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Alamo Bowl Preview

Breaking down the Alamo Bowl question marks, including how OU can stop the Wildcats offense and what OU might get from Jackson Arnold behind a new-look offensive line.

Brent Venables and the Oklahoma Sooners face off against Jedd Fisch’s Arizona Wildcats tomorrow night in the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. Oklahoma takes its second trip to the Alamo in three seasons, the first of which was the transition point between the Lincoln Riley era and the Venables era in a game coached by the one and only Bob Stoops. Arizona last made it to San Antonio in 2010 under direction of another Stoops, and last made a bowl appearance in 2017 under Rich Rodriguez.

Fisch took over the head job in Tuscon before the 2021 season, inheriting a program that had gone 9-20 in 2.5 seasons under former OU assistant and Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin. The Wildcats struggled mightily in the transition season, finishing 1-11. One win marks the worst season for the program since 1957, when the Wildcats finished 1-8-1. But Fisch’s squad started finding their stride in year 2, getting to 5-7 with a boost from the transfer portal. Things have continued to click in 2023, and the Wildcats sit at 9-3, riding a five game win streak to a 14th overall ranking and an appearance versus the 12th ranked Oklahoma Sooners.

Fisch has an interesting background, cutting his teeth in both the college and NFL ranks. After a year in the Arena league, Fisch was a graduate assistant on Steve Spurrier’s Florida staff for two seasons before heading to the NFL for seven seasons assuming various assistant roles and eventually a position coach job with the Denver Broncos. Fisch then got his break with Minnesota in 2009, getting hired as the Offensive Coordinator for one season before he headed back to the NFL as the QB coach for the Seattle Seahawks. From there, he bounced back and forth between the pros and college, landing jobs as the Offensive Coordinator for Miami (FL), Jacksonville Jaguars, Michigan, and UCLA, concluding the UCLA stint as interim head coach in 2017. Following two seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and another with the New England Patriots, Fisch headed to Tuscon.

With such unique background, Fisch pulls his offensive philosophy from a few prominent coaches, having coached under Steve Spurrier, Bill Belichick, Sean McVay, Mike Shanahan, Jim Harbaugh, and Pete Carroll. Arizona runs a modern pro-spread offense, with multiple personnel groupings and progression-based concepts derived from the modern offenses you see in the NFL today. And with these concepts, Fisch runs a very wide receiver-friendly system, having coached two 80+ catch receivers in 2023.

Tetairoa McMillan crosses the goal line against Washington. University of Arizona Athletics

One of those receivers, Tetairoa McMillan, burst onto the scene in 2022 as a true freshman after becoming the highest ranked player ever signed by Arizona. He was joined by UTEP transfer – and one-time OU portal target – Jacob Cowing, who added 85 catches of his own out of the slot. The duo returned for 2023 and continued to produce at a high level, both finishing the regular season with 80+ catches and 10+ touchdowns. The Arizona offense likes to get the tight end involved in the passing game as well, with Tanner McLachlan contributing 42 catches for 500 yards and 4 touchdowns.

To get his receivers open in space, Fisch uses a lot of rub, snag, and option routes to create isolation. Here’s a good breakdown of a play call from 2022, allowing Cowing to work open from the slot for a big gain.

And here’s another quick example of the rub concepts used in the red zone.

Big Cat Country did a breakdown of Fisch from his days as the Miami offensive coordinator when he got hired for the same role by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Some of his concepts have undoubtably matured since then, but this is a pretty solid in-depth breakdown of his philosophies.

And obviously to make a modern pro-spread scheme with progressions work, you need a competent trigger man. Insert second year man Noah Fifita, who took over for the former transfer Jayden de Laura in game 4 against Washington and never looked back.

Fifita, longtime friends and teammates with WR Tetairoa McMillan, quietly put together one of the better overall seasons by a starting QB in college this year, finishing with 2,515 yards on 73.6% completion percentage, 23 touchdowns, only 5 interceptions, and a 167.5 QBR over eight games as starter. Fifita saw limited action in 2022 and early in 2023 before getting his big break. And after stumbling out the gate with two losses to Washington and Southern Cal, Fifita guided the Wildcats to six straight victories, including against ranked Oregon State, UCLA, and Utah. He capped off the campaign with a career high 527 yards against Arizona State, 266 of those yards going to his longtime friend McMillan.

And thanks to board member and long-time family friend IYELLALOT, we got a sneak peak at the man inside the helmet. Fifita is the son of a coach, and seems to have matured as a natural leader. Fifita was followed to Arizona by his childhood friends, including McMillan and several other big-time contributors like Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei, leading tackler Jacob Manu, and Keyan Burnett. Says IYELLALOT: “Noah isn’t a runner. Pretty slow, actually. But he uses his size to his advantage, similar to Kyler, by being able to ‘hide’ in the pocket a bit. Has a good arm, very accurate. Has a great connection with Tetairoa, as they’ve played together for a decade or so.”

So how does OU attack Fifita and the Wildcat offense that finished ranked 16th in SP+ and 14th in KFord power rankings?

Safety Billy Bowman looks to make moves up field after an interception. Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

An immediate thought quickly goes to the state of the Oklahoma defense, and the secondary in particular. Closing out the season, TCU absolutely shredded Oklahoma. There were a lot of injuries and different issues across the board, but we saw some things in that game late in the year defensively that we didn’t see in the front half of the year. And that was guys not trusting the guy next to him, trying to do another guy’s job and not just doing their job. The defensive line struggled to get consistent pressure. The secondary was letting receivers run free. The linebackers were missing run fits. And it just kind of fell apart.

There can be a lot made of the stumble down the stretch. While injuries played a role, the sheer number of total snaps played by the defense undoubtably affected their overall performance, which finally broke against BYU and TCU.

The same concern there carries over to this bowl matchup – you do not want this thing being a shootout. From Oklahoma’s perspective, you want to break their back and then jump on them the rest of the game. You don’t want this to get into a tit for tat.

The key should be the point IYELLALOT raised – Fifita is not much of a runner. In fact, after accounting for sacks, Fifita only has 2 rushing yards on the season. Arizona doesn’t rely on the run game overall, finishing the season 73rd in rushing yards per game (145.5). They had average success overall – 37th in yards per rush overall (4.6) – but it is not a huge part of their game. When they are successful, it is usually Jonah Coleman toting the rock. Coleman runs hard, and he is a bowling ball at 5’9″ 225. Coleman rushed for a respectable 851 yards, but at a whopping 6.9 yards per clip. But without much of a run threat from the quarterback, the Arizona rushing offense, which uses a lot of inside and outside zone concepts, is fairly one dimensional.

The month off between the TCU game and San Antonio should prove to have a profound impact on the Sooners defense, as players got a chance to rest up and recover from various injuries, and the coaching staff had time to self-evaluate and reset things from a schematic perspective.

With that recovery in mind, and some promising announcements from defensive players like Danny Stutsman and Da’Jon Terry, the run defense should be a strength in this matchup, just like it was earlier in the season when the defense was fresh. OU’s run defense was actually outstanding leading up to the Texas game, holding their opponents well below their season rushing averages. With a reset focus, and several weeks to scheme up against their opponent, one would hope to see a return to that level of performance, especially against a team without a run threat at QB. And that is the type of offense that Brent Venables has made a living at stopping.

We saw last year in the bowl matchup against Florida State, Brent’s plan was fantastic and really confused Jordan Travis and Florida State, especially in the first half. And Travis playing outside the normal offense and creating with his feet is what really started to open up the Florida State offense in the second half. And from what we’ve seen so far, that just isn’t who Fifita is as a player.

If OU can effectively slow down the Arizona ground attack early, the Wildcats will quickly turn one dimensional, allowing Venables to dial up pressure packages from various looks to keep the Arizona offense off-balance. And if Oklahoma can get some three and outs and maybe create some turnovers, it could be difficult for Arizona to climb out of that hole.

And how does the secondary potentially hold up in this scenario? You’ve got Peyton Bowen getting healthy again. His playing time should be more wide open after the departure of Key Lawrence. Hopefully, Gentry Williams is as healthy as he can be and holds up completely throughout this game and you don’t see any lingering shoulder issues. If the defensive line is doing their job in the run game and keeping Fifita contained in the pass game, maybe the secondary can have a really good outing.

And one of the biggest pieces that might help the OU defense? Arguably Arizona’s best player on the entire roster is the left tackle Jordan Morgan, and he’s opted out and will not take part in the bowl game. A major difference between the two rosters is likely the depth behind a piece like that. You lose Tyler Guyton if you are Oklahoma, and you’re rotating in Jacob Sexton (more on him in a minute). Who does Arizona likely have waiting in the wings? You might see someone like a PJ Adebawore or R Mason Thomas really have success getting consistent pressure against that guy.

Seth Littrell looks on at practice. Ray Bahner/OU Daily

Offensively, there may be just as many questions. OU has a new duo at offensive coordinator in Seth Littrell and Joe Jon Finley. OU has a new trigger man in Jackson Arnold. And OU has a new starting five at offensive line after the NFL departures of Andrew Raym and Tyler Guyton, and the portal departure of true freshman offensive guard Cayden Green.

At first, this may seem daunting. You have a true freshmen quarterback making his first start. He did get some experience throughout the year, including playing the whole second half in a gritty win at BYU, but you never really know when the lights come on and you’re the guy, how he’s going to react. But at the same time, it is Jackson Arnold. We have heard amazing things about his development. And he’s physically one of the most talented true freshman quarterbacks in the country. We think we know who Jackson Arnold is, we’re pretty sure we know who Jackson Arnold is. Will he go out there and be that for four quarters?

While the offensive line is a little makeshift, you do have your starter at left tackle in Walter Rouse. He opted to stay and play for the bowl game. Inside, Troy Everett will play center, a spot he has played at both at App State and Oklahoma. You have your two-year starter at right guard in McKade Mettauer, and you’ve got your future left tackle in Jacob Sexton filling in at right tackle. Sexton has played the last three or four games there, and was technically the starter at left tackle for the bowl game last year before the knee injury. So, from one perspective, you are really only worried about plugging in a player at left guard. The Cayden Green loss is the worst loss, because it’s the one you really weren’t able to really prepare for. Caleb Shaffer started four seasons at Miami of Ohio. Can he be serviceable enough for one game?

In a lot of ways, the questions surrounding the offensive line going into last year’s bowl matchup with FSU’s defense was a lot more worrisome, and OU still ripped off over 200 yards on the ground and nearly pulled the upset.

And as good as offensive skill position players are for Arizona, Oklahoma enters the contest with some firepower of their own, and a new coordinator controlling them. It is not much of a stretch to assume a talent difference between the OU skill position players and some of the defenders on Arizona. Now, Arizona has really hit the portal hard. This year, Arizona really concentrated on getting the defense pointed in the right direction, pulling in players like Taylor Upshaw from Michigan and Justin Flowe from Oregon. But you would imagine that guys like Nic Anderson and the speed of a Brenen Thompson match up really well in this in this game, especially with Jackson Arnold at quarterback.

Arnold has shown the ability to be a fantastic deep ball thrower. Watching his high school tape, or maybe the best ball all year by any OU quarterback in the deep ball he had to Anderson in the Tulsa game. With those guys and that speed on the perimeter, and his ability to push the ball vertically, OU should be able to exploit that early to get the defense on their heels, get the two safeties deep. From there, OU can then kind of let the run game naturally progress out of that, allowing a little bit more spacing for Arnold, along with some of his own read game. And after that, the whole run game opens up for the backs, including Gavin Sawchuk.

Really, the biggest matchup difference in the entire game is the fact that OU has a new quarterback and a new coordinator. Going into this game, that creates a lot of unknowns from an Arizona perspective defensively. What’s Jackson Arnold going to look like? Is the game plan going to be any different? Are they going to be pacing a little bit differently, perhaps a little bit slower with a lead? There are a lot of questions like that that could go in OU’s favor tomorrow.

Cover image courtesy of Olivia Lauter/OU Daily

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