Big Picture: How Oklahoma created one of nation’s fiercest offenses
The return to the Air-Raid offense seems to be working out just fine for Bob Stoops. The 55-year-old Oklahoma head coach went back to the wide-open spread scheme this offseason after going 8-5 in 2014. It was a return to the style of attack Stoops opted for when he was hired at OU in 1999. Back then he hired Mike Leach to implement his offense, and the following season Oklahoma won a national title. This time, it was 32-year-old Leach protégé Lincoln Riley, who has transformed the Sooners into one of the most explosive teams in football and on Saturday night, No. 12 OU proved just how dangerous it is by taking down No. 6 Baylor, 44-34. The Sooners’ win snapped a 20-game home winning streak for the Bears and gave Baylor its first loss ever at McLane Stadium.
“This really validates some of the things we’ve been doing,” Riley told FOX Sports Sunday afternoon.
OU piled up 511 yards of offense to make it five straight games eclipsing the 500-yard mark. The Sooners now rank No. 3 in the nation in scoring at 46.1 points per game. Last season, they were 21st and produced 10 points a game less. The star was OU’s fearless quarterback Baker Mayfield, who shredded the Bears defense, going 24-of-34 for 270 yards passing to go with 76 yards rushing and four total TDs, vaulting him into the thick of the Heisman race. The Texas Tech transfer evaded tacklers, hung in the pocket unfazed and delivered on-the-money passes when he knew he was just about to get clobbered. In the past five games, Mayfield has 17 TDs and just two INTs and completed 75 percent of his passes.
In the 121 years of Oklahoma football, only two teams have scored at least 44 points in five consecutive games: the 2008 Sooners (the season in which Sam Bradford won the Heisman at OU) and the team that’s on this run.
The turning point for this team occurred in early October when it lost 24-17 against hapless Texas, the Sooners’ archrival.
Riley said the staff watched how that game against Texas unfolded and realized they needed to make some changes up front and also cut down on some of their tweaks schematically. “We realized we had a bunch of unforced errors in that game,” Riley said. “Since then, our kids have been locked in. The preparation and focus has been so much better.
Riley explained that earlier in the season the Sooners got too caught up in worrying about being so specific with the players involved in certain personnel groupings matching up for certain plays. “We just to clear their minds up and let them just play fast. Before we were muddying the water."
OU, which did have to replace several key starters from its O-line last season, also installed freshman right tackle Dru Samia and left guard Jonathan Alvarez, a sophomore who had only played in one game before this season. “We went with a lot younger guys up front and mixed and matched and said, ‘OK, we’re gonna live with some of their younger mistakes,’ because they’re really talented kids. They’re both really smart players — very cerebral but also tough and competitive, (OU O-line coach) Bill (Bedenbaugh) has done a great job with them.” (The Sooners also start left tackle Orlando Brown, a 6-foot-8, 342-pound freshman.)
As the O-line has jelled, Samaje Perine, OU’s hulking 235-pound sophomore running back, has heated up. Perine ran all over Baylor for 166 yards as the Sooners outrushed Baylor, 241 to 159. "He’s just been so steady for us,” Riley said. “He’s catching balls, picking up blitzes, popping big runs. He’s just a very dependable, smart, mature guy and he’s become a complete back. He ran like a grown man last night. He really asserted himself."
The focal point, though, has been Mayfield. Earlier in the season, the 6-foot, 210-pound Texan had to knock off some rust after having sat out last season. Plus, he and all his teammates had to adjust to a new scheme that was evolving. Riley studied the film from the Baylor game Sunday morning and was quite pleased with what he saw.
"He’s done a good job of picking his spots to be aggressive and he made a lot of plays with his feet,” Riley said. “He didn’t make many mistakes. We had one. It was a bad play call by me and a bad ball. He missed the throw where you couldn’t miss it and the guy (Baylor’s Travon Blanchard) made a great play on it.” That was the Sooners’ lone turnover.
Oklahoma doesn’t have much time to savor the win at Baylor. This week, they’ll host No. 15 TCU before visiting undefeated No. 8 Oklahoma State the following week. A Big 12 title, playoff spot and Heisman Trophy all may hang in the balance.
● One of the better under-the-radar stories in college football right now is New Mexico. Bob Davie’s team improved to 6-4 with a terrific road win at Boise State late Saturday. I suspect the Lobos going in there and winning on the blue turf was almost as much of a stunner as fellow Albuquerque native Holly Holm knocking out Ronda Rousey. Boise had 40 first downs compared to UNM’s 11.
The 61-year-old Davie (full disclosure: we worked together years ago at ESPN) has sparked quite a turnaround. This is the first time the Lobos are bowl-eligible in eight years. Before the season, Davie explained to me how he built the Lobos’ offensive scheme, which he modeled after the vexing style of Air Force.
This season, UNM has proven pretty explosive, leading the Mountain West with nine plays of 60 yards or longer. That’s more than double what anyone else in the league has produced. It’s also tied for No. 1 in the country in such plays. Against Boise, the Lobos had a 74-yard TD run by Jhurell Pressley and an 81-yard reception by Delane Hart-Johnson.
● As hot as Houston coach Tom Herman’s stock is these days, it probably has heated up a few degrees more after the way his team came back from 20-0 to beat Memphis and their stud up-and-comer coach Justin Fuente. More impressively is that Houston rallied without star QB Greg Ward, who left the game with a leg injury. Of course, as proved on several occasions over the past few years while Ohio State’s OC/QB coach, Herman works wonders with backup QBs. This time, it was Cougar backup Kyle Postma who went 21-of-22 for 236 yards as UH rallied from a 34-14 deficit in the fourth quarter.
● UCLA lost at home to Washington State Saturday night, but the Bruins true freshman QB Josh Rosen did all he could to carry his team to a win. He went 33-of-57 for 340 yards and added 70 rushing yards, which included a 37-yard TD scamper in the final two minutes to give UCLA a late lead. Rosen’s performance prompted NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a guy who spent a decade as an NFL scout and the guy who I think is more dialed into NFL draft analysis than anyone in the media, to tweet out Saturday night: “Josh Rosen is the most gifted QB in college football."
On Sunday, I caught up with Jeremiah to get more of an explanation about what wows him about the 18-year-old quarterback.
"He’s just so smooth,” Jeremiah said. “It’s pure. The ball just jumps out of his hand, but you’re also seeing the poise, the mechanics and the velocity all in one package. He can make a variety of throws in terms of ball flights and velocity.
"Sometimes it’s hard to say exactly what you’re looking for (from an NFL QB prospect), but when you watch him do all that he does, you think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is it.’"
● Since QB Vernon Adams has healed up, Oregon has won four in a row — three of them were on the road — and two of them came against the two best defenses in the Pac-12 (Washington and Stanford). Over this four-game stretch, the Ducks are averaging 42 points per game.
● An update on the Miami coaching search: A source tells FOX Sports that former UM head coach Butch Davis, who has not been shy about his interest in the coaching vacancy, is considered “a fallback candidate” at this point. Davis does have some support from a couple of key money people inside UM, the source says, but there is some resistance to him from other corners of UM. Davis, as I reported years ago, had been cleared of any personal wrongdoing for a scandal that happened while he was the head man at UNC and Davis has a letter from the NCAA stating as much, but the source added there are concerns about his connection to his former assistant John Blake, who was at the center of that mess.
● Good job by Arizona State battling back from a deep hole against Washington. The Sun Devils were being dominated, trailing 17-0 and had been outgained 320 yards to 71 midway through the second quarter, but Todd Graham’s team showed a lot of grit to rally to win 27-17 by holding the Huskies to 10 rushing yards in the second half while QB Mike Bercovici heated up, going 12-of-14.
● The start of the Tracy Claeys Era at Minnesota has been very shaky. The Gophers have now lost four in a row and three under the new head man, allowing 32 PPG in the last three. On Saturday, Iowa’s LeShun Daniels ran for 195 yards and three TDs against Claeys’ D.
● Hats off to the great Keenan Reynolds. The Navy QB rushed for 137 yards and four touchdowns, surpassing former Wisconsin RB Montee Ball as the NCAA career leader in rushing touchdowns (81), as the Midshipmen ran for 403 yards while blowing out SMU 55-14.
● Tough blow for USC to lose standout freshman LB Cameron Smith (knee surgery) and veteran LB Lamar Dawson (shoulder surgery) for the rest of the season, especially with two of the best RBs in the country coming up next in Oregon’s Royce Freeman and UCLA’s Paul Perkins.
● If you haven’t had a chance to hear our conversation with Mizzou strength coach Dr. Pat Ivey on how things escalated in Columbia along racial lines and boiled over, how the football team got involved and where they all go from here, please give the latest episode of The Audible a listen.
● Stat of the Week: The Air-Raid offense has made a profound impact on college football. This fall one of its two chief architects, Mike Leach, has turned what had been a hapless Wazzu program into a Top 25 team. Leach’s teams throw the ball more than anyone in college football. One of his protégés, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen is having some success doing things quite a bit differently this fall. No other Air-Raid guy is more willing to tweak his system to fit his personnel as much as Holgorsen — he did some very, very creative stuff when he was Oklahoma State’s OC six years ago, and this year, he is at it again. He has two good RBs in Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell and a good fullback in Elijah Wellman. The Mountaineers actually are averaging more runs per game than anyone in the Big 12, 50 per. Next-most is Oklahoma, run by another Leach protégé, Lincoln Riley, at 44. Even more amazing is that only five teams in the country are averaging more carries than Holgorsen’s team. Three of those are the Service Academies, plus Georgia Southern and Houston.
● Stat of the Week, Take II: Air-Raid teams were undefeated (7-0) this week for the first time this season. WVU won vs. Texas; Texas Tech beat K-State 59-44; TCU won 23-17 over Kansas; Cal topped Oregon State 54-24; Wazzu edged No. 19 UCLA 31-27 and Oklahoma beat No. 6 Baylor 44-34. UNC, whose offense is run by OC Seth Littrell, an old Leach assistant, also won blowing out Miami, 59-21. East Carolina, 4-6, was off. “Pretty good week for the Lubbock boys,” said Riley.
● Stat of the Week, Take III: Alabama star RB Derrick Henry vs. unranked opponents: 128 rushing yards per game. Henry vs RANKED opponents: 187 YPG.
● Stat of the Week, Take IV: Texas had committed just seven turnovers in its first nine games, but had five at WVU. The Longhorns lost, 38-20. Charlie Strong’s team is now 4-8 in their last 12 games, losing six of ’em by double-digits.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FS1. He is also a New York Times best-selling author. His new book, “The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks,” came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.