As we do each we week, we reached out to the good folks at Crimson and Cream Machine to answer a few questions ahead of what may very well be THE game of the season in the Big 12, and certainly has major title game and playoff implications on the line. And I have to say, Jack Shields of CCM more than delivered. You are absolutely going to want to take time to dive in to this one, it’s a great, and very informative, read. Thanks to Jack for taking the time to really give us some insight into Saturday night’s matchup!
FOW: Well, here we are, a top ten matchup with Big 12 title implications and playoff berths on the line. Is there an expectation around the OU fanbase, especially coming off of that crazy Bedlam win, that the Sooners will win the conference and make the final four?
Jack Shields: I think Oklahoma fans are cautiously optimistic at this point. There's obviously plenty of faith in Baker Mayfield, but the defense has caused everyone to be a bit cynical since the close win at Baylor. However, I think many are confident that Oklahoma can win and claim Big 12 crown in spite of its defense. As far as the playoff is concerned, there are some believe that Oklahoma simply needs to win out, while there are others who fear that OU could be blackballed in the end because of its defense and the perception of the Big 12. However, I think a complete performance against TCU would cause folks to be a bit more bullish on the Sooners.
FOW: Baker Mayfield reasserted himself as the top Heisman candidate after wracking up almost 600 yards against what had been a pretty hot defense last weekend, and got some help with Ohio State and Penn State both laying eggs. He was really, really good the past two seasons, but seems to be on a different level this year. Has anything about his game changed, or is it just the normal college QB development cycle?
JS: He hasn't completely eliminated his risk-taking tendencies (nor should he), but he's definitely cut back on some of his bolder decisions in 2017. I would also say that natural progression has played a part in things. He's been incredibly accurate despite having to develop chemistry with some new receivers (who are now excelling).
FOW: The development of the wide receiving corp has certainly helped Baker, especially over the last couple of games, but people still seem to not know much about the unit. Tell us a little about the players and how do you think they matchup against a very athletic, but smallish TCU secondary?
JS: As far as matchups are concerned, a guy like Mark Andrews can cause some problems for any secondary -- especially one with small DBs. He's not only a big target for Baker Mayfield, as he's much better at gaining yards after the catch than any receiver of that size should be. Lincoln Riley also finds plenty of ways to utilize fullback/H-back Dimitri Flowers, and he's usually good for one of two big plays per game. JUCO transfer Marquise Brown -- who is listed at 5'11" and 162 but in reality is probably much smaller -- has become this offense's biggest home-run threat in recent weeks. As scary is it is, he's probably a bit faster than Dede Westbrook, and both Mayfield and Riley said as much this week. True freshman CeeDee Lamb is strong in pretty much every aspect of the receiver position and has the potential to be one of the all-time greats at the receiver position. Grad transfer Jeff Badet hasn't been quite as active in recent weeks, but he's probably the second fastest receiver WR OU has and is perfectly capable of beating coverage deep or doing something special in the open field. Slot receiver Mykel Jones has demonstrated a knack for finding space in recent weeks and is usually good for two or three first down receptions in a game.
FOW: No one in the country is stopping the run game like TCU right now, who leads everyone in yards per carry, has allowed less than 50 yards combined over the last three games, and is #11 in overall defensive efficiency. On the other side, the Sooner run game has improved dramatically over the course of the season, with Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon both averaging 6.0+ per attempt. Who wins this important battle Saturday night - the TCU defense or the OU running game?
JS: I'm probably going to end up going with the OU run game because of how much respect TCU will have to give OU's passing game. I also don't think TCU has faced an rushing attack comparable to what they're about to see this week. Oklahoma's offensive line can run-block with the best of them, and Rodney Anderson is just on fire at this point. Additionally, Trey Sermon is a back that can really wear out a defense, so he could definitely have some late success in this one. Now, I don't think OU is going to necessarily dominate in this area, but seeing 200+ rushing yards wouldn't surprise me. But it'll be interesting to see how it unfolds, because TCU's defense is nasty. They're capable of shutting most offenses down, so I think they're more than capable of at least slowing OU (which could theoretically be enough).
FOW: Another intriguing matchup is the escapism of Mayfield against a TCU front that leads the conference by a wide margin in sacks. How will the OU offensive line slow down Boesen, Banogu and company, and if they get past the protection, will we see Baker run more?
JS: Oklahoma State was able to have a bit of success with the blitz in the third quarter, but Mayfield really made them pay when it didn't work. In fact, he completed 11 of 16 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns on plays in which Oklahoma State brought five or more rushers. Now, if TCU is able to get pressure with DEs Boesen and Banogu along with the interior linemen, they could have some success against Mayfield, who has taken a few too many sacks in situations in which he probably should have gotten rid of the ball. Baker doesn't really "take off" much, but he's shown a few times (notably against Kansas State) that he's willing to take off and gain some yards if the pressure is coming and nothing is open. However, it'll be awfully tough for Boesen and Banogu to get consistent outside pressure against a pair of tackles that will be playing on Sundays in the not-so-distant future. Additionally, Oklahoma's interior line hasn't exactly allowed a ton of penetration up the middle this year -- even against Ohio State. There's a reason that this offense is so tough to slow down, and it starts with the offensive line.
FOW: The Oklahoma defense is... well, not great. The TCU offense is well, also not great. Teams that have had success against TCU this year have contained the running game and forced Kenny Hill to beat them. Do you expect that to be the plan Saturday night and if so, can they execute it?
JS: Oklahoma's defense has proven that it CAN defend the run, but they've proven inconsistent in that regard even when utilizing the 4-3. I think the approach you mentioned is probably the approach they should (and will) take, but trying to force someone to "beat them with his arm" isn't exactly an exciting proposition. However, that approach did work against Texas Tech when it forced the Red Raiders to become much more predictable. If Oklahoma can indeed stop the run it this one, I think things could actually work out for this secondary, relatively speaking.
FOW: The last five times these two teams have played, the combined margin is 21. Why do these two programs seem to always play tight, gut-wrenching games?
JS: I think it's a testament to how well Gary Patterson prepares his teams on the defensive side. With the exception of last year's high-scoring game (with a shorthanded TCU defense), TCU has found ways to make high-powered Oklahoma offenses uncomfortable. Even before before Mayfield left the game in 2015, Oklahoma's offense wasn't exactly enforcing its will like it had been in previous weeks leading up to that contest.
FOW: How do you see this game unfolding? How does TCU beat OU/how do the Sooners beat the Frogs? What's your prediction.
JS: I think TCU could beat OU by having some early success in the run game, which in turn would likely have the Oklahoma defense completely out of sorts. Conversely, if OU can stop the run and force TCU to be a bit more one-dimensional, they might actually have some success on the defensive side. The issue is that OU will likely be playing at least one freshman CB on Saturday, so Tre Norwood and/or Tre Brown will need to step up. As far as the strength vs. strength matchup is concerned, I'd give Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma the edge simply because they can beat a defense in so many different ways. I think OU wins this one by a score of 38-24, but I think we'll see a rematch in December.
FOW: If they held a Big 12 player draft and the only rule is you can't pick any current Sooners, who are your first three picks?
JS: I'd have to say James Washington, Malik Jefferson and a healthy Connor Williams, in no particular order.
Thanks again to Jack for answering our questions and giving us a very entertaining and informative read!