So you've read the preview of Oklahoma's offense and Florida State's defense. You know that FSU has a shot to win the game if it can limit Murray on first down and limit OU's big plays. In short, FSU's defense needs to not lose the game. But what about the offense? If FSU is to end OU's 31-game home winning streak and turn its home record under Stoops to 67-3, it will take a great offensive performance. Let's get right to it!
You might not have realized this, but last year's Oklahoma defense was tremendous. Behind only Alabama and perhaps Nebraska, the Sooner's defense was one of the best in the last half-decade. That shouldn't come as a surprise with a defensive mastermind in head coach Bob Stoops and excellent co-DCs Brent Venables and Bobby Jack-Wright. Oklahoma's defense has been the same for years now. They combine tremendous recruiting with excellent player development and a zone scheme that allows for a lot of flexibility.
This year the Sooner's defense again looks to be very good, but it is unlikely to be one of the two or three best in the country. Let's take a look at what the Sooners bring to the table. Personnel first, then scheme.
It starts up front for Oklahoma. Everyone knows about Gerald McCoy, the #3 overall draft choice at defensive tackle. Oklahoma can't replace him fully, but they can come fairly close. If a program like Oklahoma State lost a guy like McCoy, it would be different. But this is Oklahoma, and that means a new set of talented players is set to step in. OU does return three of its four defensive line starters, so let's take a look at them first.
6'3" 267 lb Senior Jeremy Beal is a flat-out stud at end. He is again a lock for 1st-team All-Big 12 and last year was 3rd-team All-America. He is in the class of players with Bowers of Clemson and Ojomo of Miami, though not as good as Robert Quinn of UNC (probably the best player in all of college football). On the other side is 6'4" 251 lb junior Frank Alexander. Alexander is a very nice compliment to Beal and really came on at the end of last season. He missed the USU game with an ankle but will return for this game. Oklahoma people say it was precautionary, but if he is still limited FSU could have an advantage there. Sophomore David King will see quality minutes behind Beal. Oklahoma's end tandem is one of the better ones in the country and the matchup between Beal and right tackle Zebrie Sanders (last week's ACC lineman of the week) will be a crucial one in this game.
Defensive tackle poses a few questions and the answers could come in this game. As I noted above, replacing McCoy is extremely difficult. But if anyone can do it, it's Jamarkus McFarland. McFarland was the #2 rated DT recruit in 2009 and played in 7 games last year. Like McCoy, he is extremely quick. Unlike McCoy, the 6'2" 293 lb McFarland is not yet a proven commodity. It's unrealistic to expect the sophomore to equal the production of the #3 overall pick in the draft. At the other tackle spot is Adrian Taylor. Taylor is really interesting because he could have headed to the NFL draft as well, but he snapped his leg in the bowl game. Now the 6'4" 302 lb Senior will be available for August camp. Taylor is not yet 100% and saw limited reps in last week's games. The talented Casey Walker is a 300 lb sophomore who will see some reps, as well as 6'4" 275 lb Stacey McGee. This group is an area that is not as good as expected coming into the season due to Taylor's slower than expected recovery and McFarland developing at a less than super-human pace. Much like the Noles, OU's defensive tackles are quite young.
Much like what FSU's defensive line will do under Mark Stoops, Bob Stoops has his defensive line drop into pass coverage early and often. But they are still asked to play traditional DL techniques and are quite good against both the run and the pass.
For as long as Stoops has been at OU, he has had excellent linebackers. Last year was no different, as they lose Ryan Reynolds (honorable mention Big 12) and Keenan Clayton. But they return Travis Lewis. And what a player Lewis is. After winning Big 12 rookie of the year in 2008, he garnered 1st-team honors last season. Lewis has made 250 tackles in only two years and is a tremendous player. Think of him as Nigel Bradham, but with better agility. Travis Lewis is the best linebacker on either team. On the Strongside is Ronnell Lewis. This 6'2" 240 lb sophomore is a huge hitter and was probably the nation's best linebacker recruit of 2008 (along with FSU's Bradham). Lewis started the Bowl game and some at OU believe he is even better than the departed Keenan Clayton (4th round choice of the Eagles). FSU will need to watch for Ronnell on the zone blitzes. In the middle is redshirt freshman Tom Wort. Wort was all set to play last season before tearing his ACL. If there is a question among the linebackers, it is here. Wort isn't the biggest linebacker at only 225 lbs
This linebacker group is very good. I would rate it behind only UNC among the teams on FSU's schedule and it is absolutely up there with UF, BC (Herzlich & Keuchly), Miami, and Maryland (you probably didn't realize how loaded Maryland is at linebacker).
Let's take a look at how OU measures in the front-seven to the other defenses FSU will play this season:
|Sizes Of The Front Sevens Florida State Will Face (Projected)|
As you can see, Oklahoma is not huge on defense. The Sooners have good but not great size. I'll get to this later, but that should give you some hope that FSU can run the ball some on Oklahoma's front-seven. If OU has to consistently commit the 8th defender to the box to stop the run, that represents a substantial opportunity for Florida State to get some things working in the pass game.
Inside, see what schemes OU wants to run and how FSU will attack those schemes.
An elite defense is typically solid in all three areas and Oklahoma is similarly talented in the secondary.
OU has one of the best safeties in the country in Senior Quinton Carter. Carter made 2nd-team All Big 12 last season and will lead the secondary this year from his free safety position. Carter has excellent range and is a comparable player to some of the guys Miami and Florida will throw out, though he is not as good as Clemson's McDaniel or UNC's Williams. At the other safety spot is senior Jonathan Nelson, who was honorable-mention Big 12 last year. Sam Proctor is a talented safety in his own right and is a very capable player. Both Carter and Nelson are multi-year starters.
If there's a concern or a question for the OU secondary it is at corner. Remember that OU plays mostly zone defense so losing a corner is not as detrimental as it was for FSU when FSU ran its 100% man system. At one corner is Demonte Hurst. The 5'9" 178 lb sophomore is a promising player who the coaches love. On the other side is junior Jammell Flemming, standing 5'11". Both are capable options and OU people don't seem overly worried about either spot, but until one guy steps forward there is a bit of a question. The corners struggled some against Utah State, particularly when they had to cover for long stretches during which USU's QB scrambled and then threw. Everyone cites the 340 yards given up, but OU held the QB to a rating of 128, which isn't all that good.
The bottom line with this defense is that it is extremely talented, has experience, and will again be very well coached. There is no reason to expect a huge dropoff here. A mild drop off is assumed by most observers, due to the loss of McCoy. An important thing to remember is that these players have been in the system for years. Unlike FSU's defense, which is trying to learn the system in a single off-season, Oklahoma's players have been trained in this system for two or three off-seasons in most cases. It is not new to them. This defense should again be among the top 15 or better.
So how does FSU go about attacking this Oklahoma defense?
Find Its Own Pace
Just because Oklahoma wants to play at a really quick tempo does not mean Florida State must as well. It might benefit FSU to play at that fast tempo because it might surprise Oklahoma and Christian Ponder would be great running it. Additionally, as I mentioned above, OU is not all that deep at defensive tackle and there is some chance they could wear down. But there is also the issue of wearing out FSU's own defense as well as the likelihood that Oklahoma is used to practicing against its own offense. Would FSU running the hurry up really be that much of a shock to Oklahoma?
On the flip side, it might behoove FSU to play at a slow pace. OU's offense thrives on getting a lot of snaps. If FSU slows the game down and limits the number of snaps for both teams, it could keep the Oklahoma offense out of rhythm and keep its defense off the field. I don't really see a downside to this option.
Both options are attractive for various reasons, but I think FSU will likely attempt to slow the game down. The Noles have done this during road games in the past (the Thursday night game at NCST in 2008 comes to mind). The FSU offense is patient and doesn't need to run plays in rapid succession to be successful.
Take what is given
Even the best defenses in college football give up something to the offense. There is no defensive scheme that takes away everything. Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com notes that:
"The book on Bob Stoops's defense is known to everyone: first and second down expect an eight-man front and on third down you will see some kind of base or nickel personnel zone-blitz. No mystery there."
What does the Stoops defense give up? On early downs, Oklahoma's defense is vulnerable to the short pass. If the opposing quarterback has the ability to be consistent and precise, OU's defense will allow the shot pass on first and second downs. Florida State has just such a quarterback in Christian Ponder, the top senior NFL quarterback prospect. Ponder has great touch on the ball and is excellent in the short and intermediate passing game. If Oklahoma shows an eight-man front, FSU needs to go ahead and throw the short stuff. After a while, the Sooners will get out of that alignment. It doesn't make much sense to run against an eight-man front like this when Christian Ponder is under center. Additionally, Oklahoma isn't likely to bring a bunch of exotic blitzes on first down, so Ponder should have time to drop back and throw.
If Oklahoma gets out of its eight-man look, FSU could find success running the football. The guard-center-guard trio of Hudson-McMahon-Spurlock should be able to create some running room against Oklahoma's defensive tackles and middle backer. I'm not suggesting that FSU will gut the Sooners in the middle, but it should be able to find some running room in the middle. Keep in mind that OU is very familiar with what FSU does in terms of the run game. It's inside zone, outside zone, and some power.
There is this notion that a team must "establish the run." Nothing could be further from the truth. What a team really needs to do is to gain yards on first and second down to avoid negative leverage situations like 2nd-8 or 3rd-5. Those downs are the disaster downs for an offense. That is when the defense can dial up the exotic blitzes that lead to free rushers and QB fumbles. If Oklahoma is dedicating its personnel to stop the run, FSU should pass. Similarly, if OU backs off, it makes sense to run.
Dictate predictable coverages by formation, motion, and down & distance.
One thing we've already seen more out of the FSU offense this season is motion. Expect that trend to continue against Oklahoma. Ponder is very sharp at diagnosing coverages before the snap and the increased use of motion should help him be even better.
The Noles also have options with respect to formation. FSU is a multiple pro-style offense. It is equally comfortable operating from the I-formation as it is from a five-wide shotgun formation. The key in choosing the formations from which it wants to attack is figuring out how to get a player on the field that has the advantage over a player with whom the opponent would match.
If FSU elects to go with a four-wide spread look, it can get four talented receivers on the field. See the 2010 Receivers Preview. Rodney Smith and Willie Haulstead at 6'6" and 6'3", respectively are tough targets on the outside while Bert Reed and Taiwan Easterling are savvy veterans adept at working the middle and finding the voids in zone coverage. Here you can see Bert Reed work quickly inside after being squeezed off the seam.
Playing from the spread sets also allows FSU to get TE Beau Reliford off the field. Reliford is not a bad player, but he's far from special at this point and is unlikely to make a major impact on the game unless Oklahoma ignores him. FSU is also pretty adept at running from the spread formations
The downside to all this is that Oklahoma may actually want to play from its Nickel package. In its Nickel look, it often moves Ronnell Lewis down to defensive end opposite of Beal. OU is pretty good from that look, but FSU may have an advantage still because the Sooners' reserve defensive backs are sort of young. Also, I think left tackle Datko could easily handle Ronnell Lewis in the run game should he line up at defensive end. Then again, Oklahoma has defended some great spread offenses for many years and it's doubtful that FSU's spread look will show them anything new. Running from the spread also involves running Ponder, which we'll discuss in a minute.
Florida State could also elect to come out in a more pro-style set. That means I-formation of double-tights. While Reliford is still not a threat in the passing game, his blocking has improved some. OU would probably keep its 4-3 personnel on the field against the I-formation or double tights. Florida State is good at running from the I as well, but OU is likely better at stopping the I run from the 4-3 than it is at stopping the spread-run from its Nickel package. Florida State can make OU defend its running backs in the passing game from this formation. Florida State's running backs aren't special, but they are good backs and Thomas, Thompson, and Pryor are dangerous weapons in the passing games. The play-action game can also be pretty effective from the I-formation if FSU runs the ball when OU backs out of the eight-man front.
As I mentioned above, Stoops is a big zone blitzer. In fact, he's even willing to zone blitz with only 5 in coverage. Chris Brown explains:
Stoops is willing to go completely unsound in his zone-blitzes; in the National Championship game against Florida, one of Tebow's interceptions came on a play where the Sooners blitzed six guys and played an inadequate zone coverage. While there are holes in the zone, Stoops figures that it is not easy for the quarterback to identify these while multiple defenders are breathing down his neck - the chalkboard is one thing but the game is another.
Stoops threw them a twist: he called a six-man zone blitz with an unsound coverage, with only two underneath defenders. In fact, he blitzed a cornerback and a linebacker from the short side of the field - could Hall get the ball off? Keep in mind that while Stoops's coverage was unsound, it is not irrational. In these situations what he and Brent Venables, his defensive coordinator, like to do is have their defenders play a bit of a "man-to-man" technique. This way the quarterback can't just throw an immediate pass into a zone void because the defender is playing almost like man. In this way there is not much of a difference between defenses that are man or zone; it is merely aggressive. The outcome of the play is diagrammed below:
How much Stoops is willing to go unsound against a QB as smart as Ponder is unknown. There is no doubt, however, that Stoops will bring zone blitz after zone blitz if he gets FSU into 2nd and 8+ or 3rd and 5+. Also important is the receiver's ability to find the hole in the zone. Easterling and Reed both do this pretty well. Haulstead, Smith, and Reliford have not shown the ability to do so as of yet.
Fisher has stressed pass protection from the running backs all off-season and this game is one of the main reasons why. As Brown explains:
I noticed that the Steelers were very selective about their zone blitzes and that Seattle was determined not to go to the Indianapolis route and get trammeled by unblocked Joey Porters on every other play. This corroborates my theory and the Bruce Arians article I quoted saying that you have to max pro vs. the zone blitz, contrary to all the guys recently who keep saying that the Colts and others should have gone five wide. This results in simply more hits on the QB. You can just as easily--if not more easily--let 2-3 receivers find the zone voids and let the other 2-3 guys check out underneath after you've protected your QB. A perfect example was this year's bowl game between Oklahoma and Oregon. Oklahoma had a very mediocre year, Oregon a great one, but Oregon could NOT move the ball and lost because they were obsessed with going 5-wide vs. Oklahoma's man and zone blitzes where their young QBs took shot after shot and they never broke anyone free.
Pittsburgh blitzed early but, as LeBeau pointed out, the Seahawks were using "max" protection blocking schemes, and "we didn't see anything good that could come from just constantly banging our heads against a wall."
FSU's backs, particularly Pryor, are pretty good at protecting and then slipping out of the backfield. They will need to be on their game against the Sooners. The better strategy, however, is to stay out of those long downs. I think FSU will be more focused on staying in favorable down and distance than it will be trying to hit big plays. This strategy plays more into the slower pace, grinding the clock, and limiting possessions.
As I alluded to in the "formation" section, if FSU wants to use all of its spread sets, it will need to run Christian Ponder. Ponder is a tremendous runner, a you can see in this video:
fsu vs miami 2008 first half (via jermadem)
Using Ponder's legs makes the running game with the backs even more effective because the backside defender cannot chase. If he does, Ponder will pull it and go. Oklahoma has been hurt by running quarterbacks before. Most notably in the 2008 Fiesta bowl against West Virginia (a scheme FSU offensive line coach Rick Trickett knows well) and last week against Utah State.
Listen to Rich Rodriguez break down the offense used to rip Oklahoma in that Fiesta Bowl.
Here's a diagram:
That's the one where the QB in the shotgun reads the backside defensive end. The line blocks away from him. If the end stays at home to keep the QB in check, the QB will hand the ball off because they have the numerical advantage. If the end "crashes down", the QB will keep the ball.
But there is a potential price to pay with using Ponder's legs: injury. Ponder has missed part of the last two seasons with injury. He is an incredibly tough and aggressive runner and he doesn't slide well. FSU's realistic goal for this season is to play for the ACC Championship by virtue of winning its division for the first time since 2005. Is Fisher willing to risk Ponder? If so, how much?
Is there a chance EJ Manuel could see some time as a runner? We know Manuel is pretty astute at running the veer stuff as he did last year against Wake and West Virginia. Picture here:
What about Greg Reid or Lamarcus Joyner on offense?
And remember which receivers played quarterback in high school and can throw.
Throughout the preview I've emphasized the need to take OU out of its run game and keep it from getting in a rhythm. Perhaps the best way to do this is by taking the ball and going on a long scoring drive to open the game. That would take the crowd out of the game and would put pressure on Oklahoma's offense. The Sooners' offense might then press too much and might abandon the run. If FSU is to win this game it cannot get behind. The Sooners are too talented to come back on and FSU likely can't beat the OU play-action game if it is going all-out to stop the run over and over again.
Final Thoughts On Offense
Florida State's offense has been an elite attack now for a full year. It will score on Oklahoma. The questions in my mind are "what pace will FSU play?" and "will FSU's offensive game be dictated on Oklahoma scoring over and over again?" If OU runs 80 plays, I think FSU will run 70. I'll predict the Noles to get 6.5 yards per play, which is about 455 yards. That's 30 rushes for 130 yards and 40 pass plays for 325 yards (including 1 or 2 sacks). And I think FSU will score 31 points, which will be an excellent effort on the road against Oklahoma.
Both FSU and Oklahoma have excellent kickoff and punt coverage teams. Both feature excellent punters. Both have one of the best return men in the game in Broyles and Reid. I call all of those a draw. But as mentioned yesterday, FSU has a large advantage in field goal kicking because OU's situation is a mess and was even trying out walk-ons before the season.
A few months ago, I thought FSU had a 1 in 5 shot to win this football game. Now, I'd call it a 3 in 10 shot. There are a number of reasons for this. First, is Oklahoma's Taylor not getting back and its middle linebacker going down to injury. Basically, FSU seems to be a little better than I thought and Oklahoma's personnel is a little more limited than I thought. Before the season, I thought that in order for FSU to have a chance to win, the Noles would need to play their A game, the Sooners would need to play their C game, and the Noles would need to win the battle of luck with the bounces (fumble recoveries are random). Now, I think differently:
I'm saying there's a chance. Anything between an FSU win by a touchdown to an Oklahoma win by 17 points (with a late score to push a lead of 10 to 17) would not surprise me. Ultimately, however, the pick is Oklahoma, 35-31. In 27 games as TN publisher, I have only picked FSU to lose 4 times (2009 UF, 2009 Wake, 2009 Clemson and 2008 UF). FSU lost 3 of those 4 games. I'll give the Noles a 33% chance of winning, which is up from my pre-season pick of 27.5% Oklahoma's point total was particularly difficult to predict because of its lack of a field goal kicker and the variance inherent with going on 4th down.
This game is a game that will let FSU know where it is as a team, but a loss in this game will not derail FSU from reaching any of its reasonable goals for the season. FSU is in a building year. It is growing and learning as a defense while the offense tries to keep the team's head above water. The most important thing for FSU to do here is to come out of this game with no new serious injuries.