Oklahoma Football: Where are all the big plays?

October 8, 2021
NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Kansas State
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Opponents in 2021 have forced OU to be a more methodical team on offense.

What’s wrong with the offense?

This being the week of the Red River Showdown against the Texas Longhorns, I’ve been asked that question about the Oklahoma Sooners’ recent power outage somewhere between a dozen and 200 times already this week. I think people expect me to say “Spencer Rattler” and leave it at that. Maybe give them something like “Lincoln Riley has lost his touch.”

I wouldn’t throw any possible explanations out, but I’m also not convinced the offense has serious problems.

OU’s game with Nebraska a few weeks ago offered a preview of what some defenses would try to do to hold back the Sooners. Kansas State also went that direction against Oklahoma last week, playing three down linemen and three high safeties to minimize the damage the Sooners could do with big plays. Here’s an idea of what that looked like on first down with OU in 12 personnel (one running back and two H-backs):

Note that two of KSU’s three high safeties bailed even deeper on the snap in this case.

After five games, we’re starting to get some clarity as to how this kind of defensive strategy is affecting the broad contours of the offense. For example, take a look at OU’s passing statistics on first down for the last seven seasons. Since Riley took charge of the offense, the Sooners historically have done serious damage to opposing defenses here:

  • 2015 – 12.1 yards per attempt
  • 2016 – 11.8 YPA
  • 2017 – 12.4 YPA
  • 2018 – 11.6 YPA
  • 2019 – 11.9 YPA
  • 2020 – 10.1 YPA
  • 2021 – 6.5 YPA

From 2015 to 2020, OU essentially averaged between 10 and 12.5 yards every time it threw the ball on first down, a scenario in which defenses are more likely to key on run than the pass.

Compared to the previous six seasons, 6.5 yards per pass attempt on first down in 2021 looks piddling. The completion percentage on first down, 74.7%, is in line with previous seasons. That naturally leads to the conclusion that the Sooners aren’t getting the explosive plays to which they became accustomed when throwing on first down.

The lack of explosiveness on first down is a microcosm of what is playing out for the entire offense through five games. So far this year, the Sooners rank 111th nationally in IsoPPP and 112th in Marginal Explosiveness, two of the opponent-adjusted measures used by ESPN’s Bill Connelly for explosiveness. A year ago, OU ranked ninth and 26th, respectively.

So the chunk plays are coming far less often for OU. That doesn’t mean the offense is ineffective. It’s just effective in a different way.

Instead of covering vast amounts of territory one shot at a time, OU is moving the ball methodically. Through five games, the Sooners have raised their offensive efficiency from levels that were already high a year ago. For example, their Success Rate on offense has climbed from 49.4%, which ranked 15th overall in 2020, to 53.5% this year. That puts them fifth nationally.

Meanwhile, OU’s Marginal Efficiency has doubled, up from 3.8% to 7.6%. That represents a similar move overall from 12th to fifth. The Sooners have also held steady on their percentage of three-and-out drives, which have decreased slightly from 19.2% a year ago to 18.5% this year.

The improvement from 2020 to 2021 in Success Rate and Marginal Efficiency holds up across metrics for rushing, passing, standard downs and passing downs. In application,

In sum, think of a defense playing three deep safeties or loose zone coverage as the inverse of stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Just like slamming your running backs repeatedly into a loaded front, it doesn’t do an offense much good to ask the quarterback to keep trying to hit downfield targets when the defense is flooding its back end with coverage players.

At some point, fixating on explosive offensive plays becomes counterproductive when generating them means passing up easy yardage. OU’s efficiency to date in 2021 suggests the Sooners can keep winning for now without worrying too much about breaking off big gains.