It was jarring to see Army come so close to beating Oklahoma on Saturday. It probably shouldn’t have been. The Black Knights didn’t fall backwards into 18 wins the two years before this. They were 28.5-point underdogs at the Big 12 favorites, but when the service academies are supposed to get crushed like that, they almost always exceed expectations.
Army is still competing with two perceptions. One is that its triple-option offense is a gimmick, run exclusively because the Knights don’t have the players to do anything else. There’s a bit of truth to that sentiment, but it goes a lot deeper. The other perception is that Army’s still bad, as it was for almost the whole century before Jeff Monken began a revival.
This post isn’t primarily about Army, though. It’s about the team that needed overtime to beat it at home, 28-21, in Week 4. How worried should we be about Oklahoma?
Somewhat, but it’s not automatically doomsday.
Army’s playing style was always going to make it harder for Oklahoma’s elite offense to run up the numbers it’s used to posting.
Army barely throws. Army doesn’t often run out of bounds. The great majority of Army’s plays are runs into the line or speed-option runs that don’t get as wide as the sideline. The Black Knights threw nine times and completed three of those passes against OU, and that represented more of an aerial incursion than they’re usually comfortable with. Last year, they had more than three completions once and threw five times on average.
The upshot is that the clock is always running. Even if your defense is getting off the field against Army (and OU’s definitely was not), the Knights’ offense is slurping up clock. Army’s opponents this year have run 68, 72, 76, and now 40 plays. Those are numbers ranging from average-ish to tiny, and they stem from the Knights’ schematic shortening of games.
Okahoma’s 21 regulation points were paltry. They were the school’s fewest in any game, period, since 2015, Lincoln Riley’s first year as offensive coordinator, when the Sooners twice scored 17. Unlike in those losses to Texas and Clemson, when OU’s offense averaged 4.3 and then 5 yards per play, the fundamentals in this game were sound. The Sooners got 8.9 yards per snap. The trouble was that OU only had the ball for 15:19 of clock time.
Oklahoma’s defense having trouble with the flexbone option was a foreseeable problem. It’s not a small thing, because lots of teams run variants of the triple option now. But it doesn’t give us much new information.
Oklahoma’s question is always defense. It’s still defense. And the defense wasn’t anything special. Army was allowed to run for 4.3 yards per carry, with seven runs of 10-plus yards pushing up the Knights’ average. Most of the Knights’ evening consisted of bunches of runs between 1 and 5 yards, with the chains getting moved slowly up the field. Army had 26 first downs to Oklahoma’s 19, despite getting just 4.4 yards per snap in total.
Oklahoma played defense for 45 of 60 regulation minutes, anyway. The inability to get off the field was not good.
The good news: Oklahoma plays in the Big 12. The program has recruited a bunch of blue-chip defensive backs who were almost completely worthless against Army’s ground-only attack. They’ll get to be more involved going forward. And in a league that likes to pass, games will effectively be longer. Even if OU’s defense struggles, Kyler Murray and the offense should get to see the field plenty, and OU can win shootouts.
The bad news: while Oklahoma won’t see an option system quite like Army’s again, everyone now knows that the Sooners can’t get off the field against well-executed run schemes that give the offense multiple chances to read the defense. Everyone else in the Big 12 noticed that and will try to sting the Sooners with their own triple-option looks.
So Oklahoma’s got a sketchy defense. It’s nice to have some familiarity in this rapidly changing world.
If there’s one long-term bright side from the Army game, it’s that OU might be getting closer to a long-term answer at running back.
Now two games into the season-long absence of the injured Rodney Anderson, the Sooners seem to have found their bearings on the ground. Trey Sermon ran 18 times for 119 yards, and Murray ran six times for 80 if you filter out the one time he was sacked. Sermon had run 13 times for 74 yards the week before against Iowa State, a solid showing.
Army’s defense is not good. The Knights have routinely placed near the bottom of the national leaderboard in the major defensive stats, and they’re there again this year. They entered Saturday 124th of 130 FBS teams at 7.4 yards given up per play. The rush defense was 90th at 4.7. Oklahoma made all of those figures significantly worse.
Sermon putting up big numbers against Army doesn’t mean much, but it’s encouraging that he put up his best game yet. The four-star sophomore’s possible emergence as a quality feature back might say more about OU’s chances than cutting it close against Army did.