Florida State Preview: Noles Defense @ Oklahoma Offense

Finally, FSU can play a meaningful game.  Today we will break down The Florida State Seminole's defense and the Oklahoma Sooner's offense.  

Oklahoma went 8-5 last year, but was a much better team than most 9-4 or 10-3 squads out there. Some really bad injury luck conspired to stop the Sooner Scooner before it ever got rolling. Off a 2008 season that saw a record-setting offense and a trip to the National Championship Game, people had high hopes for the Sooners. But Oklahoma would lose 5 games in what was a disaster of a season, considering the circumstances. In this preview I will briefly mention 2009 and will focus mostly on 2010.

Oklahoma has consistently been one of the best offenses in the country over the last half-decade. Stoops has a real talent for finding excellent offensive coordinators, be it Mike Leach, Mark Mangino, or Kevin Wilson. Wilson came to Oklahoma from Northwestern and he brings a pro-style spread attack that often plays a very fast no-huddle pace. Ideally, the Sooners look to stay balanced. After having one of the best offenses in the history of college football in 2008, the Oklahoma attack failed to crack the top-50 last season.

I start my preview of OU's attack with the offensive line. It is the most important unit on the team, and is comprised of 5 starting positions. In 2008, Oklahoma had what some called the best offensive line in college football history. While that claim was silly, OU's line did feature multiple NFL draft choices and was the best in football that season.

But four members of that line graduated.  And those members were a 1st-Team All Big 12 Tackle, a 1st-Team All-Big 12 Guard, a 2nd team All-Big 12 Center, and a honorable mention All-Big 12 Guard. I've never seen a team lose that much offensive line talent in a single year. It would be like FSU losing Alex Barron and Ray Willis in the same year (this did happen in the middle part of this decade), and also losing two all-conference guards in the same year. Oklahoma had a tall task to replace all that offensive line talent. But the replacements hadn't played much at all, because the all-star lineup remained perfectly healthy, and because Oklahoma also lost two backups to graduation as well.

But Oklahoma did have Trent Williams, an All-Big 12 left tackle returning. And after that? At center OU had a tiny freshman center and a Colorado State transfer long-snapper. At Guard, they had an inexperienced but talented Sophomore in Stephen Good, a dependable senior in Brian Simmons, a JUCO, and 2 freshmen. The other tackle spot had three contenders. First, was the highly-touted Donald Stephenson. Also in the mix were Junior Cory Brandon and LSU transfer Jarvis Jones, a sophomore.

Nobody was expecting a repeat performance from 2008, but neither were they expecting the calamity that was to come. When a program has a tremendous lineup of seniors, it's difficult to accumulate quality depth behind those seniors. And that problem was exposed from the opening day of camp. OU suffered multiple injuries that kept starters out of camp. The Oklahoma line had talent, but it didn't have an opportunity to develop the chemistry that is so crucial for effective offensive line play. And further troubling was that camp was being used to determine who the starters would be, which wouldn't have allowed for much gelling even if the lineups could have been quickly determined. One thing did become clearer, however, when the ultra-talented Stephenson got himself suspended for the year.

Starting a lineup that lacked any semblance of health, chemistry or experience, Oklahoma allowed 5 sacks to a very average BYU defense in the opener. Oklahoma was absolutely more talented than BYU, but the Cougar defense is a complex 3-4 scheme and Oklahoma often had two men blocking one defender while another defender exploded into the Sooner backfield untouched. One of those miscommunications would change the course of Oklahoma's season as a BYU blitzer wrecked the shoulder of Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. Oklahoma lost the game to BYU. BYU didn't beat Oklahoma. The Sooners literally gave BYU the game because the Oklahoma offensive line was a mess. 10 offensive line penalties and 5 sacks allowed to open the season.

The line would continue to be in varying states of disarray throughout the season. Williams would start all 13 games at left tackle, but a tight end would start 7 games for OU on the oline. 5 players would start a game at guard. Two at center. And two different players split starts at right tackle. In all, Oklahoma started 10 different lineups in 13 games.

But as the season wore on, and the line began to get healthier, the Sooners talent began to shine through a bit. It would have been difficult not to given the talent level. Some quality players began to separate themselves from the pack. Ben Habern, the scrawny redshirt-freshman center held his own given his size and experience level. This year he has bulked up to 292 lbs, an impressive gain of 15 lbs. His ankle is healthy and he is entrenched as the starter at center.  Stephen Good was, excuse the pun, quite good for OU last season at guard, starting seven games and playing in all 13. The 6'6" 299 lb Good was selected as 1st-team ALL- Big 12 by Phil Steele.   The 6'5" 316 lb Tyler Evans is perhaps the weak link at right guard, but he did play in 12 games last year, starting four of them. The coaches were extremely excited to get the 6'6" 309 lb Stephenson back from suspension and he is slated to start at left tackle, ahead of Jarvis Jones. That's a very nice combination of talent and experience at the left tackle spot. Right tackle will be manned by 6'6" 288 lb Erik Mensik.  Mensik is a senior and OU liked his pass protection the best of the three remaining tackles.  

Oklahoma's offensive line was one of the biggest problems for the Sooners last season. But this group is talented and should be much improved assuming it doesn't fall victim to ridiculous injuries hampering its ability to work together as a unit.  In its first game, it was fairly average.  Oklahoma rushed for 200 yards against Utah State, but it was a mix of long runs and failed runs.  The sacks given up are on the quarterback as he ran himself into them.  It might have been an off game or this group might not be where OU expected them to be (Stoops was quite complimentary of them this off-season).  FSU will find out.  This could be one of the better offensive lines FSU will face this season, along with Florida and Boston College.  

As I discussed above, that offensive line allowed the greatest football casualty of the 2009 season. Sam Bradford is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of college football. He won the Heisman in 2008. But when he separated his shoulder in the opening game against BYU, Oklahoma's offense was immediately in trouble. Landry Jones, a 6'4" 219 lb redshirt-freshman entered the game. And though he was a mega-recruit, he was not able to play like the Heisman-Trophy Winner. Bradford would play only 8 total quarters for Oklahoma (of a possible 52). Jones would have a very nice season for a freshman quarterback, completing 261 of 449 passes for 3200 yards and 26 TDs with 14 INTs. But that nice freshman season went unnoticed because it paled in comparison to what was expected of the returning Heisman winner.

We know that the biggest improvement for a quarterback comes in the sophomore year. Jones has the ability to be an excellent quarterback. He has good size and a good arm. He didn't make a disproportionate amount of boneheaded decisions for a freshman. One interesting note here is that Oklahoma's coaches call all the checks. Like a high-school team, Oklahoma looks to the sidelines for its checks or audibles. That takes pressure off Jones. Jones will be one of the better quarterbacks FSU will face this year and he could be in the group with Brantley, Harris, Wilson, and Parker.

In his first game of the year, Jones started hot and then struggled.  He was off in some of his throws and while one of the picks was not his fault, he had another throw that should have been intercepted. He also showed some awful pocket presence, twice running himself into a sack when the protection was sound.  FSU can only hope that he'll do the same come Saturday.  

I won't get heavily into OU's backups at the quarterback position because this game is played so early in the year, making it unlikely that Jones would be injured going into the game. They have two talented but young backups. If Jones goes down, OU will not be able to volley with FSU.

For all the talk about Oklahoma's struggles in the passing game, and there were some, the bigger problem was the rushing game. The top-10 rushing game in 2008 plummeted to outside the top 80 in 2009, thanks mostly to the aforementioned offensive line struggles. Gone is Chris Brown (189 carries for 749 yards). But the Sooners do return Demarco Murray. Murray qualifies for the 10th-year senior award, given annually to the player who has seemingly played for an entire decade. Murray is a very talented back who has battled injuries over the last two years, including a hamstring surgery last season (again, Oklahoma's 2009 season was sunk with injuries). While he didn't always miss games, he was limited in his use and was unable to play at full speed. Still, he made 2nd-team All-Big 12. Murray is one of the best backs FSU will see all season. He's a rock-solid 6'0" 215 lbs, with a good blend of power and some wiggle as well. Murray has 2500 yards in his career, and now that he is finally healthy Stoops has said he will look to get him 300+ carries. Murray is also a true receiving threat, with 100+ catches and 1000+ yards in his career. Quite simply, Murray is one of the premier backs in the country when healthy. Many have forgotten about Murray as he has struggled to stay healthy for much of the last two seasons, but overlooking one of the best backs in the country would be a big mistake as he looks to be primed for a great senior year.

Murry ripped Utah State for 200+ yards on 35 carries last week, including a 65-yarder.  He's legit, but he was held to 3 or fewer yards on 19 of his 35 carries.

The backups are less settled here, though Stoops comments lead me to believe that OU will rotate its backs much less this year.

Inside, preview the rest of the personnel, Oklahoma's Scheme, and how FSU will attack it.  

 

 

Depth is not a question at receiver for Oklahoma. Ryan Broyles is one of the best receivers in the country with 1800 yards over 120 catches in his first two seasons. He was limited last year with a fractured shoulder blade (there's that freak injury bug again). Broyles is extremely difficult for any college defensive back to cover and Oklahoma does a great job of moving the 5'11" 180 lb weapon all over the field. In their 3-wide set, Broyles typically plays the slot.

The other two positions are manned by a decent fivesome. Dejuan Miller stands 6'4" 224 and grabbed 36 balls for 434 yards last season. 6'1" Senior Brandon Caleb actually started 6 games last season and hauled in 26 passes for 408 yards. JUCO transfer Cameron Kenney caught 22 for 268. Finally, freshman Kenny Stills was one of the best recruits in the country and some at OU believe he can quickly work his way into the lineup. Stills is probably the only one of this group who scares a defense in terms of big-play potential, but the group is solid.  Kenney is probably going to continue to start over Miller because he looks improved.  Stills didn't look like he had the chemistry yet with Jones against Utah State, and it will be interesting to see if that improves.  If FSU throws the kitchen sink at Broyles, somebody must step up here.

Oklahoma did not lose TE Jermaine Gresham, a first round draft choice, because he tore up his knee in the pre-season and didn't play a single down for Oklahoma. You'll see a lot of ignorant broadcasters and writers citing the loss of 4 first round draft choices, but two of those draft choices really didn't play at all (Gresham 0 snaps and Bradford only 8 quarters). That said, Oklahoma's tight end situation is unproven. 6'3" 230 lb junior Trent Ratterree started 4 games last year and is essentially a wide receiver.  He's improved a good bit.  James Hanna is serviceable. None of these tight ends should warrant extra attention, but they can hurt FSU if ignored.

The bottom line is that Oklahoma has consistently had one of the best offenses over the last decade. Last year was a huge aberration caused mostly by ridiculous injuries and some expected drop-off from the graduation of 4 all-conference linemen and the top two receivers. This year the Sooners once again have a lot of talent. But the QB isn't being rushed into an unfavorable situation. The receivers are not new. The running back isn't getting off-season surgery on his hamstring. And perhaps most importantly, the offensive line is not in a total state of disarray. There is no reason to think this offense will be anything but good. And it could be very good if it gets even a fraction of number of breaks to the good as it did to the bad last season. This offense is talented well coached, and is now experienced. After its brief trip outside the top 50, I expect the Sooner attack to again be one of the 20 best in college football over the course of the season.  But there is a question as to how good this offense will be in this game.  

Oklahoma's offense didn't look great against Utah State.  The run game put up 220 yards on 42 carries, but the passing game only had 192 yards on 39 passing plays (sacks included).  Utah State's defense is nothing special.  The Utah State performance might give FSU fans some hope that this OU offense is just good or very good, but not yet great.  There's always the chance, however, that OU just played a poor opening game as it has done in the past. 

How does FSU go about defending this no-huddle monster?

This question really must first be answered by determining the desired result.  Wanting to slow FSU down requires a different strategy than wanting to shut the Sooners down.  I think FSU will look to limit OU instead of believing it can go out and shut down this offense.  

If you missed the breakdown of FSU's new defensive schemedefensive linelinebackers, or defensive backs, hit those links.  Here is our breakdown of how FSU's defense played against Samford last week.  Samford was a bad 1-AA offense (a very good 1-AA defense) that was missing its best receiver.

Spreading and running, and Stoops' soul searching. When Oklahoma's offense is rolling, as it was most all of last season, it is a thing of beauty: One play the Sooners line up with four receivers, then come out with a tight end and fullback the next. They can run the ball out of spread sets where the running back motions from the slot into the backfield, or where Bradford tosses the ball back to a more traditional I-back. And they do it all from a high-speed, no-huddle tempo that discourages substitution by the defense and ultimately mows then down.

As dizzying as it can seem, Oklahoma's ground attack is based off basically three plays -- the inside zone, the outside zone and the power, with a few others sprinkled in for good measure (just as FSU does). The zone plays give OU the most flexibility: The linemen keep the same blocking schemes, regardless of how many tight ends or wide receivers they use. The aiming points for the backs remain about the same. The Sooners tend to begin with a focus on the outside zone, but once the defense flows too fast to the sideline, they hit them inside.  

Dr. Saturday

There's no doubt in my mind that the focus must be on stopping DeMarco Murray to set up 2nd and 8+ & 3rd and 5+ situations (aka positively leveraged in favor of the defense).  I do not think Oklahoma can consistently beat FSU in long downs.  Yes, it will happen sometimes, but if FSU is to win it absolutely must stay in favorable down and distance on defense.  This defense will get torched via the play-action pass if it faces multiple 2nd or 3rd and short-mid range downs.   FSU would like to do so with its front-seven and the occasional use of the eight man (a safety) down to stop the run.

FSU will need to do this (something it did not do well at all in the last few years):

This current trend of defenses gleaning the best attributes of schemes into some quasi-natural selection process creates a deadly and effective method for accounting for fundamental principles of good football. Defenses, with the usage of proper coverage support, pattern-matching principles, and multi-talented linemen (ability to drop to cover receiving threats), are able to open a maelstrom of disguised looks. Defenses can present one look at presnap and morph its use to fit any and all offensive threats after the snap. No longer are defenses limited by walking out on displaced receivers (in man) or staying cemented within the box to stop the run. With these principles of adaptation, the chalk can be held by defensive coordinators a while longer.

The question, however, is how well FSU can do that with very limited time in the new zone scheme.  Yes, FSU's defense is talented, but the talent is quite raw at most spots and very inexperienced and undeverdeveloped.  FSU is going to have to catch a few breaks in this game during which Oklahoma fails to realize that FSU has done something that makes it vulnerable to a big play.  OU is very well coached and FSU must disguise its looks.  

Jacobbi McDaniel must have a huge game for the Noles.  From his nose guard position he'll be lined up against OU's center Habern and will face a double team from the all-conference guard Good or the lesser experienced Evans.  If McDaniel doesn't play well the Seminole defense will get torn up and the linebackers will not be able to fast flow to the football.  If McDaniel can play well and hold the point of attack, FSU has a chance to limit Murray, which it must do.  It's also important for ends Markus White and Brandon Jenkins to hold the edges and make Murray go wider to get outside while not allowing the cut back.  Oklahoma is quite good at the cutback and it absolutely punishes defenses who over-pursue to the football.  That sounds easy in theory, but in actual games when OU is running 3 plays in the span of a real-life 25 seconds, it is very difficult.  Murray is good at turning the corner, but FSU has enough speed to get to him on the edge if they maintain proper leverage.

I worry about the linebackers taking the correct angles and getting caught out of position.  As a group they are definitely better at using their hands, but some of the angles against Samford were poor.  Strong-side backer Mister Alexander must win the battle at the line of scrimmage against Oklahoma's tight end.  If Oklahoma's tight end can whip Alexander at the point of attack, it's a major advantage for Oklahoma.  I don't expect that to happen because Ratterree isn't a particularly good blocker, but that position battle is something to watch for.  

Parks and Jenije need to make sure they take good angles and tackle well.  They will often be called upon to clean up the backside of the run plays.  It would be nice if FSU had safety Nick Moody for this game, and Fisher did say he will play, but expect him to still be limited by the groin injury.  

Oklahoma is committed to running the football this season with Murray.  It's unlikely that FSU will take them out of the run, but it must limit the effectiveness of the run game on early downs.  

If Florida State can limit Oklahoma's running game on early downs without over-using its safeties, game on

The "not over-using its safeties" line is important because OU will easily pick apart FSU's defense on first or second down if FSU is clearly lining up top stop the run.  But if FSU can put OU in unfavorable down and distance, it has a chance to force some turnovers.  Jones seems to run hot and cold.  A defense never wants to pin its hopes on the chance that the QB is having an off day, but in this game of pick your poison, I'll rather face Jones than Murray.

Oklahoma is excellent at the screen game and they love to throw the bubble to Broyles.  He is perhaps the most dangerous receiver FSU will play this season and OU often lines him up in the slot, which further complicates things. This is one of OU's counters to the safety in the box to stop the run.  It is imperative that Florida State tackle Broyles because if he breaks one tackle he is gone for six points.Bubblescreen_medium

The threat of the screen to Broyles makes this chess game very interesting and makes it imperative that FSU shift its safeties right before the snap as opposed to doing so too early.  

Here you can see one of OU's favorite pass plays.  Really glad I remembered this sportscenter clip.  Go to the 4:30 mark to see the breakdown.

That play (the china y 90) is not particularly easy to defend and it could really expose FSU's inexperienced defense.  It requires a chemistry of feel and anticipation that FSU's defenders do not yet have with each other.    Please read "why Florida State fans must be patient with FSU's new zone defense" to see what I am talking about.

But if Oklahoma successfully throws that play it is not the end of the world.  That play is not something that is going to often break for a long touchdown, and it makes the WR and QB consistently be on the same page-- something that Jones and his receivers not named Broyles didn't exactly look comfortable doing in the last game.  FSU's Xavier Rhodes must get a good jam on his man at the line in cover-2 to make it difficult for him to get into his route.  At 210 lbs, Rhodes is incredibly strong for a corner and I do think he can consistently win that battle against any of Oklahoma's receivers other than Broyles (difficult to jam because he is quick).

It is OU's play-action passing game that really troubles me here.  Jones doesn't have to be super accurate if he is throwing to a streaking receiver because a safety or corner was too anxious to bite on the run fake.  How successful Oklahoma is with that is really predicated on how well it runs the football and how much extra personnel FSU must dedicate to stopping the run.  If Jones can beat FSU by going to his other receivers consistently and not via the big play, the Noles should tip their cap.  

Whatever Happens Will Happen Fast

As I mentioned above Oklahoma runs no-huddle almost the entire game.  This is very difficult to defend, particularly for a very young defense in a new scheme.  It would be quite easy for FSU to lose its composure and get smoked.  Oklahoma wants to run 80+ plays in a game.  That's about 20% faster than the pace FSU typically plays.  The Sooners will hurry up to the line and then turn to face the sidelines to get the call.  That means Florida State cannot substitute during a series.  It also means that FSU cannot huddle to get the defensive call and cannot communicate in a huddle.  For a young defense, these are not good things.  There's a good chance a miscommunication will lead to a big play or two for Oklahoma.  FSU's plays will have to stay more simple than it would like due to the need to signal them in from the sidelines and the inability to huddle.  Those simplified looks will benefit an Oklahoma team who is intimately familiar with what FSU will run due to having seen the base looks every day in practice because its the same defense OU runs. 

The other issue to worry about here is depth.  We at TomahawkNation have hammered this point throughout the off-season.  FSU's defense lacks quality depth.  The entire unit is young and talented, but the backups are extremely young and inexperienced.  A huge number of plays means the backups must also play quite a few plays.  That does not bode well for Florida State.  It also means that whoever is on the field to start a series must finish that series, as OU doesn't allow the defense to substitute.  It is almost inevitable that Oklahoma will catch FSU in a series with mostly backups.  OU's guys know that the backups are not going to run anything complex.  That will make for predictable reads and a potentially easy score.  Florida State's lack of quality depth on defense is a major liability in this game.  

Final Verdict

If this game were played last year's defense, I would expect Oklahoma to easily put up 7.5 or even 8 yards per play.  But this year's defense is obviously better, even if judging only by the off-season improvements and the performance against an awful Samford offense.  

Knowing that, I think FSU's defense can hold OU to 6 yards per play and 35 points.  Yes, that is almost 500 yards, but it is the yards per play and not the total yards that matters.  Oklahoma's total yardage will always be inflated (much like Auburn) because of the pace it runs.  35 points seems like a lot, but it represents a significant improvement over what FSU's defense was just last season. 

I think OU will run 38 times for 170 yards and throw 42 times for 310 yards (including sacks).  

I expect FSU to slow down Murray some, and to Force Jones into some mistakes.  But I also expect for the defense to lose its composure once or twice as OU's offense is moving at break-neck speed and surrender big plays.  FSU's lack of experience in the system and lack of depth will show up.  Also, Oklahoma will like eschew field goal opportunities because its kicker is not very good.  That is bad news for FSU because we know that going on 4th down is the right call more often than not.  Bob Stoops now has an excuse he can make to the media for making what is the right call (even if the media thinks it is not).  This is likely the biggest test FSU's defense will face this year.  With some fumble luck (fumble recoveries are random) and great field position via deep kickoffs, the score could be less.  In the end, however, FSU's defense still has a lot of work to do.  Samford was a bad 1-AA offense and this Oklahoma team is a bad matchup for this young defense.  

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