I was lucky enough to get answers from two of the bloggers over at Crimson and Cream Machine. Much thanks to Matt and Jordan for taking the time to answer.
I was emailing with one of my writers about how it seems from my perspective that the Sooners seem to be a team without an identity. If you were to ask me 4 years ago what the Sooners were good at, I could tell you that they were a suffocating run defense and an explosive offense that could hurt you with talented wide-outs and a punishing running game. Now, I don't know what I'd say. So tell me, what's Oklahoma's identity and if you don't think OU has one, is that problematic?
Jordan Esco: I'll answer the second part of your question first. Yes, OU is lacking an identity. And yes, it's extremely problematic. To be fair, a big part of that is the significant changes they have made on both sides of the ball this year which have required patience from both the coaches and fans alike. But another significant part of it has been due to personnel and a lack of depth on the defensive side (as a result of poor recruiting/development) and a continued insistence to cram a square peg (Blake Bell) through a round hole (this dumbed down version of the 'Landry' offense many of us believe they're currently running).
We're witnessing what it means to be missing and/or attempting to establish an identity and that is this team really doesn't do any one thing particularly well, or at least not at an elite level. Which, as you alluded to in the question, has certainly not been the case in previous years, at least specific to the offense.
M. Hofeld: Can I go with bipolar? I think the defense was getting back to the identity they had in the early 2000’s but have been decimated by injuries, leaving them as a young group of inexperienced and undersized players. Unlike the offense, I believe that there’s hope for the defense to get things in order in the near future. The offense is where people have major issues and the Sooners don’t seem to have an identity. It all boils down to play-calling. Oklahoma has the personnel to be a smash-mouth run heavy offense that uses a variety of backs in a variety of ways. We’ve seen them go zone-read, misdirection and even speed option at times this season and be very successful as well as line up and run it between the tackles. The problem is, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel has moments in which he flashes back to Jason White, Sam Bradford or Landry Jones and tries to make Blake Bell a pocket passer. It’s very ugly, and a bit frightening, to watch. Bell’s best chance at success seems to be when he has the freedom to run and the Sooners move him out of the pocket. The problem is that there have been times when Oklahoma refuses to do that and it results in the team having two offensive identities.
It seems that the strengths of these two teams really play into each other. Texas Tech continues to be a pretty good passing team, while the Sooners have the best pass defense in the country. Who do you think has the advantage and is some of this ranking a result of who OU has played?
Jordan Esco: While I do like what OU and Mike Stoops have done with their secondary (nobody could have predicted Zack Sanchez being this good this soon), I think that 'best pass defense in the country' stat is somewhat inflated due to their inability to stop the run. With the loss of Jordan Phillips and Corey Nelson, there are gaping holes up the middle of this defense and opposing offenses have understandably been exploiting that.
Additionally, again to your point, I think you obviously have to consider who OU has played. None of the teams they have played can claim a particularly dynamic passing attack, so that also takes some of the shine off their passing defense statistics.
All that said, this OU secondary has developed into much more of a strength than anyone was predicting in the preseason after the loss of three starters from last year's squad.
But if you're asking me who I feel has an advantage in a strength vs. strength match-up, then honestly I have to go with Texas Tech. Not necessarily from a personnel standpoint, although I do think the match-ups on the outside are extremely even but clearly Jace Amaro is the difference maker. But more so because I don't have much faith in Mike Stoops to develop a game plan to effectively take away what Tech does well offensively.
I think they are going to play too far off your wide receivers. While I don't believe anyone in this conference is a "good" match-up on Amaro, I think they are going to go with a guy who has very little hope of having any success. And I have very little faith in this group of linebackers to hold up in coverage. OU has historically tried to cover your slot receivers with linebackers and it's something that has always pissed me off because on no level whatsoever does it make a lick of sense.
So I expect a bunch of quick, short crossing routes over the middle of the field that will make this OU defense look like they had no idea what was coming even though teams (especially Texas Tech teams) have killed them with exactly that for years.
M. Hofeld: I think you can safely say that both team’s rankings are a result of the schedules they’ve played. The best way to attack this Oklahoma defense is running right at them. With the absence of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Corey Nelson, the Sooner defense has been extremely porous. Texas ran the ball at Oklahoma 60 times and Kansas 39 times. When opponents spend that much time attacking you on the ground it tends to boost your stats in defending the pass a bit. I’m not saying the Sooner secondary is Swiss cheese or anything, but I’m not sold that they’re as good as advertised.
With all of the injury issues on defense, talk a bit about the personnel and who could step up and play a significant role on defense.
Jordan Esco: The injuries have been absolutely devastating and as a result of what I was discussing above (poor recruiting), they have been at positions with virtually zero depth thus only further adding to the devastation.
The fact they had to turn to a true freshman in Dominique Alexander after the loss of Nelson should tell you just how little depth they have at the linebacker position. Understandably there have been some growing pains, most notably last week in the first half against Kansas. The kid has talent, no one is really questioning that, but his lack of experience is an issue and teams will only continue to attack him and his area of the field until he proves capable of stopping them from doing so.
The other loss of Phillips was even more crushing because of how important the nose tackle is in this 3-3-5 (or 3-4 at times) defense OU has been playing in 2013. Prior to his injury, Phillips had been even better than what any of us had hoped for (and knew he had to be) coming into the season. He wasn't necessarily putting up the sacks or tackle stats, but he was commanding a double team and opening up opportunities for those around him. Without him, teams have shown no respect for his replacements (Jordan Wade and Torrea Peterson). Often using a single blocker and allowing one or both guards to release freely into the second level, usually swallowing up OU's undersized linebackers.
In terms of guys who have to step up in this game, I could rattle off any number of them at a variety of positions. I think pressure on the quarterback is always key against Tech, but they make it so difficult because of the quarterback's quick release. So IF OU can get pressure, it's going to come from either Charles Tapper or Eric Striker. Both are dynamic pass rushers and capable of making big plays, but they're not going to have a lot of time to make them. Given what you have in Amaro and at the receiver position, obviously the play of OU's secondary will be monumentally important. And I think a lot of that pressure falls to Julian Wilson, who will likely draw the assignment on Amaro (which I hate), and whoever OU chooses to use as their third corner, Kass Everett or Cortez Johnson (who I'd like to see draw the Amaro assignment).
M. Hofeld: I think it all starts in the middle where Jordan Wade and Chuka Ndulue have to have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. Jordan Phillips did an outstanding job at tying up blockers and allowing linebackers to make plays. The Sooners have been very poor in duplicating that since he’s been injured. From there, freshman linebacker Dominique Alexander has to know his role and be exceptional at it. He’s had the tendency to get lost in pass coverage and that absolutely cannot happen against Texas Tech.
Offensively, the Sooners picked the worst day to have the worst rushing game of the year . . . Texas. Do you think that things are corrected and was anything done differently against Kansas that you expect to carry over to Texas Tech.
Jordan Esco: What was different was using Blake Bell in the run game, which we as OU fans are all still incredibly angry about them not doing against Texas. And yes, that is something I expect to be a part of the game plan on Saturday.
They don't like to use Bell more than probably 10-12 times on designed quarterback runs. And he's shown a real hesitancy to tuck the ball and run on passing situations where nothing opens up, another source of considerable frustration for OU fans.
However, in regards to everything being corrected I'm not entirely sure that is the case because this offensive line can still have their own issues. I think what Tech does defensively could give them problems because they have an active playmaker in the middle and can do a lot of different things in their front seven.
But based on what we have seen in previous weeks, running the football is probably the only way OU wins this game so if they struggle to do so Saturday it could be a very, very long day.
M. Hofeld: The short answer is no. Oklahoma inexplicably abandoned their running game against Texas. Their four primary running backs each averaged over four yards per carry, with two of them over five yards per carry, but it’s the only game this season in which Oklahoma has passed more than they’ve run the ball. They also absolutely refused to use Blake Bell in the running game which makes no sense after seeing what other quarterbacks have done against the statically worst run defense in the conference. It goes back to that bipolar identity where we truly have no idea what we’re going to see in the way of an offensive game plan.
I try to ask a question at the end that's somewhat related to football and it's possible that I asked this last year, but up until recently, Oklahoma was embedded in Texas from a recruiting perspective. Kids seemed like they were always choosing between OU and UT, but it seems that OU has really changed their focus to the West Coast. Is this an accurate thought, what's the rational for that and do you agree with this approach if it is accurate?
Jordan Esco: It's not inaccurate necessarily as they have certainly taken a more national approach in recruiting and focused heavily out west, but the state of Texas will always be the lifeblood of this OU football program.
I think a large part in their decision to take a more national approach was the lack of success they were having with the top Texas talent even after embarrassing the Longhorns in recent years on the field. It was unreal at times how even after a four or five touchdown win over Texas, kids that held offers from both OU and UT would do interviews saying how the Horns were still their No. 1 choice.
It seems like there is just something "Longhorn" ingrained with a lot of the youth in Texas and I think OU just got fed up with banging their head against the wall with kids who they were probably never going to convince to come to Norman no matter what they did. It developed into a case of it not being worth putting in as much of the time and effort if the results weren't going to be there in the end.
Add in the problem that is the current landscape, OU being at best third with most of the elite Texas talent. Whatever order you want to put Texas and Texas A&M ahead of OU is up to you, but there is no denying where the Sooners fall in that trio.
And that's without factoring in the progress schools like Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, and others have made and how they are now legitimately competing with OU for kids that they would have had very little chance with in years past.
Recruiting is a very tricky thing and there is never any one thing you can point to as to why things are the way that they are at any given point in time. One thing you'll hear a lot is about 'momentum' a program may or may not have with respect to their recruiting. The most obvious example of a program with momentum right now would be Texas A&M. Again, it's not any one thing you can point to with them as much as it is a number of factors. Some of them a team/program can control (wins being the most obvious), while others they cannot.
Oklahoma right now has kind of grown stale with a lot of high school recruits. To his credit, Bob Stoops took some big steps in the form of new additions to his staff (something he's been resistant to in years past) to try and correct this fact, but it's not something that can change overnight or even in an individual recruiting class. It takes years, plural.
M. Hofeld: The Sooners currently have ten players from the West Coast on their roster and nine of them are from the state of California. The state of Texas is always going to be the bread and butter for Oklahoma’s recruiting but they’re increasing their recruiting footprint by heading out west and landing the same caliber of player in California that they’re battling Texas and Texas A&M for in the Lone Star State. It’s just another avenue to cultivate talent and with the recent success of guys like Tony Jefferson, Kenny Stills and Brennan Clay, I would say that it’s a move that is paying pretty good dividends.