, Bob and his brother Mike had teamed up to build one of the country’s more dominant defenses. Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel and his dynamic redshirt freshman quarterback Brad Smith gave a preview of an offensive strategy that would give OU’s defense fits for years to come.
The Tigers went with a pseudo-sandlot game plan that relied on Smith doing damage with his feet as much as his arm. They spread the field from sideline to sideline and attempted to stretch the defense using downfield vertical passing routes. Most importantly, Pinkel gave his quarterback the freedom to take off when running lanes presented themselves. Through a combination of designed runs and improvisational scrambling, Smith ran for a staggering 225 yards on 26 carries.
OU came away with a hard-fought win, but Mizzou planted the seeds for future opponents to beat the Stoops brothers’ defense. In the future, the Sooners would be victimized by mobile quarterbacks ranging from the elite – Colt McCoy and Vince Young – to the less so – Reggie McNeal and Ryan Tannehill.
So what can we learn about Mike’s defense from OU’s near upset? I watched the replay broadcast available on YouTube multiple times and charted 76 of the 83 offensive plays run by Mizzou in the game. The following nuggets are based on my observations and reactions from those viewings. If you have any suggestions or requests on what you’d like included or how you’d like me to format these going forward, please let me know.
*From a scheme standpoint, OU didn’t exactly do anything revolutionary in this game.
On first and second downs, Mike switched up personnel to match what Mizzou had on the field. On the rare occasions when the Tigers had two TEs in the game, OU played a traditional 4-3 base set with Pasha Jackson (53) at the “SAM” linebacker position. Jackson joined Lance Mitchell (10) and Teddy Lehman (11), the “MIKE” and “WILL” LBs, respectively.
For the vast majority of the game, Pinkel had his team running three wide receivers with a single tight end, occasionally mixing in true spread 2×2 formations with four receivers split out (two to each side). As such, OU went almost exclusively out of its nickel package throughout the game. In these instances, Matt McCoy (34) subbed in for Jackson. Safety Eric Bassey (13) rotated down into the box to play the nickelback position, with McCoy joining free safety Brandon Everage (7) in a two-high look on the back end.
(With the predominance of the spread in the Big 12 now, I expect this kind of personnel grouping will serve as OU’s base defense for the foreseeable future.)
In obvious passing situations, a down lineman was sometimes pulled in favor a sixth defensive back, Brandon Shelby (5), for a dime look.
*As has become the Stoops signature, OU rolled almost exclusively with zone coverage schemes. The secondary primarily went Cover 2, although the two defensive backs with deep responsibilities varied. Every so often on the snap, either Lehman or Mitchell dropped from the linebacker position into a Tampa 2 look with deep middle coverage.
*On obvious passing downs, OU generally brought five rushers. At times they brought as many as seven.
Mike found a variety of ways to bring pressure with zone blitzes. I counted 20 blitz calls within the 76 plays charted. The same combination of rushers rarely came more than once, let alone from the same angle. A fair number of those calls required that a defensive end drop to the flats or the middle of the field to replace a blitzer. Here’s an example of one that worked well:
The linebackers (10 and 11) run a crossfire blitz in which with both attack the opposing A gaps in the middle of the offensive line. The “away” defensive end (45) drops to the middle of the field, filling the zone vacated by the blitzing linebackers. The cornerback (2) drops back and has responsibility for his deep third of the field. The safety (7) has responsibility for the seam and, in this instance, jumps the outside receiver’s route to snag an interception.
(Blitzology did a series on Oklahoma’s blitz packages a few years ago that has some good breakdowns if you don’t mind the jargon. The above play is Eagle Crossfire 3 against a 2×2 set.)
Those exotic looks put significant pressure on quarterbacks to make the correct reads, and Smith made plenty of mistakes like this one (the inside receiver is open out of the break.) Looking ahead to this season, a key theme for the defense will be how Mike has adjusted to the dramatic rise of the no-huddle spread, which was designed in part to help QBs make those reads (or have them made for them).
*I had forgotten just how good OU’s defensive line was back in the day. Five NFL draft picks rotated among the front four – tackles Tommie Harris and Dusty Dvoracek and ends Jonathan Jackson, Jimmy Wilkerson and Dan Cody.
Harris was clearly hobbled, and the unit as a whole didn’t exactly play out of their minds. Even so, they still managed to have their way with Mizzou’s outmatched offensive line.
A front four like that just opens up so many options for a defense. After watching that group, the development of guys like R.J. Washington and Jamarkus McFarland seems all the more important if the Sooners plan to be national players this year.
*I have to admit that the sheer physicality of OU’s defense shocked me. The D punished the Tigers throughout the game, particularly when getting after Brad Smith in the pocket. Today’s tilting of the rules to maintain player safety would have hurt this group, like, badly.
It’s not that you wouldn’t see that same level of physical play from OU in recent years – just fire up the tape of last season’s game at Florida St. But game in and game out? As of late, the Sooners would have never played with that kind of edge against a team like Missouri.
*Watching Brandon Everage, I can’t but think Tony Jefferson could be in store for a big year. The free safety position serves such a key role in this defense, and Jefferson should have plenty of opportunities to make plays assuming he makes that transition.
Jefferson has been so good around the line of scrimmage the last two years that it’s fair to wonder if it’s worth messing with a good thing. Frankly, though, Jefferson should have an even bigger impact at free safety, and the move would offer him the chance to learn and showcase his skills at the position he’s most likely to play on the next level. He should be a huge beneficiary of Mike’s return.