Manipulating The Cover Down

Versus Baylor in the Big 12 Championship, Oklahoma’s DC, Alex Grinch, showed the versatility of a modern Nickelback.

Most people are familiar with Lincoln Riley’s offensive genius. Since arriving at Oklahoma Riley’s offenses have been at the top of the charts in college football. He has had three different QBs, all of which either won the Heisman (Mayfield/Murray) or went to the ceremony (Hurts). The one thing that has been the thorn in Riley’s side at OU has been the defense.

After Bob Stoops resigned Riley was given a defensive staff that needed to be dealt with. One major issue was that Stoops’ brother (Mike) was the Defensive Coordinator. After two abysmal years, Riley pulled the trigger and made a change. In steps, Alex Grinch, who was seen as a rising star in the defensive community. Grinch had solid defenses at Washington St., and there is your connection to Riley. Everyone knows Riley is a Leach disciple.

Grinch was able to work alongside a powerful offensive mind (Leach) and still be able to keep the hands on the wheel. Wazzu was consistently in the top half of Defensive Efficiency ranking 13th in Grinch’s final year in Pullman. The job Grinch did in Pullman put him on the map. After his stint at Wazzu Grinch moved to Columbus, OH as the co-DC for Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes. There, Grinch would hold down the secondary while Greg Schiano called the defense. Grinch’s success, pedigree, and connection to Leach made it easy for Riley to pull the trigger. He had all the intangibles: a young intelligent coach who had worked under offensive-minded coaches yet was able to show high-quality results.


It is amazing what a year can do. In 2019, Grinch brought a calmness and discipline to the Sooner defense that had been lacking for a long time. In contrast, 2018 would be a year of opposites as the offense was stellar and the defense was one of the worst in the country. The 2018 defense would finish 114th in total defense. Surrendering 6.13 per play (102nd in the nation) while being on the field for over 1036 total plays (2nd in the nation behind Houston). Finally, Points Per Drive (PPD), which factors in the total amount of series played divided by points, was 112th overall at 2.88. That’s almost a field goal a drive! Needless to say, something had to give. Continue reading “Manipulating The Cover Down”

Sacking the Longhorns – OU vs Texas (2019)

The Sooners had a record 9 sacks against the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl. MQ details three.

Nine. That is how many sacks the Sooners would end the day with against Texas in the 2019 edition of the Red River Rivalry. This would tie a school record and put Texas QB Sam Ehlinger in the negative for rushing (23 for -9). In college, the sack yards come from the rushing, whereas in the NFL, the sacks come from the QB’s passing stats. Ehlinger’s -9 yards on the ground would be his lowest output since his October 21st outing against Oklahoma St. back in 2017. According to ESPN, Ehlinger would end with a measly 46.4 QBR, which is his lowest output since his freshman year (Baylor would rack up an even lower one at 45.7).

Needless to say, the Sooners executed their gameplan to near perfection when it came to rushing the passer and limiting the Texas passing game. Until the matchup with the Sooners, the Longhorn QB had been averaging 3+ TDs through the air a game. Though Ehlinger didn’t throw an interception or have a terrible game through the air numbers-wise (26/38 210), the sacks did the job of disrupting the Longhorns offense, putting them in long-yardage situations all day.

On paper, the game looked to be a shootout with Texas’ and Oklahoma’s offenses in the top 10 in offensive efficiency and both defenses around the middle of the road (OU would finish 3rd and 70th in O & D Eff. while Texas ended up 17th and 60th). There was no indication that the Sooners would dominate the Texas offensive line the way they did. Though, you could’ve seen cracks in the armor versus LSU (5 sack game). Prior to the matchup in Dallas, the Longhorns had given up nine sacks total in five games. Though some of the sacks were scheme related (we will talk about three), most were due to Ehlinger holding on to the ball too long on perimeter screens (x2) or the Longhorn O-line getting out-manned at the point of attack (below).

The Sooners’ Defensive Coordinator, Alex Grinch, arrived in Norman with much fanfare. Though the results so far are not to the elite standard set by the offense, the defense has risen to “respectability.” In 2018, the Sooners were scraping the bottom of the FBS barrel in defense (#104 in DEff according to BCfToys). In little time at all, Grinch has found a way to at least calm the waters in Norman relatively quickly.

Only once prior to the contest with Texas have the Sooners given up more than 30 points in a game (vs Houston – 31 points). In 2018 the Sooners had similar results, with the defense falling apart towards the end of the season, giving up 40+ points a game in the month of November. Only time will tell if Grinch can get the Sooners back to being elite on defense, but one thing is for sure, nine sacks is a lot and definitely something to build on. Continue reading “Sacking the Longhorns – OU vs Texas (2019)”

MQ Film Study: Oklahoma vs Alabama (1st Half – 2018)

Let’s talk about that dominant first half by the ‘Bama defense.

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:

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.

01 OU Base

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)”

Running Dime as Your Base – A Lesson From the Big 12

Welcome to the Big 12 where Dime has now become your base.

The Big 12 has always been on the outer limits of what coaches are willing to do on offense and a graveyard for “guru” defensive coordinators (just ask Diaz and Strong). Defenses in the Big 12 play more snaps than the average Power 5 defense. Tempo and the Air Raid reign supreme in a league that prides itself on scoring points. The knock on the league has always been the defenses in the conference. To many outsiders, the Big 12 is offense first, and it is, but if you are looking to defend the spread, there is no other place to look – they live with it every day.

If looking at defensive stats alone, the Big 12 is on the outside looking in, but there is something to be learned here. Starting in 2016, teams in the Big 12, primarily Oklahoma St. (2016) and Iowa St. (2017), began using a modified Dime (3-down) and Nickle (4-down) package to combat the Air Raid heavy teams in the league. I discussed in January’s article about how teams are becoming more fluid in their fronts; switching from 4-down to 3-down without losing scheme.

The Dime package utilized by Iowa St. in 2017 was no different. Versus a run-heavy Oklahoma team, the Cyclones relied on a modified 4-down defense to defeat the Sooners in Norman. There ability to switch from a 4-down to a 3-down without subbing made the scheme a perfect fit for the multiple Sooners. With a TE like Mark Andrews and an H-back like Dimitri Flowers, the Sooners could give multiple looks without subbing. This fact alone is why the Big 12 is so innovative on defense. Hybrid players are a premium in the league. In Iowa St.’s season finale versus a high-powered spread attack in Memphis, Iowa St. utilized the 3-down version of their hybrid Dime to defeat Memphis 21-20.

The Dime/Nickel hybrid defense has become Iowa St.’s base defense and is fluid between the different front structures. When the Cyclones go 4-down, it is no different than if they are blitzing a linebacker from their Dime package. The coverages are similar too. Here is a look at the two base defenses:

Oklahoma St. Nickel (4-Down)

02 Cy Ni Base

Cyclone Dime (3-Down)

06 Cy Di Base Continue reading “Running Dime as Your Base – A Lesson From the Big 12”