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The best matchup to watch in Oklahoma vs. Ohio State revolves around this matchup-nightmare TE

Baker Mayfield vs. a star-studded defense is the marquee battle, but another Sooner might be the one to watch.

UTEP v Oklahoma
Mark Andrews
Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

Last Thursday night in Bloomington, we learned all we needed to know about Ohio State's resilience.

Facing a 21-20 deficit with 20 minutes remaining, the Buckeyes wiped blood off their lips and put the game away. A couple of interesting tactical adjustments opened up the floodgates, and Ohio State scored five touchdowns on its last six possessions in a 49-21 win. Urban Meyer's team has a deadly combination of leadership and athleticism.

But we could stand to learn a little more about the Buckeyes' secondary. First impressions were inconclusive.

With Oklahoma coming to town (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ABC), however, the second impression should be pretty definitive.

A quick glance at the Ohio State-Indiana box score would suggest that the Buckeyes got torched through the air. IU's Richard Lagow threw for 410 yards and three touchdowns, and Simmie Cobbs caught 11 balls for 149 yards.

Really, though, the Buckeyes were mostly fine in pass defense. They picked off two passes and sacked Lagow five times, and 410 yards really isn't that much when you throw 65 passes. Lagow averaged only 5.4 yards per attempt, including sacks, and you're going to win more often than not when your pass defense is holding an opponent to that, especially when you're also obliterating the opponent's run game (IU backs: 17 carries, 37 yards).

Still, OU could be a dramatic upgrade in competition. The Sooners have maybe the best quarterback (Baker Mayfield) and offensive line in college football, and while the OU receiving corps is still figuring out life without star Dede Westbrook, the first impression from tight end Mark Andrews (seven catches for 134 yards against UTEP) and Kentucky transfer Jeff Badet (four for 91) was quite positive.

The type of damage Indiana did to Ohio State could be telling.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Indiana
Kendall Sheffield vs. Simmie Cobbs
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Mike DeBord's offense did a good job of using tempo to maximize matchup advantages. When the Hoosiers found the looks they were hoping for from Ohio State's defense, they exploited them more than once.

  • On Indiana's first touchdown drive, Cobbs caught three passes for 49 yards.
  • On the Hoosiers' second touchdown drive, he caught three passes for 46 yards and was targeted five times in six plays.
  • On their last TD drive, he caught three passes for 42 yards and was targeted on five consecutive plays.
  • On their other 13 possessions, he caught two balls.

In specific instances, IU identified positive matchups for Cobbs and went to the well often, before OSU adjusted. That's one area where tempo can be ruthless, when it keeps the defense from substituting, keeping your personnel advantage intact.

Under Kevin Wilson, Josh Heupel, and now Lincoln Riley, OU has all but patented this no-huddle, high-tempo approach.

The Sooners are as good as it gets when it comes to finding a matchup and wringing it dry. And in Andrews and Badet, they have two guys who could create unique advantages.

Badet is easy to explain: He’s very fast. In three years at Kentucky, he averaged 16.9 yards per catch. He is slight in stature (6'0, 178), but he is a blazer, and he has experience lining up in different areas of the field.

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Oklahoma
Jeff Badet
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Andrews, however, is the guy to watch.

As Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano told media this week, "They have an unusually gifted tight end. He is as much a receiver as any receiver on the field, and they use him as such. He creates matchup issues.”

Andrews is for all intents and purposes a tight end: He's 6'5, 254 pounds and lines up near the tackle box quite a bit.

He has the hands and feet of a wideout, however. He cuts against the grain beautifully in the open field, and while he isn't likely to break out a 4.4 40 at the NFL Combine, he reaches full speed quickly.

This makes him an incredible weapon (and creates about the most enjoyable highlight video you’ll see for a tight end): He had a career 66 percent catch rate coming into 2017, and he caught all seven passes thrown his way last Saturday in Norman. But despite this efficiency, he nearly matches Badet with a career average of 16.5 yards per catch.

Despite tight end status, he could end up being the most important skill guy on one of the best offenses in the country.

"We expect him to be very productive, a matchup we can really exploit," Riley recently said.

The Oklahoma run game is an unknown.

If anybody can get a push on Ohio State’s mighty front, it might be the Sooner line, but we don’t yet know much about Sooner running backs and whether they’ll be able to take advantage.

The combination of sophomores Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson, junior Marcelias Sutton, and freshman Trey Sermon gained 170 yards on 27 carries against UTEP, but the holes they were running through were enormous. The spaces will be tighter in Columbus.

And that could mean that OU faces a situation similar to Indiana: having few matchup advantages and feeling a need to focus on the ones that arise.

Creating early advantages will be particularly important.

Despite trailing in the third quarter in Bloomington, Ohio State barely had to adjust its offensive game plan. The Buckeyes found some passing success but were never in a must-pass situation. If OU is to pull a slight upset in this game, a solid early lead would be the best way to pull that off.

Last year in Norman, the opposite occurred. Ohio State scored on its second and third possessions and scored a third touchdown on a Jerome Baker pick six. OU missed a field goal and turned the ball over twice in its first five possessions. The Buckeyes built a 28-10 lead midway through the second quarter and threw it into cruise control.

Ohio State’s early surge negated the home of Sooner Magic. By creating some early matchups to exploit, Oklahoma could do the same in the Horseshoe.