5 questions that will decide the winner of Oklahoma State-Oklahoma
While the Big 12 conference doesn’t get a legitimate conference championship game until next season, this year’s edition of the Bedlam series between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will serve as a de-facto Big 12 championship game. Oklahoma is unbeaten in conference play, while Oklahoma State has been on a tear since losing to Baylor in Week 4. This game will pit two of the best offenses in all of college football, and arguably the two best quarterbacks.
With the way these two teams have been playing, this is a game that could easily go either way. Here are five questions that need to be answered to decide the winner of Bedlam and the Big 12 conference champion this year:
1. Will Oklahoma be able to take away the Cowboys’ suddenly strong run game?
This wouldn’t have been a huge issue until very recently, but now it looms large. All season Oklahoma State has made a conscious effort to run the football, but found very little success early on. Through the first eight games of the season they rushed for 1093 yards on 304 carries, which translates to just 3.6 yards per rush. But in the last three games, they seemed to have figured it out, as they’ve rushed for 724 yards on 109 carries (6.64 yards per rush). There hasn’t been a big chance either, as they averaged 38 rushes per game through the first eight games and 36.3 in the past three.
The emergence of freshman running back Justice Hill has been huge for the Cowboys. Hill is currently second in the Big 12 with 598 yards after contact this season, and has been playing his best football the past three weeks. He’s averaging more than 7.5 yards per carry in that span. On top of Hill playing well, Chris Carson has finally been living up to expectations after coming back from his injury. He’s very quietly leading the Big 12 with an elusive rating of 157.1 thanks to 28 missed tackles forced on just 71 touches. With these two backs having emerged as an impressive one-two punch, teams can no longer focus solely on Mason Rudolph and the Cowboys’ passing game. It’s no surprise that Rudolph has a passer rating of 137.5 on play action plays since the Cowboys run game appeared.
Across the field, Oklahoma defending the run was not an issue until as recently as possible. Almost every player on the Sooners defense grades above average against the run. Since the Ohio State game, opponents have averaged a mere 3.8 yards per rush against Oklahoma. Interior defenders Neville Gallimore and Austin Roberts rank first and third in the Big 12 with run stop percentages of 8.6 and 7.5, respectively. Linebacker Emmanuel Beal ranks fourth in the conference with 29 total run stops.
But two weeks ago, West Virginia rushed for 395 yards in their loss to Oklahoma. RB Justin Crawford, the 21st-highest graded running back in the Big 12 going into the game at 64.2 overall, rushed for 330 of those yards on just 24 carries. He forced 11 missed tackles on those carries. That’s a ton of rushing yards to surrender, especially to a running back who hadn’t shown himself to be particularly impressive going into the game.
While Oklahoma was certainly more focused on defending the pass than the run in this game, especially after getting a big lead early, this could be a concern if it’s more than a one-week issue. Mason Rudolph is a far better quarterback than Skylar Howard, so Oklahoma will need to once again focus on defending the pass. That could leave a lot of room for Hill and Carson to run, and with how impressive they’ve been lately, that could be the difference-maker.
2. Will Oklahoma State be able to slow down the Maybrook connection?
What needs to be said about the Mayfield-to-Westbrook (“Maybrook”) connection that hasn’t already been said? Their strong play this season has made both players contenders for the Heisman trophy. Since the Week 3 Ohio State debacle, Maybrook has been the most prolific QB-WR duo in the country. They’ve connected on 53-of-66 passes for 1,194 yards and a nation-leading 15 touchdowns. Mayfield has thrown just one interception when targeting Westbrook (against West Virginia on an amazing play by Rasul Douglas). Of those 53 completions, 12 of them were on throws more than 20 yards downfield, and have resulted in 603 yards gained. That’s more than 50 yards per completion on deep throws. 10 of the 12 catches went for touchdowns.
On the other side of the field, Oklahoma State corner Ramon Richards lines up on the left side of the defense almost exclusively. That would be right across from Westbrook. Richards has had a solid year, grading as the sixth-best corner in the conference. But there is some reason to be concerned. Richards plays a style in which he’ll allow the catch more often than not (64.6 completion rate) but he’ll come up and make the tackle almost every time (second-highest tackling efficiency among corners in the Big 12 at 15.3). But he’s never gone against a receiver who breaks tackles like Westbrook, whose 23 missed tackles forced ranks third in the country. Richards’ style means he doesn’t get beaten a lot deep (just five times this season), but it’s a dangerous strategy to allow Westbrook to catch the ball with space to get going.
Expect Richards to get a lot of help from safety Jordan Sterns, who is the highest-graded safety in the Big 12. His 88.0 coverage grade ranks sixth in the entire country, as he provides excellent over-the-top help for the Cowboys. But even that might not be enough to stop the highest-graded quarterback (93.0) in the country from completing passes to the second-highest graded receiver in the country (88.2). Maybrook is a dangerous connection and has the potential to single-handedly end games. This is a very intriguing matchup, and one that will likely have a major role in the outcome.
3. Will Mason Rudolph continue his hot streak with yet another monster game?
There’s been arguably no hotter quarterback over the past five weeks than Mason Rudolph. He’s our highest-graded quarterback in that span, having thrown for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions in that span. What’s been most incredible is his play under pressure in that span. He ranks third in the nation with an adjusted completion rate of 76.0, and has a passer rating of 118.3 when under duress. He’s made big time throw after big time throw, and now sits tied for second in the country with a grade of 91.8.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma secondary hasn’t exactly been their strength defensively. They lost to Houston and Ohio State primarily because they couldn’t make even just one big stop in the passing game, and they were absolutely shredded and almost lost to Texas Tech and QB Patrick Mahomes. The expectations are that Oklahoma will line up top corner Jordan Thomas (75.1 coverage grade) across from Cowboys star WR James Washington, with safety Ahmad Thomas (77.6) providing over-the-top help. That leaves slot corner Steven Parker (75.2) to match up with slot receiver Jalen McCleskey. And finally, possibly the most important matchup of the passing game: Oklahoma corner Jordan Parker against the combination of Jhajuan Seales and Chris Lacy.
Parker has not played particularly well in coverage since taking over as the second corner in Week 6. He’s given up 24 catches on 48 targets for 338 yards and five touchdowns, while himself recording just a single pass-breakup in that span. But those numbers don’t do his struggles justice. He’s been beaten deep on an additional six other passes that ended up incomplete due to a missed throw or dropped pass. His 45.6 coverage grade ranks 40th among corners in the Big 12 alone. He’ll be tasked with shutting down Lacy and Seales, who split time at the second receiver position. The two are similar players, and have combined almost exactly equally for 60 catches, 958 yards and six touchdowns. They are generally the intermediate receivers for Rudolph (with McCleskey the underneath and Washington over-the-top), but they also have nine deep receptions combined.
With the Sooners likely blanketing Washington, and the other Parker matching up equally with McCleskey, this matchup could prove huge. Jordan Parker is just a freshman, and he’s going to need to step up his play in a big way to prevent Seales or Lacy (or both) from having big games and tipping the scales in the Cowboys favor.
4. Will anyone on Oklahoma State’s defense be able to stop Joe Mixon?
There are few running backs that possess the overall abilities that Joe Mixon does, and there are even fewer playing at the level that he is right now. At 87.1 overall, he’s the third-highest-graded running back in the country. He’s one of just five running backs to have over 1000 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving, and has done so with just 184 touches. To put that in perspective, none of the other four did it in less than 262 touches. Only four running backs in the country average more yards per touch than Mixon’s 8.16. His breakaway percentage of 54.5 ranks fifth in the nation among RBs with at least 100 carries, showcasing his ability to turn any rush into a huge play. As a receiving back, he’s one of the best, with a 2.60 yards per route run average that ranks third in the country.
Oklahoma State has been good against the run all season, and will continue to lean on that aspect of their defense in this game. Interior defender Vincent Taylor has been one of the best at his position in college football this year, especially more recently. Since Week 6, only Alabama’s Johnathan Allen has graded better than Taylor among interior defenders. Linebackers Chad Whitener and Devante Averette both grade above 76.0 in run defense, and will be tasked with stopping Joe Mixon at the second level. The biggest concern will be when Mixon comes out of the backfield on pass plays, or even lines up as a receiver. All of the Oklahoma State linebackers grade below average in coverage, and would struggle to keep up with Mixon. But it’s risky to move a corner or safety to cover him because it may leave other Oklahoma receivers in just single coverage.
This is probably the biggest difference between the two teams in this game. While both teams have elite quarterbacks throwing to top-notch receivers and defenses that are very similar, nobody on Oklahoma State can compare to Joe Mixon. If they can’t figure out a way to slow him down, he’s going to be the biggest difference-maker in this game.
5. Will either team’s defense be able to pressure the quarterback?
As stated earlier, these are two teams that are very similar in makeup. One of the biggest things they lack on defense is a consistent pass rush. Oklahoma State’s biggest pass-rush threat is the aforementioned Vincent Taylor, who has six sacks, six hits and 17 hurries. Other than him, the Cowboys don’t have any other player with more than 18 total pressures. They’ve had success when they blitz linebackers, but they frequently just rush three or four and leave everyone else in coverage.
Oklahoma has by far the most skilled pass-rusher in this game in Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, but not much else past him. Okoronkwo has eight sacks, 10 hits and 28 hurries, which alone accounts for over 25 percent of Oklahoma’s total pressures as a team. His 16.8 pass rushing productivity score ranks third in the whole country at his position. But outside of him, Oklahoma really doesn’t get any pressure on the opposing quarterback (just 29 percent of opposing dropbacks).
While pressuring a quarterback is generally not a bad thing, in the case of these two quarterbacks it might not be the end of the world. Since Week 5 (the start of both teams’ unbeaten streaks) these two quarterbacks have been among the best when under pressure. Mayfield ranks second in the nation with a passer rating of 125.1, while Rudolph’s 107.2 ranks fourth. Still, both quarterbacks are significantly better when kept clean during that same span (141.5 and 126.0 ratings respectively), so if one team can get pressure on the opposing QB it might provide just enough of an edge needed to win.