It was the penultimate match of the 2021 regular season for the Oklahoma Sooners, and they’d spent that particular November afternoon hanging out with the Cyclones in the State of Iowa. Leading 21-14 with seven minutes and 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the offense trotted out to take possession of the OU 32-yard line on a Cyclones run.
While the Sooners sent out 11 men (one running back and one tight end), the ISU defense set up with five players, three defensive linemen and two inside linebackers in the loop box between the wing TE to the left of the offensive formation of the OU and the right tackle. The Cyclones had been showing OU and coach Lincoln Riley the same look all day.
On the first game of the drive, Kennedy Brooks trudged back to the left for 26 yards to the ISU 42. A facemask penalty added 15 yards to the run. In the next game, quarterback Caleb Williams again passed the ball to Brooks, who cut the Cyclones nine yards on a cutback run. Brooks took another handoff over seven yards down the middle. With the ISU 10 first-and-goal, Eric Gray ran in front of TE Brayden Willis and chewed three yards into a lead behind Brooks. In second place, Gray took the ball the last seven yards to the end zone on a counter with five minutes and six seconds left.
Five plays, all runs. Sixty-eight meters. Two and a half minutes from the clock. Most importantly, it gave the Sooners the decisive touchdown in a 28-21 win.
Over a month earlier, the Ole Miss Rebels hosted the Arkansas Razorbacks in Oxford. The two teams combined for over 100 points and nearly 1,300 yards in total offense for the game, which Ole Miss won.
Arkansas defense coordinator Barry Odom aligned the Hogs defense throughout the game like this:
Do you remember anything? Even with the nickel cover to the scrimmage line, Arkansas shows the rebels a light box similar to what the cyclones threw at OU. (For the record: Ole Miss ran for a 63-yard TD on this particular game.)
Placing these two games side by side against opponents playing similar defenses gives a sense of what will change this year at OU under offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby.
The drive versus ISU described above seemed like a microcosm of Riley’s orientation to running the ball. As was the case in a handful of other games during the year, Riley didn’t seem inclined to lean on rushing his teams until it was absolutely necessary.
The OU’s ground attack made for a great day against the miserly defense of the ISU, who placed 22nd nationally with an average of 3.54 yards allowed per hasty attempt in 21. The Sooners ran 209 yards on 34 carries against the Cyclones , an average of 6.1 yards each time went to the ground. At the same time, Williams struggled to throw the ball, completing nine of his 19 attempts for 97 yards in the game. The rookie QB also showed the kind of lax ball security that occasionally got him into trouble, throwing one interception in the second half and being stripped off on a fall back into the OU’s end zone. (Offensive tackle Anton Harrison grabbed the loose ball and carried it over the goal line, preventing the Clones from scoring a defensive TD.)
Nevertheless, OU had called 23 pass plays to 21 runs leading up to the start of that aforementioned drive in the fourth quarter. The Sooners finished the game with nine consecutive rushing plays, including one knee-down on the final snap.
Conversely, of their 70 total offensive plays in the game against Arkansas, the Rebels had the ball run 49 times, which amounts to 70% of his snaps. Why go so heavy on the ground? The Rebs generated 6.6 yards per rush for 324 yards in the game.
Even taking into account indirect factors that may have influenced the way the two teams executed their fouls in those specific games, that disparity should reflect differences in mindset. So what are they?
Riley never shares much publicly about his plans. From the outside looking at the Rileys offense, however, the racing and passing generally seem to work against each other as restrictions. He has a devilish ability to make different plays look the same through formations or staffing or blocking schemes or any number of contextual factors. The goal is to manipulate the opponent’s defenses so that: a) they cannot anticipate what will come out of the attack; or b) they guess wrong about what’s to come.
So there is a secondary outcome for any game that goes beyond just the number of yards it wins/loses. It also lays the foundation for later plays. In addition, each play call is also affected by what was called before it. (Very Hegelian.) That’s why throwing a light box does have a logic: each game is part of a broader framework that theoretically makes the attack more effective.
If, on the other hand, Lebby sees five in the box during matches this fall, consider a run-play the default call. His RPO-serious offense looks set to build from the ground up. Not only are his fouls constantly playing at a high tempo, they are also skewed. Last season, for example, Ole Miss ran the ball on 58% of his attacking moves. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that the Rebels played the ball on 45% of their passing downs in 21, which was significantly higher than the national average last year.
So which offensive approach is better?
There is no answer to that question. They are just different.
However, if you’re tired of yelling at the Sooners to run the ball for the past five seasons, get ready for a more enjoyable experience watching their games in 2022.
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