A Top 25 Match-Up!
Look, the delineation between “top 25 wins” vs “non-top 25 wins” has always irked me. It’s nonsensical to arbitrarily cutoff what makes a good team vs not a good team. There is no reason to value beating the #21 team by 7 points way more than beating the #40 team by 21 or something. But anyway, stopping myself before I go way down that rabbit hole, there is no denying the cultural value that having one of these wins. And there’s no denying that “top 25 match-ups” simply mean more. Why? I don’t know, I didn’t decide. But it’s the arbitrary marker we all operate under, and that’s how it is! I won’t deny that there is some extra juice to this game, and that’s what makes college football great.
A Tough Environment
This is Aranda’s first real, tough roadgame where the team has significant expectations, and that is the biggest variable that makes this game difficult to predict. Not only that, it’s a night game in Stillwater, OSU is undefeated, and it’ll undoubtedly be a raucous environment. Oklahoma State’s stadium is notorious for it’s sidelines which encroach right on top of the field, and it can be an isolating experience for the visiting team on their narrow sideline.
So this section serves as a caveat for “the environment.” It’s very difficult to account for the environment in a prediction, other than to simply make the game closer than you’d otherwise think. However, I think this a pretty binary factor. What I mean by that is I don’t think this turns a 14 point game into a 3 point game, I think it either causes Baylor to succumb to the pressure early (like KSU sort of did when they fumbled in their own endzone on their second possession) or it isn’t really a factor. Perhaps I’m wrong here, but that’s my best guess. So, caveat for environment aside, I’ll move ahead to the matchups.
Oklahoma State in 2021 — Strengths and Weaknesses
In 2020, Oklahoma State had a very strong, veteran-led defense that proved itself to be a very formidable unit. They finished the year ranked 14th nationally in defensive FEI, an opponent adjusted advanced metric. Offense was another story, as Spencer Sanders looked largely the same as he did as a freshman and they struggled to find an identity. This year they have a new offensive coordinator and fans expected a much better result based upon their talent. The early returns are not good.
Let’s start with their defense. OSU’s defense is the polar opposite of Iowa State. Iowa State plays with 6 really big guys (3 big DL, 3 huge LBs) in their front, and then is very versatile with their defensive backs, all of whom are good tacklers and run force defenders while remaining well schooled in zone coverage to take away the deep passing game. Iowa State’s game is to stop the run with their big front and prevent big plays with their secondary (that is an overly simplistic view of things, but we aren’t deep diving Iowa State here).
Oklahoma State is very different. While ISU played physical but “conservative,” OSU plays fast and aggressive. Iowa State rarely plays pure man coverage, OSU plays a ton of it. ISU wants to bet you can’t methodically move the ball down the field against their tough unit, OSU wants to force you into an early mistake and is more susceptible to giving up big plays.
This aggressive style is exemplified in their stats. Opposing offenses have been successful on only 39% of their plays against OSU, but they rank much lower in some explosiveness measures, particularly against the pass. By nature of them playing man coverage and bringing pressure if you can give your QB time and connect deep, there are plays to be had.
Early on in the K-State game, they knew that OSU would play like this. So they tried to connect deep. They just couldn’t quite do it. Here are some examples:
Here’s KSU getting in a big set and splitting two WRs out to the wide side of the field, something Baylor has done quite a bit this year. This formation means the conflict player is the middle safety who is 8 yards off the ball in the middle of the field. The play action forces him to hesitate just long enough which gives their favorite WR a 1v1 shot vs OSU’s CB. That CB is Bernard-Converse, a very heady veteran who is one of the better CBs in the league. He’s a good player, but it’s hard for any CB to hold up in single coverage deep over the course of a game. On this play, the ball isn’t terrible but it isn’t great, a great ball is a TD here.
This next play presents something similar. OSU once again uses formation to isolate their favorite WR against Bernard-Converse. Again he has solid coverage and the ball just isn’t quite good enough to guarantee a completion.
This next play is actually the first play of the game, and KSU is feeling out what OSU will be doing on D. It might not seem like much, but this is a 6 yard gain on 1st down which has the potential to go the distance if the CB misses the tackle. Bohanon has shown the ability to reliably hit this throw this year, so this throw will be there vs OSU.
On this next play, ignore the fact that two of Kansas State’s WRs end up in the same area of the field jumbling things up. Just pay attention to the WR at the top of the screen going against their CB. Once again, we can see that if KSU had given a better throw, there’s a TD here. Not that these are easy throws. But they’re ones that I think Bohanon can make regularly (and will need to for Baylor to win this game).
That wraps up my first point—deep iso shots to WRs will be there against OSU’s CBs in man coverage. But one thing that Kansas State was really hampered by in that game was that they really only had one deep threat at WR. That is not the case with Baylor, all 3 of their starters (Thornton, Sneed, and Fleeks) are deep threats. Thornton and Fleeks are burners, while Sneed is a guy you can put to the boundary and throw jump balls / backshoulder fades to.
One thing you can do via formation is force OSU’s boundary safety Kolby Harvel-Peel, who is basically very good at everything except carrying verticals, into solo coverage (teams do this against Christian Morgan too). Boise State does that here, they get the check from the sideline and then their inside receiver burns Harvel-Peel. The throw just isn’t there.
OSU’s other safeties aren’t great in man coverage either (most aren’t!). Another example of forcing a good matchup by formation, Kansas State gets their tiny, quick WR on the safety here. It doesn’t go well for the safety as the WR puts a whip route on him and it’s off to the races. Baylor has used a good amount of bunch formations this year, and will likely try to get guys like Drew Estrada or Josh Fleeks matched up in similar critical situations.
I’ll cap this “you can attack them in man coverage” point off with this clip. Here Boise finally does capitalize. Before this clip starts, they realize that OSU is gonna bring pressure on this 3rd and 4, so they motion their RB back into the formation so that he can help block. Boise is able to block the 5 rushers with their 6 blockers, the QB has time, and the WR has a great look vs an isolated DB. Touchdown.
So I’ve made it sound like Oklahoma State’s decision to play a lot of man coverage is stupid, what’s the upside? Well, they’re able to get after the quarterback. They do blitz a lot, and they’re good at it. Their safeties are big and physical and love to get involved. This play below presents the QB with a look that could nominally be a drop 8 conservative coverage, but instead becomes man-free.
But they don’t have to. Their DL is very good and is particularly good at being disruptive in the run and pass game. They’ve dealt with some injuries, but they have a lot of guys on their roster who are capable of getting after the QB. Brock Martin, the guy who gets the sack in the clip below, won’t play against Baylor due to injury, but this pass rush move shows that they’re well coached. True freshman Collin Oliver is his replacement and has some real athleticism.
This will be the first week that Baylor’s OL will really get tested in pass protection. First, just in their ability to win their 1v1 matchups vs a great OSU DL. But more importantly, their ability to communicate in their protection schemes to ensure that they don’t leave anybody unblocked. When a defensive coordinator calls a blitz they obviously do it to get after the QB. A lot of times what they want is to get one of their good rushers in a good matchup against a bad OL, TE, or RB. But even better is to confuse the OL so that nobody blocks them! Baylor’s protection schemes have looked much better this year, but this will be their first real test to see how they handle a lot of blitzes.
So that was a lot of words about how Oklahoma State handles the passing game. I don’t have as much time to get into their run defense, but it is very good. It starts with their DL, all of whom are good and love to get upfield. They’re an old, veteran group that plays with a lot of strength. It’s just a basic play, but this play below vs Boise demonstrates that. The front 3 DL all stack up the OL and prevent them from getting on any linebackers. With the OL occupied, there is nowhere for the RB to go and he is tackled at the line of scrimmage.
Baylor runs a much different scheme than anyone Oklahoma State has played thus far (well, I didn’t watch them vs Missouri State, maybe they ran wide zone IDK) so that will be the thing to watch. With a DL that loves to get upfield, wide zone can take advantage of that by slashing into the gaps behind them. However, penetration where the DL can remain under control to make a play in the backfield is very disruptive to any running play. After how well Baylor’s OL played against ISU’s filthy DL, I think Baylor will be able to run the ball vs OSU when they have even numbers.
Head coach Mike Gundy is an offensive guy and has gone through a handful of different coordinators over the years but the principles of the offense have largely stayed the same. Like any good coach would, they’ve tailored things to their QB; for example, under Mason Rudolph they developed a very good passing game which utilized the entire field and primarily dealt with conflict players (defenders who could feasibly either be involved in the run fit or play pass) with run-pass-options (RPOs).
Since Sanders became the starter in 2019, his arm is plenty strong but he is not nearly as consistently accurate or as good making reads as Rudolph was, so they’ve switched things up. They try to spread the WRs out to create horizontal stress on the defense; Sanders has a very strong arm so he’s able to hit screens to the field with regularity. This creates a pure “numbers game” aspect to their offense—if you don’t allocate enough numbers to the screens, they throw them. If you do, they run the ball. They still run RPOs, but because Sanders is so athletic they largely deal with conflict players by having him run the ball now. So to summarize, OSU wants to spread you out, force you to send enough numbers out wide, but also force you to keep enough numbers inside to deal with both their RB and QB run game.
Compared to OSU’s defense, however, things have looked much worse for the OSU offense. They’ve only been successful on 40% of their plays this year (compare this to Baylor’s 55%). While they’ve played 3 pretty good defenses so far, 40% is still far below where you want to be if you want an offense capable of competing for a Big 12 title. Sanders looks the same as he has the past few years.
The biggest thing I notice when I watch them is that they don’t look coherent. The offense seems like a grab-bag of different stuff they want to work, but it doesn’t integrate. They run wide zone like Baylor does, but it’s just one of several different schemes they operate out of and they don’t look particularly great running any of them. As I discussed previously, there is the overall “numbers game” aspect to the offense, but the problem is that neither their run game or their downfield pass game has been enough to scare defenses. To move the ball you have to create conflicts for the D, and OSU just hasn’t been able to do that yet this year.
One player who has provided a real spar the past few weeks is RB Jaylen Warren, a transfer from Utah State. He’s built like former Baylor RB Shock Linwood, but is probably a hair faster. He’s not very shifty in the backfield like Breece Hall was, but he’s a guy who, once he gets a head of steam and can get some power churned, can make guys bounce off him and has enough speed to make you pay. He’s gonna break off some big runs in this game. The key is for Baylor to get him down before he gets in the endzone.
A big part of the OSU offense is the screen game, both RB and WR screens. They started off the game against Kansas State with a beautiful same-sided RB screen which nearly went the distance. Baylor is gonna have to stay home on their responsibilities and not get overly-aggressive flowing to either side of the field.
WR screens are something Gundy has utilized forever, because if you coach them well and have a strong-armed QB, you can virtually guarantee a positive gain. Baylor has been able to limit these in the past with very physical defensive back play. That’ll have to continue this week if they want to not have to allocate too many resources to stopping plays like this.
Ultimately though, I think this screen game is the best part of OSU’s offense. Their run game is fine, but Baylor’s front should be able to handle it rather well; Baylor’s DL has been playing really well the past few weeks. OSU’s gonna have to open things up in the passing game to score enough to win this game, but it is a legitimate question whether Sanders can be consistent enough over a full game to consistently punish teams for overplaying the run.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a legitimate chance that “good Sanders” shows up all game and the offense has a great game. Even mediocre QBs can have dynamite games every now and then (see Chelf, Clint). However, one thing that makes me feel good about this game is that I think OSU needs good Sanders to just keep up with Baylor, I don’t think that’s enough in and of itself to guarantee a win.
How Baylor Matches Up
So as I hope I’ve set up, Baylor is gonna have to throw the ball and beat man coverage to win this game. I think they’ll be able to run well, but eventually OSU is gonna crash those safeties and nobody can run the ball against a loaded box. OSU is gonna give you opportunities, Baylor is gonna have to take them.
Gerry’s ability to hit routes deep to the wide side of the field will be crucial in this game, like this throw to Sneed:
The fact that Baylor can throw deep to the field again is just so wonderful. Baylor running mesh, Gerry can take the deep solo shot if he likes the look. I like Sneed in a jump ball scenario with anyone. pic.twitter.com/D8EP80n5sr— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) September 12, 2021
or like this, to Fleeks:
The TD that wasn't called one. This was a great pass by GB. Gerry has his pick between the 1v1 shot to either Fleeks on the field CB or Thornton on the boundary CB. Field S is occupied by the slot so Gerry goes to the field. Great stuff. pic.twitter.com/ew3sPgIASj— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) September 5, 2021
or this bomb to Thornton:
60 yard bomb perfectly placed to an in stride WR away from the leverage of the DB? I'm gonna cry pic.twitter.com/9eP6y2zxuN— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) September 12, 2021
All of these opportunities will be there in this game.
A main reason I really like Baylor in this game is that Baylor can run their base offense against Oklahoma State. Last week against Iowa State, because of the way ISU’s defense is schemed, Baylor’s couldn’t utilize their bootlegs and true play action, which is the foundation of their passing offense. To explain this most simply, this was because ISU could keep a lid on Baylor’s run game without having to remove their DBs from pass coverage. You can see how they did this in this clip below, watch how the corner is playing over the top of the WR and the safety buzzes the flat in front of the WR. Gerry makes a great throw, but this is not a comfortable concept to execute.
Baylor opened the game with a boot, now they open the 2nd half with one. You can see how the corner plays with great technique on this route, and he has the playside S sinking under his route. Great job by GB to not hold the ball, gets rid of it! pic.twitter.com/81OUWvEOPv— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) September 26, 2021
Against Oklahoma State, both the boot and play action game will be there, as long as Gerry has enough time to throw the ball. The bootleg game against OSU is gonna look much more like this clip below:
Calm, confident strike. Easy ...— Travis (@Travis_Roeder) September 19, 2021
Notice how KU going so hard after the frontside run opens the backside boot. pic.twitter.com/1GUT5RLiit
Both the bootleg and play action game start with the ability to run the ball. If you can’t run the ball effectively, secondary defenders can outnumber you in the pass. To ensure that there isn’t a defender sitting there to smash your QB as soon as he rolls out, you have to run the ball well enough to make sure that defender is involved in the run fit. To ensure you’re not throwing into double coverage on your play action shots, you have to run the ball well enough to make that would-be-doubling defender get involved in the run fit. Baylor just ran for 4.5 yards per carry against Iowa State, which isn’t a great number against a neutral team, but against ISU that speaks to how well this OL is playing. They’ll be able to run the ball against OSU.
Given that, Gerry having time to throw really is THE key to this game. If you give him 4 seconds to be comfortable in the pocket, Thornton or Fleeks will simply outrun anyone OSU has on defense. But he probably won’t have that long very often due to the amount of pressure OSU brings. Baylor’s offensive coordinator, Jeff Grimes, will have to be careful in his spots to not allow a big sack which sets back a drive. In the boot game (where the QB rolls out of the pocket to one side of the field), Baylor will have to be keying on whether OSU tries to blow the QB up off the backside. You usually prevent that from happening by running the ball well enough to where that backside runner has to go after the RB instead of the QB.
The final dimension to this matchup is Gerry’s ability to run the ball, both on designed runs and on scrambles. One big negative of playing man coverage is that, when defensive backs are busy covering WRs and don’t have their eyes on the QB, if the QB can escape the pocket they can run a long way. I expect that OSU will use one of their linebackers to spy on Gerry on passing downs.
As I said in the beginning of this article, the ultimate caveat to this game is the environment. Top 25 game. Night game. Tough place to play with a rowdy crowd. First big road test for Gerry Bohanon. Can the team stay calm? This might be something that we find out the answer is “no” to very quickly and all this scheme and matchup stuff goes out the window. Because Gerry and Aranda are so calm, I think that plays in their favor and they’re able to keep their cool if things initially go awry.
Ultimately, Baylor has much more going for it in this game than Oklahoma State does. OSU’s strength has been gutting out low scoring games with tough defense, but their hyper-aggressive style leaves them vulnerable to teams who can throw downfield—which is exactly what Baylor and Bohanon can do. The only real question is whether Baylor can protect Gerry enough to give him time. I think they can, after they get their running game going they’ll be able to generate time on play action.
I think Baylor scores in the 30s in this game, and I don’t think Oklahoma State’s offense can keep up. They’ve been very inefficient this year and rely on big plays to get them in scoring position. I do think they’ll get big plays this game—Baylor defensive coordinator Ron Roberts loves to pressure and screens are great against pressure—but won’t get them consistently enough to score 24+. Iowa State managed to score on Baylor by having Breece Hall hit a big play on dang-near every drive. Oklahoma State doesn’t have a Breece Hall, and I don’t think they’ll be able to hit big plays consistently enough to hang with Baylor.