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How Alabama shocked Oklahoma with skill and buried the Sooners with power

The Tide set up a rematch with Clemson by jumping out to a big lead on Oklahoma, then grinding away like a boxer.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Orange Bowl-Alabama vs Oklahoma Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Most teams that play Oklahoma struggle at the outset, given how many weapons the Sooners have all open the field, the cleverness of their play designs, and the incomparable quickness of Kyler Murray. But in the Orange Bowl, OU was down 28-0 after 17 minutes. It turns out that’s plenty of cushion for a Nick Saban Bama team.

Alabama came into this contest with a carefully devised plan. Saban’s simplest solution to the spread offense is just to outscore it.

The Alabama defense was great early, but it ultimately couldn’t shut down the Heisman winner, who threw for 308 yards and ran for another 109, all of it efficiently, with three touchdowns. Even with star receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown hobbled and later yanked for ineffectiveness, the Sooners had plenty of places to spread the ball around, including Brown’s backup Charleston Rambo, who had three catches for 74 yards and a score.

Like most every other defense to face Oklahoma this year, even the vaunted Alabama DL eventually tired of battling Oklahoma’s massive, talented, and highly experienced offensive line only to come up empty trying to catch Murray in the backfield. Raekwon Davis was noticeably losing his composure late in the game, incurring a penalty after officials were slow to grant him a sack of Murray (which they ultimately did, questionably).

Oklahoma’s offense scored on all four of its second-half drives, with three TDs. That was OK, because Tua Tagovailoa was 24-of-27 with a passer rating of 237.

In recent years, Alabama’s shifted more and more toward spread offense. That transition was on full display against OU.

The big story of this season in Tuscaloosa was Alabama’s evolution towards a full-bore, RPO spread offense with Tagovailoa at the helm. The Tide had embraced RPOs during Lane Kiffin’s tenure as coordinator, and about midway through last year’s national title game, they started taking deep shot after deep shot with Tagovailoa.

The Tide have more and better talent to run the spread than most schools, but they’ve ultimately stayed ahead of the pack by beating teams like Oklahoma at their own game.

Take this Orange Bowl example:

This is the weak iso/glance RPO that spread teams across the country love. Alabama sniffed out a blitz before the snap. Tagovailoa punished single coverage with the quick skinny post, thrown directly behind two linebackers who got sucked in by run blocking. OU’s deep safety almost broke it up anyway, seeming to be well versed in Tagovailoa’s tendency to look at another pass option before coming back to his intended target. No dice this time.

Whenever Alabama needed yardage down the stretch, it went back to its RPO game against an OU defense fighting like mad to get Murray back on the field. But the Sooners only got two stops all night, not counting Alabama’s late kneel downs.

To put away the Sooners, Alabama did what Floyd Mayweather did to Conor McGregor in their 2017 boxing match.

After Mayweather built a secure scoring lead early in that bout, he simply wore down McGregor and evaded his punches until the MMA fighter’s energy was gone.

After Bama built a 28-0 lead in the second minute of the second quarter, the Tide worked in more double-tight end sets and overpowered the Sooners. From that fourth touchdown onward, Bama’s running backs carried 23 times for 156 yards, as Bama controlled the ball for about 22 and a half of the remaining minutes. Oklahoma only had the ball for about 21 and a half minutes after that — not much time to cut into a four-TD deficit.

The key with the double-TE personnel is that it negated a strategy that helped Oklahoma beat Texas in their rematch in the Big 12 title game. Against the Longhorns, the Sooners re-embraced a base 4-3 defense that brought former five-star linebacker Caleb Kelly back onto the field in favor of the various overmatched freshman DBs the Sooners had been asking to play nickel. OU they moved reliable CB Tre Norwood to strong safety to play behind Kelly, and used the LB to outnumber the run game. Meanwhile, free safety Robert Barnes played over the top on Texas’ most dangerous WR threat, Lil’Jordan Humphrey.

In that Big 12 game, Texas stayed in 11 personnel (one tight end, one back), which gave the Horns six blockers. But the Sooners were playing with seven defenders (four DL and all three LBs) in the box.

When Alabama played with two tight ends and a back, Oklahoma had to use a safety as an eighth box defender. The Sooners only had one reliable tackler left in their secondary. That would be Barnes, but Josh Jacobs knocked him out of the game while scoring Bama’s fourth TD:

Bama was three-wide on that play. But Barnes’ injury made it much harder to defend double-TE sets later on.

The Sooners didn’t have many answers to stop the Tide from controlling the clock with time-killing drives, and certainly not any answers that didn’t yield easy RPO slants for Tagovailoa to keep Alabama ahead on the scoreboard.

There’s little to do against an offense like Bama’s, but OU’s defensive struggles have probably cost the Sooners back-to-back championships.

Oklahoma’s had the country’s top offense by S&P+ the last two years, with two Heisman QBs leading it. But the Sooners were 101st on defense in 2017 and 89th this year. With even a top-50 defense, they’d have had a great chance to not lose two Playoff semifinals.

As long as Lincoln Riley is around, it’s reasonable to presume the Sooners will keep scoring. With Murray leaving, OU’s been loading up in recruiting. A five-star receiver and QB are on the way in 2019, along with several other blue-chips on both sides of the ball.

The problem is that they have a long ways to go in playing championship defense. The rest of college football is catching up to OU’s spread strategies on offense. OU could still stay far enough ahead on offense or make enough gains on defense to play in plenty more Playoffs. But it’s also plausible OU will look back on this stretch and wonder about a team that was only a decent — not even great — defense away from ending Saban’s dominion.