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3 questions UGA must answer to stop Baker Mayfield

Oklahoma presents challenges that Georgia hasn’t had to face yet, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the Dawgs respond.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Ohio State Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia has faced a lot of different spread offenses this season in its path to the Playoff. The Dawgs have battled the “veer-and-shoot” Missouri, QB run-heavy Mississippi State, downhill and spread-option Notre Dame, and Gus Malzahn’s smashmouth spread Auburn on two occasions.

But they haven’t faced anything quite like this Sooners squad they’ll meet in the Rose Bowl.

Georgia’s resume against the spread O

Opponent Offensive S&P+ Points allowed Yards per play
Opponent Offensive S&P+ Points allowed Yards per play
Notre Dame 24th overall, 5th in rushing, 59th in passing 19 3.4 ypp
Mississippi State 63rd overall, 19th in rushing, 32nd in passing 3 4 ypp
Missouri 10th overall, 18th in rushing, 16th in passing 28 6.4 ypp
Auburn 36th overall, 15th in rushing, 10th in passing 40, 7 6.9 ypp, 4.1 ypp
Oklahoma 1st overall, 1st in rushing, 1st in passing ? ?

Oklahoma has beaten the Ohio State defense (11th in opponent-adjusted S&P+) on the road, TCU’s spread-tested defense (14th in S&P+) on two occasions, and a good Texas defense (26th in S&P+) with multiple 2018 draft entrees. Georgia has great players, a top-10 defense, and a strong track record, but nothing totally foreign to this veteran Oklahoma unit.

Meanwhile, the closest the Dawgs have seen to Oklahoma was Missouri once and Auburn twice, going 2-1 against that group. Each of those has a solid passing attack but nothing like the Sooners’ Heisman-winning QB Baker Mayfield.

Question 1: What kind of personnel package allows you to matchup?

Oklahoma’s base “21 personnel” grouping (two RBs, one TE, two WRs) is difficult to match up against. A head coach from the Mike Leach tree who also regularly trots out a TE and FB is pretty unique, but the way the Sooners do it really complements the air raid elements:

What makes them deadly is the versatility of FB Dimitri Flowers (shown here catching a TD pass) and TE Mark Andrews (seen here motioning and pancaking a pass rusher). Flowers spends most of his time blocking, but he has quick feet and soft hands, as Ohio State found out when he shredded them with seven catches for 92 yards. Andrews was the leading receiver this year and spent the majority of his time out in the slot, where his 6’5, 265-pound frame and smooth route running present serious dilemmas.

Namely, what kind of personnel package do you employ? Can your nickel handle Andrews’ size, and can your third linebacker handle his routes?

Georgia has shown two main personnel packages this season. The first uses Lorenzo Carter as the field outside linebacker, and the Dawgs have used it against bigger spread packages:

The other one moves star CB Aaron Davis inside to nickel and brings out Malkom Parrish or Tyrique McGhee to play CB. None is ideal in terms of getting a good matchup over Andrews, so Georgia is probably going to just bracket him with safety help and hope to hold up elsewhere. Georgia probably can’t bracket him with Carter, because Mayfield-to-Andrews can beat a coverage that features a big LB trying to help over the top:

Andrews has size and power to create spacing against linebackers trying to bump him and quickness to get open in the soft spots of underneath zone.

But that’s just the issue on passing downs, when Andrews becomes a chain-mover. On first or second down, Oklahoma is perhaps the best running team in college football, ranking first in opponent-adjusted rushing S&P+.

Question 2: How much focus should you put on stopping the run?

Oklahoma relied mostly on three running backs this season. The Sooners started with Abdul Adams, who ran for 9.2 yards per carry before losing his spot with an injury. Then Trey Sermon emerged with 6.0 yards per carry. Rodney Anderson ended up taking the load down the stretch at 5.9 per. His numbers aren’t the same as the other two, but he’s plenty explosive, knows how to find creases in OU’s counter-heavy run game, and is difficult to tackle.

Between the versatility of Flowers and Andrews and the option capabilities of Mayfield, it’s difficult to bring numbers up front against the OU run game. The Sooners give Andrews and Flowers a variety of roles within the team’s favorite play, the GT counter, which — thanks to Mayfield’s ability to option a backside DE — works on the chalkboard whether the TE and FB block or not:

They could be blocking down as they are here, or releasing up the field on play-action or RPO concepts. It’s a nightmare for opposing linebackers, who have to balance the need to prevent them from slipping past with the instinct to keep their eyes on OU’s big, veteran OL:

Whatever packages Kirby Smart rolls with, the Dawgs will have an awful lot to keep in mind. This is a truly balanced offense that was held to 2.8 yards per rush against the Buckeyes but won 31-17 while averaging 11 yards per pass attempt. If you try to stop the run first, Mayfield’s constraint plays can take you apart.

Most teams have determined to stop the run and then try to hold on against Mayfield, but at this point, that just doesn’t seem viable. Georgia will probably lean on its line and star LB Roquan Smith beating blocks from OU’s experienced OL, so resources can be allocated elsewhere on the field.

Question 3: How can you stop Mayfield?

All the above still leaves the challenge of defending a versatile passing game that involves burners like Marquise Brown and Mykel Jones:

This is illustrative of the creative routes Lincoln Riley uses to devastating effect. Normally, that route combination is a quick-hitter, with the QB making a read on the flat defender and either throwing the out or the slant. TCU denies the quick out by dropping its DE and then doubles the slant, so nothing is open ... but then the out pivots back inside on the helpless DE, and there’s no help, because the Frogs were chasing the slant. Touchdown.

Mayfield is so advanced and the Sooner offense so diverse that there’s little hope for almost any team of just lining up and outexecuting this passing game. The solution has to be geared around attacking and negating Mayfield’s ability to process what’s happening.

The best model is probably the one the New York Giants employed to take down Tom Brady in two Super Bowls, generating quick pressure from a downsized DL.

All year, the Bulldogs have thrived by loading the middle with a sturdy DL, like nose tackle John Atkins and DT Trenton Thompson, to allow star LB Smith to run to the football. But against OU, they need to get into Mayfield’s face early and often, ideally up the middle, and keep their outside linebackers on the field to avoid getting caught by the Sooners’ speed.

They need to use their 2-4-5 nickel package on more than just third down:

This set allows them to keep Carter and Davin Bellamy on the field, bumps strong side end Jonathan Ledbetter inside, and relegates a nose tackle to the bench. They could stick with their normal three-down front and replace both OLBs with DBs, but that would not get the best 11 on the field. Carter and Bellamy can drop into coverage, so this allows Georgia to bring three/four-man pressures that include Smith (5.5 sacks on the year), hopefully flushing Mayfield toward OLBs.

The advantage that SEC teams typically have over Big 12 squads is on the lines, where future pro pass rushers can bust protections without blitzing and thwart a spread offense’s desire to flood the field with receivers. That’s more difficult against OU, which has a strong OL and a QB who’s extended plays against good lines like Ohio State’s, TCU’s, and Auburn’s. Georgia has to get as many of its best athletes on the field as it can to send pressure at Mayfield.

We’ve seen a few national champs with balanced offensive attacks that feature smart, veteran passers throwing to receiving corps keyed by problematic TEs. If Georgia is going to put a stop to that, it’ll need to attack Mayfield and cut off the head of the snake. And to do that, it’ll need to exemplify the SEC’s reputation for having the biggest and most freakish athletes in the trenches.

Baker Mayfield's path to the Heisman Trophy