Re-Scouting the Opponent
Going into the game, it was hard to underestimate the squad from The Hilltop in Highland Park. Barry Wise continued to warn us throughout the week that SMU always has some “dudes”, and the Ponies showed plenty of fight on Saturday.
A solid defensive effort from the Sooners was expected, and the thought going in was that OU would be able to control the line of scrimmage defensively and put pressure on the first-year starter Preston Stone. On film, the offensive tackles for SMU looked like a weak link, something to exploit. And OU was able to bring pressure often (more from Kyle Dahlgren in the next segment), especially from exotic looks, but they fell short of their goal of sacks, ending the day with 1 from Danny Stutsman. But one can’t help but come away impressed with the overall play from SMU’s offensive line.
One thing that helped SMU on Saturday was their quarterback. Stone, a former fringe Top 100 recruit from the Dallas area, looked poised under pressure, showcasing some pocket awareness, mobility, and quick feet. Stone showcased a strong arm as well, with more than enough ability to throw to all sections of the field. OU did its best to contain him in the pocket, but he was mobile enough to make them pay when overextended.
While Stone performed well, his skill position players just couldn’t get enough done against a renewed Sooner defense. One week after looking like an All-Conference back, LJ Johnson Jr. managed only 21 yards on 9 carries (2.3 ypc). Johnson was expected to be a stress test for the run defense, and OU did well to bottle up the former Top 100 back from Texas A&M. Jaylan Knighton, the Miami transfer, led the way for the Mustangs with 76 yards on 15 carries (5.1 avg), but it wasn’t enough to give the SMU offense a second dimension to free up the receivers. Jake Bailey emerged on the outside with 7 catches for 73 yards, but Jordan Hudson failed to catch a pass and RJ Maryland, the good looking tight end, only managed 4 catches for 20 yards.
The SMU defense turned it up a notch too. Full of transfers in the two-deep, SMU does not lack talent. Across the defensive line, SMU had a heavy rotation led by DeVere Levelston (5 tackles), Jordan Miller (3 tackles), and Elijah Chatman (2 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack) inside. Linebackers Ahmad Walker (10 tackles, 0.5 TFL), Kobe Wilson (7 tackles), and Alexander Kilgore (4 tackles) were active in the run game with a lot of assistance from run blitzes from the safeties. After reviewing the tape, it was apparent that SMU disguised their run blitzes well, adding to some confusion from the OU offense at times.
It was expected that OU would hold SMU to 20 points or less, but 28 points from the OU offense fell well under projections. Hats off to the Ponies for their gameplan and effort. It will be interesting to see how their season progresses as one of the remaining top teams in the American Athletic Conference following the departure of Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF.
Pass Rush… To be determined?
Well… there’s some good… and there’s some bad…
Let’s do the classic sandwich approach, where I can give some negative thoughts sandwiched between some positive thoughts:
Man for man, OU isn’t far off from overall production from the defensive line when compared to the likes of Texas, Clemson, Georgia and Alabama. Taking a look at PFF’s defensive metrics, you can sort your pass rushers by a sort of ‘havoc rate’, which is simply “a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer.”
Take a look at the chart below to see the primary pass rushers for OU, the number of pass rush attempts they’ve had in two games, and the corresponding rate at which they generate some sort of QB impact:
Thus far, OU doesn’t have any on the crazy pace of Texas’ Ethan Burke, or even true freshman LB Anthony Hill, who apparently excels as a pass rusher, but there is promise there from several of our new ends. Trace Ford grades out as the highest impact rusher thus far, which will hardly surprise many as he was brought in more as a pass rush specialist than say, Rondell Bothroyd, who is great at playing the run while possessing some positive pass rush abilities (and is actually mimicking his PRP numbers at Wake Forest). Ethan Downs is continuing to develop, but one can’t help but think the learning curve for PJ Adebawore could quicken with more snaps. 12 pass rushing opportunities through 2 games seems way too low. Here’s hoping Tulsa gives him lots of chances.
On the interior, it’s interesting to see the divide thus far, with Isaiah Coe, Jordan Kelley, and Jonah Laulu all showing decent pass rush impact, while Da’Jon Terry, Gracen Halton, and Jacob Lacey currently sit at 0.0%. While Terry will continue to be an excellent run stopper that we need keeping LBs clean, we would expect Halton and Lacey’s numbers to jump as they get more and more reps. They both have flashed already this season.
Now For the Bad
During my rewatch, I wanted to really focus on the throwing time that Preston Stone was given. Was our rush really impacting him for incompletions? Was he releasing the ball quickly to offset anyone getting home? Let’s take a look at the data:
- On average, Stone had 2.98 seconds to throw each pass:
- 6/49 were released in under 2.0 seconds
- 16/49 were released in under 2.5 seconds
- 18/49 were released over 3.00 seconds
- 3 rushers median – 3.21 seconds, 6/11 passing, 70 yards, 0 TD/1INT
- 4 rushers median – 2.68 seconds, 10/20 passing, 82 yards, 1 TD/0 INT
- 5 rushers median – 2.67 seconds, 10/12 passing, 98 yards, 0/0
- 6+ rushers median – 2.1 seconds, 1/5 passing, 15 yards, 0/0
I’ve got to be honest, seeing an average of almost three seconds to throw during the night has me feeling like we should have gotten home at least once, no? Stutsman was our lone sack, and should have made another on the 2-point play if he didn’t give up the edge, but nothing from our DL? That has me worrisome, as our secondary did a phenomenal job keeping Stone in check, and I think that was a big reason for a lot of the throw aways, not pressure.
But Back to the Good
OU has 3* sacks on the season, one from Downs (*and a second for Downs, but with a facemask), and one from Stutsman. Is that abnormal for a team with this much talent? I wasn’t sure, so of course, I went to the data:
Turns out? OU isn’t as far off as we thought. Seems like there are several teams off to a slow start, either generating lots of pressure (Alabama/Georgia/tOSU), or finishing once they get there (Clemson/OU). This made me feel a lot better, keep creating havoc with our LB blitzes, keep collapsing the pocket, and the results will follow. Let’s rack up a few sacks Saturday, and I think everyone can breathe a sigh of relief.
Here’s a good look back at some select plays versus SMU. The pass rush created plenty of havoc on the rewatch, knocking Stone off his spot numerous times in the game, forcing rushed throws and decisions. Soon enough, these will turn into sacks:
Peyton Bowen Blocked Punt
There will be more about Peyton Bowen in a bit, but the true freshman comes up with a huge play early in the game, one defensive series after the OU offense sputtered out of the gate on its first possession. After seeing the replay, it’s becoming pretty obvious why this thing was blocked. But a blocked punt is a blocked punt, and Bowen made the play that was in front of him. Sooner fans should expect that trend to continue for the next three seasons. And we said it last week, this staff is emphasizing special teams this season. We saw the Gavin Freeman punt return TD the week prior, and Jay Nunez’s bunch shows up again.
Andrel Anthony Touchdown
After Bowen’s blocked punt, the OU offense went to work quickly. Here you see a simple RPO concept out of a cat formation with the X, H, and Z receivers in tight. The tight end Blake Smith is run blocking all the way, and the left guard Savion Byrd is going to pull. SMU is running a 3-3-5 look, but the strong safety is reading run all the way, acting as a 7th man in the box. The H Drake Stoops is going to dump out to the flat, and Andrel Anthony is going to fake a block and then release on a shallow post route. It’s a simple read for Gabriel, as the free safety bails with Stoops and the linebackers do not drop. Simple pitch and catch with Anthony for a TD to open up the scoring for OU.
Blake Smith TD
Here’s a wrinkle you don’t see very much in this offense. Honestly not sure if this is a new play or not. Here we have two tight ends on the field, Stogner lined up at Y and Blake Smith lined up as a fullback in the backfield in an offset I with Gabriel under center. With the receivers in tight, and the defense in man coverage, the play action forces the strong safety – manned up on Smith – up the alley, in a perfect spot for Andrel Anthony to crack down the line. Anthony cleans out the SS while bringing his man with him, and Smith has an easy lane to the flat for a touchdown to put OU up 14-3. A crucial score before the offense shuts down for nearly two quarters.
Danny Stutsman – Screen Stopper
We could go on and on about Danny Stutsman’s performance in this game (and we will continue to do so in the next segment). But here’s a play that shows his growth as a linebacker in the Brent Venables scheme. Some of this can be attributed to natural instincts and athleticism, but here Stutsman shows poise, active eyes, and patient feet. He watches the develop, sees the wide receiver screen forming, sticks his foot in the ground, navigates the blockers, and makes the play for no gain. And not only did Stutsman make the stop for no yards on 2nd and 10, the Sooners force another incompletion on 3rd and 10, leading to the missed FG just before the half.
Key Lawrence Forced Fumble
Well the overall play was not so pretty, but Key Lawrence cleans it up and gives the sputtering offense a big sigh of relief with this forced fumble on Jaylan Knighton. The play starts as a simple weakside dive, and Trace Ford gets chipped and then completely taken out of the hole by the left guard. The tackle is able to seal off Woodi Washington, opening up a wide hole for Knighton to rush through with a free lane to the second level. Key takes a good angle, forcing Knighton towards the sidelines. As Lawrence approaches, he lets Thor’s hammer rain down on Knighton, knocking the ball clean out of his grip, allowing Stutsman to jump on it while managing to stay in bounds. A huge play early in the second half during the offense’s nap.
Jalil Farooq Touchdown
Talk about a veteran stepping up when OU needed it most. Farooq – who we will talk about next segment – saw a lot of snaps in Game 1, but not a lot of looks. Here he gets an opportunity to maintain relevancy in the wide receiver room with perhaps the biggest play of the day. Another tight formation from Jeff Lebby, similar to Anthony’s touchdown earlier. This time, SMU brings 8 men in the box, a simple pre-snap read for Gabriel. This offense is predicated on numbers, and here is a perfect opportunity to fake the run and drop the pass over the defense for an easy completion. Farooq takes it from there, making a fantastic open field move and scoring a touchdown to bring the Sooners lead back to two scores.
What a performance by the junior linebacker. Stutsman has been productive in the stat sheet more often than not (125 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks in 2022), but the lack of quality plays has been a gripe of Sooner fans throughout his career. If Stutsman is turning into the player that we saw on Saturday, and he can play with that kind of controlled tenacity throughout the season, OU could have its first All-American linebacker since Curtis Loftin in 2007. It’s no secret that Brent Venables knows how to coach linebackers. His fingerprints are now all over Stutsman.
Did we mention Venables could coach up some linebackers? How about the emergence of redshirt freshman Kip Lewis. The 6’1″, 210 pound player from Carthage, Texas – or “Beast Texas” as Caleb Cummings likes to say – doesn’t play like one with those measurables should. Kip plays fast and loose, maintains his assignments, and is not afraid to stick his nose in. We reported last week that the staff was nearly ready to give Kip starter reps. Is Tulsa the start?
Two games into his career, and Peyton Bowen already looks like a seasoned veteran. The speed is there. The size is the prototype. But all we hear about is his head – Bowen knows football. He sees the game well from the back end, grading out positively in both run defense and pass defense. His knowledge is advanced enough that he has worked reps at strong, free, and now Cheetah, a spot where he could start in Tulsa on Saturday. If Stutsman is on the path to an All-American season, Bowen is absolutely destined to a Freshmen AA team.
Another game, another productive day for the walk-on running back. Walker continued to separate from the pack, earning himself 21 carries (117 yards) over Marcus Major (8 for 39) and Jovantae Barnes (2 for 5). The compact but powerful runner runs with patience, quickness, and power. He needs to work on his field vision, but with so few carries in his career, Walker should continue to settle in. Gavin Sawchuk did return against SMU (1 touch), and will likely get a bigger share of the pie on Saturday. Can Walker and Sawchuk develop into this year’s tandem?
The 360 crew has been somewhat down on the junior receiver from the DMV area heading into this season. All reports in fall camp were about the newcomer Andrel Anthony, or the emergence of redshirt freshman Nic Anderson, or the focused Jayden Gibson, or the speed of incoming freshman Jaquaize Pettaway. Farooq has been productive in his career when he’s gotten chances, but lacks the overall explosiveness that we are used to out of a Sooner WR. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t talented, and can’t get things done. His touchdown in the 4th quarter was a thing of beauty. If Gabriel and the offense can get steady production out of Farooq, there could be a lot of pressure relieved on the WR room.
Speaking of Gabriel, the senior quarterback continues to play sound football, but also continues to frustrate. Accounting for four touchdowns through the air on Saturday, Gabriel delivered when SMU came within one score. He didn’t turn the ball over, and he didn’t lose the game. So why the down grade? The offense sputtered at times, and while some of that can be attributed to the man in charge (more on him below), 360 can’t help but feel that some of the offensive shortcomings stem from Gabriel’s limited ceiling. His performance was good but not great, and it is a little worrisome projecting his play through the rest of the season. Couple that with Brent Venables’ postgame comments on Jackson Arnold, and one can’t help but think “what if.”
One catch for three yards. The official stat line for the senior transfer who returned to Norman hoping for a productive season to showcase his skills for the NFL. But the tight end from DFW has looked slow and plodding so far in 2023, and could be in danger of losing reps to the emerging Blake Smith. A decent enough blocker, Stogner just doesn’t have the juice to be an effective weapon in this fast-moving offense.
After all the offseason hype, and the game tape from week 1, it is hard not to get excited about the redshirt sophomore guard. Byrd presents a physical and athletic presence at left guard, but his relative inexperience showed on Saturday. Byrd played with an uncontrolled edge that found him over his feet too often early on, culminating in a bad whiff on pass protection that led to the only sack surrendered in the game. While SMU showed some talent on the defensive line, there was no excuse for Byrd, and he ended up riding the bench after as transfer Troy Everett took over for the remainder of the game. Byrd is still young, and should look to have a bounce-back game in Tulsa.
Much like Stogner, the sophomore from Vegas is starting to look out of place in this offense. While he was banged up some in fall camp, which could be leading to some rust, Barnes has looked slow, choppy, and indecisive at times. He often gets too far over his feet, limiting his side-to-side mobility and ability to fight through contact. If his total carries on Saturday are any indication, and with the return of Sawchuk, Barnes is at risk of not only losing the projected starting job, but falling out of the gameplan completely.
What… was that? After exploding to 73 points in week 1, OU’s offense under Jeff Lebby’s control looked inconsistent – and almost inept at times – on Saturday. The second and third quarters in particular were a rough go of it, slowing the game down and allowing SMU to fight within one score. But when the offense really needed a push, Lebby and Gabriel dialed it up in the forth, allowing OU to run away with the 17 point victory. A win is a win, but some of the inconsistencies reminded Sooner fans of 2022, something none want to experience again. No telling if the controversy surrounding his father in law had anything to do with the in-game performance, but the second year signal caller certainly looked uncomfortable at times. Lebby should have taken the defensive staff out for a nice steak dinner after giving him a solid buffer with their efforts. While the defense could give him more breathing room this year, the margin for error remains thin in a season with so much promise after Week 2.
Year 2 of the Brent Venables era starting off with Arkansas State, SMU, and Tulsa may end up being an underrated storyline early in the new head coach’s tenure at Oklahoma. There was some good, some bad, and some ugly on Saturday, and one can only thank the heavens that Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs weren’t standing on the opposing sidelines.
Starting with the positives – good teams win, great teams cover. OU found a way to grind out a 17 point victory over Mustangs from Dallas, narrowly covering the 16.5 point spread. And 11 points from a decent Group of 5 offense is nothing to scoff at, not after what we saw out of the Sooners defense last season. But the inconsistencies from the offense are somewhat worrisome. SMU’s defense wasn’t feared as a shut-down defense coming into the game. The mish-mash of transfers and low three-stars fought hard on Saturday, disguising some run fits and pressures. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby cannot struggle through a large portion of the middle of the game like that against better teams. While the defense appears to have improved immensely, the margin just isn’t there yet. Look for a big-time bounce-back from the offense on Saturday. – Matt Burns
Stock Up: Kanai Walker, Woodi Washington, Jonah Laulu, Andrel Anthony, Key Lawrence
Stock Down: Jeff Lebby, the shortage run game, the Arnold-Dozer, Dillon Gabriel, Gavin Freeman
Review: Where to start? Best defensive performance against a potential quality passing game in about 8 years? Young defensive players getting quality reps and improving game over game. Those huge issues of last year are trending in the right direction right now. Stock up list could have had 8 defenders on it easily. Lawrence’s fumble was a huge play in terms of momentum even if the offense could not pay it off being just one example of the defense making plays all day. The really annoying thing is that the defensive performance was almost overshadowed by the terrible 2nd and 3rd QTRs of offensive football. I feel like the stock down category almost belongs to Jeff Lebby by himself. Dillon Gabriel’s inability to see the field combined with his unwillingness to throw the ball on time is certainly a close second. Certainly the RBs and OL deserve some blame here for not moving the chains, but when things opened up passing wise shockingly some running lanes opened up as well. The 3rd down play calling was also mysterious at times and by mysterious I mean extremely conservative. And like multiple other analysts the 4th down Arnold-Dozer needs to be forgotten and instead give Arnold run/pass perimeter options to pick up 1st downs. Lack of personnel substitutions on offense was also very disappointing. And one last shot at the previously heralded golden boy Gavin Freeman. Gabriel should have hit Stogner for a huge gain earlier in the play, but the ball was there for Freeman to move the chains on a critical series.
Stock Up: Danny Stutsman, Kip Lewis, Peyton Bowen, Tawee Walker, Woodi Washington
Stock Down: Savion Byrd, Jovantae Barnes, McKade Mettauer, Dillon Gabriel, Defensive Ends
Review: After rewatch, there was some good, some bad, not quite the ‘sky is falling’ that some wanted to make you believe Saturday night, but also some dudes who are on notice. It feels weird for Sooner fans to win a game thanks to the defense, after the last decade we’ve been through, but alas, here we are. That SMU team will likely finish the season with 9-10 wins, with an offense that should finish top 30 by most metrics. Shockingly enough, the defense even did it without a strong pass rush, accumulating 0 sacks against a pair of tackles that were ripe for the picking. The back 7 were OUTSTANDING, holding Stone to a 107 passer rating and contributing to run support. On offense, the OL gets the brunt of the blame for me. Yes Lebby had (another) stinker, DG was less than superb, but man, it all starts up front. So many snaps were wasted because guys were literally on their face or ass, watching their DL assignment run into the backfield. BV mentioned how aggression was preached all week, but it’s pointless without technique. Can’t say it much better than that. Hopefully it was the wakeup call we needed before looming matchups with much better Cincinnati and Texas defensive lines. I’ll continue to watch their play this upcoming week, and how the others adapt off of it, but I truly think that was the crack in the foundation that caused the rest of the offensive issues, from playcalling, run game and QB game all floundering.
Stock Up: Danny Stutsman, Kip Lewis, Peyton Bowen, Ethan Downs, Justin Harrington
Stock Down: Interior OL, TE, Jeff Lebby, Jovantae Barnes, Dillon Gabriel
Review: The biggest positive that I came away from the SMU game with was just how improved the OU defense overall from a season ago. A star may have begun to emerge on that side of the ball in Peyton Bowen. When Oklahoma’s defense was at it’s pinnacle under Venables, that unit fielded playmakers who at times would venture outside of the structure or call because their instincts would lead them to the big play. Bowen’s punt block Saturday night was one such instance, where despite OU not having the block on he trusted his instincts to go make a big play. SMU tossed the kitchen sink at the Oklahoma defense, giving them every look they could, motions and a plethora of trick plays…and for the first time in over a decade the OU defense snuffed every one of them out in holding SMU to their lowest point total in over 8 seasons. The young defensive end group is still coming together, but if OU can stay healthy on that side of the ball that unit could fight to be among the best in the Big 12. Offensively it was a different story. Saturday night felt like a reversion back to the 2022 season, with the interior OL struggling with consistency, Dillon Gabriel not able to make a big play himself or take control of the game. As well as some of the scheme concepts and tempo Jeff Lebby loves to utilize ultimately working against his offense. OU has to find a way to get their more talented RB’s on the field, as well as ways in the run game to give them more space in which to operate. Outside, Emmett Jones has to continue to develop and trust the young talented receivers that are on campus in Nic Anderson, Jayden Gibson and Jaquaize Pettaway. Because in the end Dillon Gabriel is simply much more a game manager than he is a difference maker. Meaning in the end his ability to impact the game will greatly hinge on whether or not the young talented RB’s and WR’s on campus can emerge as players he can lean on as playmakers.