NFL scouts watched the Rose Bowl for the same primary storyline as the rest of us: how would a Heisman QB play against an elite defense loaded with NFL athletes?
Of course, Georgia wasn’t the only good defense the Sooners faced in 2017. They also beat S&P+’s No. 8 defense (Ohio State), beat No. 21 (Texas), and beat No. 16 twice (TCU). The Frogs excelled at team defense and had a few NFL prospects, the Longhorns were a rapidly improving unit with multiple future pros, and Ohio State sent waves of NFL talent at opponents. Mayfield shredded each, throwing for 11.3 yards per pass in those four games, about the same as his nation-leading number against all opponents.
But Georgia was probably the toughest challenge, thanks to a season’s worth of experience for an already-veteran defense. UGA could play a nickel package fronted by pros, with upperclassmen at every position in the backfield.
Mayfield went 23-of-35 against the Dawgs, with 287 yards at 8.2 yards per attempt, two TDs (and a TD catch), and a single INT. Those were his weakest numbers of the season, but it was still one of the two or three best team passing games UGA allowed all year and within double OT of a title shot.
Here’s what we learned about Mayfield on the Playoff stage in college football’s grandest venue.
1. There’s no one better at executing a game plan.
What really stands out is how scripted the Oklahoma offense was. The Sooners didn’t depend on working matchup angles like an NFL team, because there weren’t many against the athletic Dawgs. Head coach/playcaller Lincoln Riley’s plan revealed OU understood its own weaknesses, namely a lack of targets on the outside.
The top two receivers for the 2017 Sooners, besides flex TE Mark Andrews, were JUCO transfer/sophomore Marquise Brown and true freshman CeeDee Lamb. Brown had a phenomenal season with 1,088 yards, but at 5’11 and 162 pounds, he did most of his damage on screens and deep passes off Andrews, who could protect him from press coverage. Lamb had 814 yards but was playing hurt for most of the year.
The Dawgs settled on man coverage outside and loading up the middle, to get help over Mayfield’s best weapons: the FB/TE tandem, OL, and run game. Early on, Mayfield was slicing them to pieces, befuddling normally on-it defenders. For example, from OU’s opening drive:
Both of these look like RPOs, but they’re pre-determined (note the lack of downfield linemen) to conflict the defense so that Mayfield could punish with accurate tosses.
After that, Georgia went to man coverage to avoid allowing receivers to break open down the field against distracted defenders, and the Sooners had to mix in different calls.
On this play, Mayfield and Andrews used head fakes to open up this seam route. Mayfield checked the route combo at the top of the GIF, but he knew Andrews had thrown a fake and was working back up the seam. Mayfield’s glance at the other combo drew the LBs and deep safety away from Andrews.
This looks like a shallow cross combination, but watch how No. 3 stops running. It’s really a screen for Brown, as evidenced by the wideouts blocking as soon as they feel it’s legal to do so. As always, Mayfield uses his eyes to obscure the design, looking wide before setting up Brown for a huge run.
Between Mayfield’s four scripted passes on the first drive and these shots, you have 137 yards and a TD, or almost half of his passing production. On one hand, this is high-level execution of a scripted attack, rather than progression and off-schedule playmaking of the sort that excites scouts. On the other, it sure is precise against good defenders.
2. Even against the SEC champs, Mayfield can beat good coverage.
Knowing where the ball is supposed to go and doing all you can to deliver it there at the right place and time is big, but in the NFL, you have to beat good coverage. Riley isn’t following Mayfield to the NFL to help him out-smart everyone.
Riley kept trying to outsmart Georgia down the stretch and was ultimately undone by the Sooners’ inexact execution of option pitches and Roquan Smith sniffing out a trick play. But the Sooners gave themselves a good chance to win when Mayfield executed at an NFL level against man coverage in the fourth quarter.
You don’t see Mayfield recognizing the Georgia defense before the snap and communicating an audible to his RB and WRs, which would enhance his projection as a pro, but you do see him setting up the back-shoulder fade to Lamb and using a pump fake to make enough separation to fit the ball into. Of course Lamb also makes a great catch but this is the kind of adjustment and throw you have to make to beat NFL defenses.
That set up this red zone situation, when Smith cut off the throw Mayfield wanted to make to the FB, but the QB bought enough time to hit him for a bigger gain anyway:
This is an area where Mayfield really stands out from other QBs, in his ability to escape pressure, know where everyone is, and throw accurately on the move.
You have to wonder what might have happened had OU given Mayfield more of chances to drop back and win, rather than trying to outsmart Georgia ... or what would have happened had the Sooners fielded a half-decent defense.
3. He’ll always be undersized, but the pass rush doesn’t scare him.
Beating the blitz and the pass-rush is a major question for all prospects. On top of the normal concerns is the fact that Mayfield is on the shorter side, and although he’s well-built at 215, you wonder how well he’ll see over the scrum or hold up when he takes shots.
In the third quarter, Georgia had the Sooners shut down by tightening man coverage and starting to tear through the OU OL. This happens, and it’s likely to happen to Mayfield in the NFL, particularly if he’s drafted high by a bad team, so the question is: how well does the QB hold up to pressure and punishment?
In the two games in which Mayfield was facing the most pressure, he took a pair of really rough shots. First, this from Texas in the Red River Shootout:
And against Georgia, Julian Rochester took this diving knee shot into his ribs:
You can complain about plays like this, but you can’t win if the occasional cheap shot gets into your head. You think NFL defenders don’t look for opportunities to intimidate and rough up Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady?
The Texas hit dinged Mayfield’s throwing shoulder, but didn’t stop him from leading a comeback with a big throw to Andrews in the fourth quarter, and the Georgia lick didn’t stop him from leading a regulation comeback. (That hit he took from those Arkansas cops was pretty rough as well.)
Mayfield has always shown a knack for diagnosing defenses before the snap, evading pressure, and finding lanes to throw through. Height matters if it prevents a QB from seeing the field and getting the ball out, but Mayfield has proved he can survive hits and pressure.
Watching Mayfield take on UGA, you see the same things that were there to be seen in his other big-time contests.
He’s a multi-faceted leader who made the most of whoever his teammates were and whatever his OC called, regardless of the caliber of his opponent.