Nebraska takes on the Oklahoma Sooners in the 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century this Saturday at 11 a.m. While memories are being shared of the once-great Husker-Sooner rivalry, this season’s Oklahoma squad is considered by many to be a College Football Playoff contender while Nebraska is a big underdog.
Led by head coach Lincoln Riley and star quarterback Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma’s offense has been tough to stop for opposing defenses. While Rattler is a household name in the college football world and would be an easy target for this preview, the Sooners’ offensive line, speed at the skill positions and pass rush are other areas to keep an eye during the game—so let’s break them down.
There’s going to be movement along Oklahoma’s offensive line
Through their first two games—wins over Tulane (40-35) and Western Carolina (76-0)—the Sooners have shown they like to pull linemen, both in the run and pass. That’s been the norm ever since Riley took over in Norman, so on Saturday the Husker defensive front will be tested with their eye discipline.
The play below is an example of the Sooners using counter, a blocking scheme, in their season opener against Tulane. Oklahoma comes out in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). Watch how the left side, or play side, of the o-line takes advantage of angles and down blocks while the pullers—the right guard and tight end in this case—loop around to block the unblocked defenders:
The play below is another example of 12 personnel counter run against Tulane, this time with the left guard and left tackle pulling:
The play below is another example of the counter, this time against Western Carolina. The Sooners are again in 12 personnel and pull the left guard and left tackle:
What does all that o-line movement mean for Nebraska’s defense? Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said that the linebackers’ eyes need to be in the right place, because if they’re not, misdirection can hurt.
“When they add some motion going the other way, and guys pulling back the other way, they’re trying to pull your eyes,” Chinander said. “Everybody on the team really has to have really good eye discipline. That starts pre-snap, alignment assignment, getting my eyes where they need to be and trusting that my keys are going to take me to the football.
“And sometimes when there’s a lot of movement going on, you kind of go rodeo, and it’s kind of see ball get ball. Can’t do that with these guys, you have to trust your keys, have great eye discipline, you have to know your issue with every call and you have to play the defense.”
Once the Sooners show their counter and see defenses getting comfortable and starting to guess where the ball is going to go, that’s when Rattler yanks the ball out of the running back’s stomach and tosses to a receiver for a perimeter screen, like on the play below.
Oklahoma comes out in 12 personnel, but instead of handing off to Tennessee transfer Eric Gray at running back, Rattler fires a quick hitter to receiver Michael Woods II, who has a two-on-two matchup. Western Carolina’s safety takes himself out of the play because he charged up the field expecting a run. That’s where the eye discipline comes in:
Here’s another example of a screen being built into Oklahoma’s counter run game. The Sooners are again in 12 personnel. The play-action in the backfield occupies the linebackers at the second level, so Rattler takes the easy pitch-and-catch with Woods for a first-down completion:
Chinander praised Oklahoma’s o-line for not only being big, but because it moves well, too. He said Oklahoma has done a good job of recruiting linemen who have size and are nimble.
“You watch them, there’s a lot of insert plays, a lot of pull plays, a lot of counter. Those guys can move around pretty good, they can go block on the perimeter for screens, so I think they have a unique skillset where they’re really big kids, but they can also move really well, and sometimes you don’t see that,” Chinander said. “Sometimes you see big guys who can pound you in the box, but they can’t get out and move. Or guys that are really fast and they’re pulling all over the place and running, but aren’t as big.”
Of course, it’s not all counter with Oklahoma. The Sooners showed simple power run as well, but it stays consistent in the movement-all-over-the-place theme with Riley’s offense. Here’s an example of the Sooners running power out of 11 personnel (tight end Austin Stogner is in the slot to the field) and pulling the left guard:
Below is another example of power run, this time with the center pulling:
One thing that Nebraska’s defense will need to keep in mind is that Oklahoma uses movement and pulls to mess with linebackers and the secondary in the pass game, too.
In the below example, watch how the Sooners, who are in 12 personnel, pull their right guard in an effort to draw in the linebackers. This is a play-action pass, though, and Jeremiah Hall, Oklahoma’s versatile H-back, is running free right behind them:
The below play is another example of Oklahoma using a pulling guard to manipulate the defense. Watch Western Carolina’s boundary safety Jacob Harris (3) take a few steps toward the line of scrimmage after he sees the left guard pull and the play-action in the backfield. Rattler yanks the ball and fires a strike to his receiver, Jadon Haselwood, who dropped the ball:
Speed at the skill positions
Nebraska defensive backs coach Travis Fisher sees the explosiveness from Lincoln Riley’s offense, especially at the skill positions. The Sooners have speed, but Fisher’s room does, too.
“Speed is speed, they’re a great football team and I think those receivers and skill players are fast. But I also think we’re fast,” Fisher said. “I think we have guys in the secondary and guys on our defense that are fast as well.”
From his film work, Nebraska safety Marquel Dismuke knows the Husker secondary will get tested down the field on Saturday.
“This will probably be the most deep balls someone will try against us, but we haven’t really been giving up many deep balls like that, so it’ll be a little competition that we’ll be looking for,” Dismuke said. “And we’ll try to get some turnovers, we’ve been keying on getting turnovers this weekend just because they throw the ball a lot. We’ll try to get some tipped balls, forced fumbles, just a lot of ball disruption, period.”
Receiver Marvin Mims will be a player to watch for Oklahoma in the passing game. He has six catches for a team-high 136 yards. But the most dangerous player with the ball in his hands might be the one with the most receptions on the team with 10 for 86 yards and two touchdowns—true freshman Mario Williams.
Williams, a 5-foot-9, 186-pound Tampa, Florida native, has shake to him. The former 4-star and 43rd-rated recruit in the country according to the 247Sports Composite is very quick, which is why Riley has been trying to get the ball in his hands. Here’s what Williams is capable of doing in a phone booth:
Below is another example of what Williams can do in space. This time is comes on a smoke route, where Williams takes a step inside, then backpedals to the sideline waiting for the ball. This specific screen play was likely called at the line of scrimmage by Rattler, who saw Tulane playing 2-on-2 and signaled to Williams to run the smoke screen. Williams’ quicks did the rest with his teammate Haselwood blocking:
Oklahoma pass rush
Through two games, Oklahoma has eight sacks, which is second in the Big 12 and tied for 15th nationally. The biggest concerns for the Husker o-line might be edge rusher Nik Bonitto (6-3, 240 pounds), d-end Isaiah Thomas (6-5, 266) and d-tackle Perrion Winfrey (6-4, 292). Perrion and Thomas both have two sacks this year while Bonitto, who had eight in 2020, has only .5 so far this season.
Here’s an example of what Thomas can do on third-and-long. His bull rush completely overwhelms Tulane left tackle Joey Claybrook (6-7, 300), and Thomas gets the sack:
Another player that Oklahoma likes to use in pass-rushing situations is Reggie Grimes (6-4, 258 pounds). Grimes, a 4-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite who held offers from many top-tier Power 5 programs, Alabama being one, is a handful on the edge. Tulane’s Claybrook had a rough time against the Tennessee native. Pressure from the left side is something to keep an eye on Saturday:
Caleb Williams Curveball
There’s really nothing special about having a big quarterback enter the game for short-yardage situations—many teams do it. But it’s good to make a note that Oklahoma has one of those, and his name is Caleb Williams.
Williams was a 5-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite and the seventh-rated player in the nation in 2020. He’s a true dual-threat, and with Riley wanting to preserve Rattler’s health for the long season, Nebraska fans could see the 6-1, 218-pound true freshman on Saturday.
Below is an example of how Williams could be used on Saturday:
Here’s Williams running a power read play: