How Baker Mayfield and Lincoln Riley invaded Ohio State’s defense

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Ohio State ran the ball far more effectively than Oklahoma in their prime-time contest at the ‘Shoe: 167 yards to 104 and 4.9 per carry to 2.8. The Buckeyes were also better on third down, converting seven-of-15 while the Sooners went four-for-11.

But the Sooners took over on the scoreboard in the second half and laid a 31-16 beatdown on the Buckeyes thanks in large part to QB Baker Mayfield.

Mayfield was lights out, completing 27 of 35 passes for 386 yards at 11 yards per pass, with three touchdown passes and zero turnovers. He picked up where Indiana’s Richard Lagow and Simmie Cobbs Jr. left off in attacking this young Buckeye secondary. Here’s how the plucky Sooner QB managed to overcome the loaded Buckeye defense.

1. Mayfield negated Ohio State’s defensive line.

The most dominant attribute of this Ohio State team is the depth and quality of its DL, which includes star DEs in Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, and Nick Bosa to go along with Dre’Mont Jones, Tracy Sprinkle, Jalyn Holmes, and Jashon Cornell on the inside. Indiana ran 95 plays and couldn’t wear it down enough to get a run game going or slow down the pass rush.

Oklahoma has one of the better offensive lines, but OU was hardly impervious to the Buckeyes’ athleticism at DL and man blitz schemes.

Mayfield made up the difference with his ability to move. This was essential for OU’s run game, which managed enough plays to move the chains but struggled to really threaten. Mayfield’s option game helped even out numbers, including when he was reading a perimeter defender to throw the bubble:

The threat of the QB keeper helped create favorable numbers to feature his faster weapons:

Both of those plays feature the OL executing the GT counter-blocking scheme (the guard and tackle both sweeping to the other side of the formation) while the ball actually goes elsewhere. The defense hesitates in response. In the second play, middle linebacker Chris Worley has to navigate the threat of a counter-run to the right along with the jet sweep to the left. He had a great game but couldn’t arrive before the Sooners picked up 9 yards here.

Mayfield’s mastery and ability have allowed coach Lincoln Riley to draw up all kinds of ways to get the ball to OU’s athletes in space or behind OL blocking at advantage. Riley might be able to keep that up when Mayfield is gone, but it’ll be hard to replace this ability to navigate pressure, find throwing lanes on the move, and then accurately hit receivers while moving outside of the pocket. This one’s only a near-miss, despite being about 50 yards away:

This throw on the run was right on:

Mayfield’s ability to evade is on another level, but pairing it with his cool under fire, ability to find receivers, AND accurate delivery makes a truly lethal combination.

2. Precision strikes on Buckeye weaknesses.

Oklahoma went in ready to jump all over two soft spots. The first was OSU’s struggle to adjust to the (admittedly uncommon) threat of the play-action pass to the fullback. In addition to throwing good blocks, Dimitri Flowers served as OU’s leading receiver, with seven catches for 98 yards and a TD.

His touchdown came on this play, when the Sooners did a phenomenal job of selling GT counter blocks again before getting into pass sets. Mayfield fired a pass over the heads of a shocked LB corps:

This isn’t a glaring, unique weakness of the Buckeyes. As a general rule, LBs will struggle to respond to blocking schemes that tell them to run up and simultaneously cover an athletic FB.

The play-action toss to Flowers was troublesome and responsible for nearly all of his production. Mayfield’s execution on these was terrific. You can see him watching the DL, as though reading an unblocked defender, before suddenly resetting, looking up, and nailing Flowers in stride. Sometimes, it’s consistent execution of the little things that make for greatness.

Mayfield also made some hay against Ohio State’s rather ridiculous coverages of OU’s spread, trips (three WRs to one side) formations.

The common theme in these examples is Ohio State trying to keep six in the box, meaning both linebackers hanging tight and leaving the defense outleveraged on the trips side. In each example, the defenders left in charge of defending the passing strength — typically includes a corner, sam LB Dante Booker, and SS Damon Webb — are taken advantage of in space.

It’s hard to win a three-on-three matchup when Mayfield is the triggerman and the skill players have that much space. Worley played sam LB last year and is capable in coverage, but his usage put him in no-man’s land when OU was throwing. You might think this helped OSU stop the run, but OU didn’t run out of this formation very much.

Eventually Ohio State adjusted and got into more of a Pat Narduzzi style of coverage, with the sam LB covering the third receiver with help from the opposite side safety while the strong safety and cornerback take the outside two receivers. Mayfield just scrambled and went elsewhere with the ball:

Mayfield knew the OU game plan and came out ready to execute it to perfection. He hit nine different receivers and was unfazed by losing star TE Mark Andrews early or the fact that OU’s first four drives yet were denied points due to a fourth down failure, two fumbles, and a missed field goal.

It pays to have a senior QB going on four years of starting, with a knack for playmaking off the cuff, when you are trying to get after a top-five opponent on the road.

With this on the resume, the Sooners are now in good shape to get back to the Playoff if they can get through the Big 12, against which the Mayfield/Riley Sooners are already 17-1.

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