The 2018 Orange Bowl was the most appealing contest of the two playoff games. The matchup put the greatest defensive mind in college football (Saban) with arguably the greatest offensive one (Lincoln Riley). It also had one of the more intriguing QB matchups of the bowl season. The efficiency at which both Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa play it is astonishing. Both are built completely different as well, with Murray listed at 5’10 and Tua 6’1″.
Murray is an absolute legend in the state of Texas, finishing his high school career at 42-0 while competing in the highest division in the state. Tua has become a legend in his own right, taking over for Jalen Hurts in last years Championship Game, and seemingly never looking back. The Tide’s offense is just different when he is in the game and has been steamrolling ever since. Overall, the game was a matchup of the two most efficient offenses in the country and one of the best defenses in the country. There was only one thing that didn’t fit into the game, Oklahoma’s defense, as I pointed out in this pre-game tweet:
One of these is not like the other ⤵️
— Cody Alexander (@The_Coach_A) December 29, 2018
Alabama’s defense has dominated the last decade of college football. Outside of Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa (#36 in Defensive Efficiency), the Tide have been a mainstay in the top 10 defenses in the country. The only outlier being the 2010 team that finished #13 in defensive efficiency. Defensive efficiency is a great way to monitor how well a defense is playing overall because it accounts for every down and judges a defense on whether they stay ahead of the chains. One player that stood out over any during the game was Alabama’s interior lineman Quinnen Williams. He consistently was camped in the backfield and early on made it hard for Murray to step up into the pocket. Oklahoma’s redshirt freshman Center, Creed Humphrey, played valiantly, but there were multiple times Williams did whatever he wanted and single-handedly blew plays up.
On the other sideline, one could argue, Lincoln Riley is building the Spread of the future. I saw an interview where Bud Foster, long time Defensive Coordinator for Virginia Tech, stated that 12 personnel is the new 21 pers. Except it is much more versatile because of the two TEs. I agree with the 4-2-5 legend. The addition of multiple TEs into the game is something the NFL has been doing since Bill Belichick went to it in early 2000. The major colleges are moving towards it too as defenses are getting “smaller.” Hybrid TEs are a completely different animal, and Oklahoma has two of them.
The Sooners offense looked dominant all year, only stumbling to the Texas Longhorns in the annual Red River Rivalry (it’s hard to beat a good team twice). Only Army and their slow-paced Option offense were able to keep the vaunted Sooner offense under 30 points. The Iowa State Cyclones and their three-safety Broken Stack were able to even keep Oklahoma under 40 points in Big 12 play. Something no one else did. Needless to say, the offense in Norman was electric all year long. The Sooners based out of 12 personnel for most of the game against the Tide. Riley’s combination of Air Raid pass concepts with a power run game has been devastating for defenses. Below is a basic 3×1 look for the Sooners offense, which they ran numerous times versus the Tide defense.
For several years now, Riley has been staying in a 12 pers. look for better parts of most games. This allows the Sooners to have a hybrid TE in #80 Grant Calcaterra (So./6’4″ 220) and a blocking TE in #45 Carson Meier (Sr./6’5″ 254 and is actually listed as a FB). Both can catch the ball, but Riley uses Calcaterra mainly flexed out at WR (what is referred to as a “Joker” TE). Both accumulated over 300+ yards of receiving throughout the 2018 season. By having two larger hybrid players on the field, Riley doesn’t have to sub and can use timely tempo to challenge defenses that choose to go small versus the high powered Sooner offense. As stated prior, the Sooners lived in 3×1 for most of the game and mixed in different 2×2 looks as well as some 12 pers. Wing Twin to load the box.
Last year (2017), Riley used two current NFL players in the same way, current Jacksonville FB Dimitri Flowers and Ravens’ TE Mark Andrews (who had 500+ yards receiving). This is a trend that is probably not going away. Riley’s adaptation of the Air Raid offense to one that has a power run game has paid dividends for the Sooners since his arrival on campus. This year alone, Murray and RB Kennedy Brooks (#26) both had 1,000 yard rushing seasons. Trey Sermon (#4) would accumulate just under 950 yards for himself as well. To see the Oklahoma offense as one that is pass heavy is to miss the mark on what Riley is doing in Norman. In the passing game, Murray threw for over 4,000+ yards and Marquise Brown (#5) and CeeDee Lamb (#2) both had 1,000+ yard seasons. The former in Brown was hurt during the Big 12 Championship and looked off all night against Alabama, being held to ZERO catches on the night.
Limiting Brown (who was averaging over 100+ yards a game) to no production was a coup for the Tide and hindered the Sooners ability to attack through the air early in the game. Riley chose to attack the Tide with multiple 3×1 formations using several different personnel groupings (10/11/12) and moving his “Joker” TE, Calcaterra, around. Lamb would end the night with over 100+ yards receiving, picking on ‘Bama’s freshman CB in Patrick Surtain II. The Tide would also stifle the Sooners run game, only allowing Murray over 100 yards rushing (Brooks – 35/Sermon – 19). Needless to say, Bama forced Murray to beat them passing, and it paid off in the first half.
Take away the abysmal first quarter for the Sooner offense and the game was evenly matched. A team cannot spot a Saban team 28 points and figure to win the game. This is why the game is played a full 60 minutes! Riley adjusted to the lack of explosion from Brown and a nonexistent run game starting in the second quarter. It was too little too late.
The Sooners couldn’t get the stops they needed down the stretch on defense and lost 45-34. Overall, the game was a look into the future. Riley’s hybrid Air Raid scheme and Saban’s masterclass in adaptability highlighted where football is headed. As I wrote in my latest book, Hybrids: The Making of a Modern Defense, the pendulum is constantly swinging back and forth between offense and defense. As defenses get smaller to counteract the high powered Spread attacks, offenses will eventually get “bigger” to push them around. The Sooners are the epitome of this cat-and-mouse game. The use of two hybrid big-men is evidence that the top offensive minds are beginning to go back to a power game.
The basis of this MQ Film Study is to see how the greatest defensive mind in college football (Saban) chose to attack the vaunted Oklahoma offense (#1 or #2 in O. Eff since 2016). Outside of the first quarter, the Tide really didn’t stop the Sooner offense. One thing the Tide did well all night was inhibit the power run game of the Sooners, forcing Murray to do it all by himself. Below is a breakdown of every play the Sooners offense ran during the first half of the Orange Bowl (outside of the last drive of the half). The Orange Bowl was a look into the future of football and how modern defense will defend the “Power” Spread going forward. Continue reading “MQ Film Study: Oklahoma vs Alabama (1st Half – 2018)”