Oh Yeah, Baby.
9-0 Baylor. 8-1 Oklahoma. Thus far, the matchup of the 2019 Big 12 season. Oklahoma, with its otherworldly offense and improved defense, comes to Waco, where the Bears are being carried by an unbelievably resurgent defense and offense with explosive potential. What a scene it will be this Saturday.
Beyond the big picture narrative of this game, this is an incredibly intriguing matchup of players and scheme. When Oklahoma has the ball, it is the unstoppable force against the immovable object. When Baylor faces OU’s defense, it’s a matchup of two units who have showed serious potential this season but have really faltered the past two weeks.
Lincoln Riley Has Produced Yet Another Transcendent Offense
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley has established himself as the premier offensive mind in all of football. In his four years at Oklahoma—which has included two years of Baker Mayfield, one year of Kyler Murray, and now Jalen Hurts—Riley has crafted offenses that consistently are the top unit in college football and it hasn’t really been close.
Both Mayfield and Murray had seemingly preternatural accuracy and Riley utilized them to craft an offense that could do it all: precision short and intermediate passing, more deep shots than your mind or defensive backs can handle, all with the constant threat of an NFL offensive line blocking for 4 and 5* running backs. It was a nightmare to defend.
Considering the circumstances, Riley’s latest rendition may be his best work. Assuredly, Jalen Hurts was a storied transfer and not nothing to work with, but unlike Mayfield and Murray, who both had at least a year to redshirt before playing, Hurts transferred to Oklahoma before Spring ball of 2019, giving him only 6 months to learn an offense that Riley was simultaneously trying to craft for him. Furthermore, Oklahoma lost 4 out of their 5 offensive lineman to the NFL draft along with a 1st round WR in Marquise Brown. Do not get me wrong, Oklahoma has an embarrassment of riches to work with, but for Riley to keep the offense going at the same other-worldly level is astonishing.
Oklahoma Is A Truly Unique Team
Below is a graph which plots a team’s offensive and defensive ratings (per SP+). Because SP+’s rating are adjusted points per game against the hypothetical average FBS team, the further right (higher offensive rating) and down (lower defensive rating) the better the team is. For example, Baylor—lovingly paired with Iowa State—has an offensive rating of 30 and defensive of 15.
As one can see, Oklahoma is in its own zip code. The fun thing about plots like these is that you can see a pseudo-interchangeability between some teams, such as the fact that Baylor basically beat Cincinnati this past Saturday. Not so for Oklahoma—they are truly one of a kind.
Oklahoma is the nation’s top offense and it is not particularly close. While they are “only” 2.5 points ahead of Alabama and LSU, this is hard to do because, as you get higher in the ratings, each point of marginal improvement is harder (if this doesn’t make intuitive sense to you, think of it this way: it is easier to move your offense from averaging 10 Points Per Game to 11 PPG than it is to go from 49 to 50). Beyond this, Oklahoma’s offense is about 10 adjusted PPG better than 95% of the offenses in college football.
Oklahoma’s defense, despite being somewhat exposed the past two weeks against Kansas State and Iowa State, is much improved from last year. Oklahoma still has some deficiencies, but they are playing much more sound than they did in 2018 and are at least making offenses earn points rather than just gifting them. They currently rank 39th in defensive SP+, while they finished 84th in 2018, 41st in 2017, and 39th in 2016.
Baylor’s Resurgent Defense
I noted above that Oklahoma’s 2018 defense finished 84th in defensive SP+ and has seen some marked improvement up to 39th. Well, guess who finished 85th last year? Baylor. At Temple, Matt Rhule and Phil Snow’s defense made a monumental defensive jump in year two. It looks like it just took one extra year at Baylor. After two years of instilling a tough culture, Baylor’s scheme and sound play has caught up with their will to win. By almost any advanced stat you look at—14th in SP+, 6th in Beta Rank—Baylor’s defense is one of the top units in the country.
Whenever a team has a top unit it is never a factor of just one thing, as all facets must come together to create a cohesive product. Baylor’s defense is no different. It is easy to point to James Lynch, who has been Baylor’s best player this year, perhaps the conference’s best to boot:
The debate to be had over James Lynch, btw, is not whether he's DLOY or DPOY, I don't see how that's even in question. It's whether he's the Big 12 POY or whether that should go to a QB.— Asst to the Minister of Culture (@Ian_A_Boyd) November 5, 2019
What makes Lynch special is that he is a dominant player every down. If he is not getting to the QB, he is getting double teamed giving his teammate an opportunity for a one on one matchup:
Here's what makes this Baylor defense go. Baylor rushes 3 on 3rd and long, TCU double teams both Lynch and Roy leaving Lockhart a one on one against the RT and he gets to the QB in a HURRY forcing the dump off. pic.twitter.com/XPzqHbhCu0— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) November 11, 2019
Even when he is double teamed, he often gets to the QB anyway. TCU completes the pass here, but not because of a lack of pass rush:
As stated above, this defense works because there are no weak links and they play together. Jameson Houston went from on and off starter to one of the better CBs in the Big 12. Terrel Bernard has stepped in at MLB for Clay Johnston and done so admirably. Bravion Roy and James Lockhart are a formidable tandem on the DL alongside James Lynch. I could go on and on.
How Baylor Can Slow Down Oklahoma
One of what makes Lincoln Riley so good is that he has created such a good offense despite Jalen Hurts’ significant limitations as a passer. Hurts is an incredible runner, which is why Oklahoma’s rushing offense has been so dominant, but despite some gaudy passing numbers, he continues to demonstrate poor decision making. Hurts very nearly threw three interceptions in the first quarter against Iowa State, but ISU dropped all of them. His fourth quarter interception nearly cost Oklahoma the game.
What makes this near pick 6 so egregious is that there is no excuse or justification for it. Hurts has a great pocket to work with, he is sitting on a single read, and just ... throws it right to a defender. This is not a complicated scheme from Iowa State, they’re just playing a variant of Cover 3 where the corner is bailing deep while boundary safety takes the flat. Baylor played a similar coverage against TCU which resulted in an interception:
Baylor played a ton of Cover 3 against TCU and West Virginia. From down to down it looked like this:
The idea here is to keep everything in front of you, rely on the QB to make a mistake every now and again, and rally to the football when it is thrown short. On this particular play, Duggan was flushed out of the pocket after Baylor’s 3 man pass rush got home and a tipped 5 yard pass resulted in an interception by Terrel Bernard.
But Iowa State—A Good Defense—Gave Up 50 Points to Oklahoma
Yes, this is true. But I think there are some important differences between Baylor and Iowa State’s defenses, especially as it pertains to slowing down Oklahoma. For one, while Iowa State has sound DL play, they don’t have difference makers like James Lynch, Bravion Roy, and James Lockhart. Iowa State has done much of their damage this year by being multiple and blitzing their fantastic linebackers O’Rien Vance, Marcel Spears, and Mike Rose. Baylor doesn’t have to do this—they can consistently get to the QB while only rushing 3.
Another key difference is CB play. The aforementioned Jameson Houston has become one of the best cover guys in the conference, and he’s a physical run defender to boot. Raleigh Texada and Kalon Barnes are both above average corners at this point. Iowa State, on the other hand, is breaking in two new starters this year and they are the weak link of their defense. Not many teams can trust their cover guys to stand toe to toe with Oklahoma’s receivers, but I think Baylor can. You’ll give up your fair share of big plays—it is really impossible to avoid against OU—but sacrifices must be made to put resources toward the most important aspect of this game: stopping OU’s dynamic rushing attack.
Stopping Oklahoma’s Run Game
The 2019 Oklahoma offense really revolves around their rushing game, and it starts with their QB Jalen Hurts. He has an obscene 869 yards on 125 carries, which includes sacks. Running back Kennedy Brooks is averaging 8.2 yards per carry. Trey Sermon is averaging 7.1. Their third stringer is averaging 9.2 on 40 carries!
I think that basing out of Cover 3 is a good idea against Oklahoma. Chris Miller returns and will probably take JT Woods’ spot as the deep middle safety. Baylor’s defense has to live with the deep shots and instead figure out how to defend frightening plays like this on a down to down basis:
This is the stuff defensive coordinator’s nightmares are made out of. Trips to the boundary, one of the best WRs in college football way out to the field, and one of the best pure runners in college football running to the field with numbers behind a huge offensive line. It’s the kind of play that truly determines whether your defense has any weaknesses. If you can’t cover Lamb to the field, Hurts will target him every time. If you don’t play off receiver’s blocks well, they’ll throw it out to the WR screen. And if you have to send too many guys to either Lamb or the boundary screen, they’ll just run this nasty counter with Hurts. As it turned out for Iowa State, they couldn’t cover Lamb, so their field safety is lined up 10 yards off the ball providing underneath coverage help to their CB who is lined up even further off the ball.
Baylor can trust their defensive backs more than Iowa State can. Jameson Houston has more or less shut down every top WR he has faced this year. He held Jalen Reagor to 1 catch for 8 yards and Tylan Wallace to 6 catches for 69 yards. If the Bears can hold Lamb to under 100 yards this game they’ll have to feel pretty good about their chances. Here’s a great clip of Houston playing tight coverage against Reagor this past weekend.
Baylor has the best chance out of anyone in the Big 12 to legitimately slow Oklahoma’s offense down. They have a dominant DL that can get to the QB without much help. Their LBs are all instinctive and tough players who are great against the run. And their defensive backs have enough talent and experience where you can realistically expect them to compete with Oklahoma’s great wide receivers without too much help.
When Baylor Has the Ball
This is where the game is won or lost, most likely. I feel relatively confident in saying that Baylor’s defense is going to perform well, but nobody is holding Oklahoma scoreless—or even lower than 28 or so points, probably. Baylor has to score to win this game.
The good news is that while Baylor’s offense has struggled over the past two weeks, so has Oklahoma’s defense. This is a terrific opportunity for the Bears to right the ship. Just two weeks ago the Baylor offense was up to 14th in the country in SP+ which led me to write an article about how they just want to be legends. In just two weeks they have fallen all the way to 34th.
Oklahoma’s DL is pretty good which will probably give the Baylor OL some problems. Hopefully Connor Galvin is back in at least some capacity which would be a major boon for Baylor’s chances. Matt Rhule stated in his post game press conference that he thinks their OL is in a spot where they sort of have to wait for the opposing pass rushers to tire down a bit before taking some shots downfield. Baylor’s OL gave up a lot of pressure early against TCU but really performed well late in the game. Baylor has some serious skill talent, Brewer just needs enough time to be able to find them downfield.
If Baylor’s offense starts slow again this week, don’t freak out. Baylor’s defense is going to keep them in the game. Iowa State’s defense is good, but is not built to matchup well with Oklahoma. I think Baylor’s defense will legitimately stifle OU’s offense at some points and force Jalen Hurts into some bad decisions—just enough for Baylor to pull out the win. 34-31 Bears.