OU Football: Baylor Game Will Be Won or Lost in the Trenches


The Big 12 is best known for its high-powered, high-scoring offenses, and two of the best will be going at each other on Saturday when the OU football team travels south to the state of Texas for a second time this season.

Here’s hoping that the second time will be better than the first trip to Texas. The last time the Sooners were in the Lone Star State, things didn’t go so well for the Crimson and Cream, as archrival Texas rose from the ashes in the annual rivalry game between the two schools and handed the heavily favored Sooners their first and only loss of the season.

Oct 10, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard Nila Kasitati (54) in action against the Texas Longhorns during Red River rivalry at Cotton Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

After the Sooners suffered the disappointing setback to Texas, however, it can be said that they have responded by wreaking havoc on every team in their path since.

Oklahoma has outscored its four opponents since losing to Texas by a combined score of 232-50 and outgained them 2,579 to 1,125, a difference of 1,454 yards or 363 yards per game.

The headlines trumpeting such domination always seem to go to the players at the offensive skill positions, but in reality it is linemen on the front lines, both offensively and defensively, who set in motion the opportunities to make positive plays and sustain scoring drives on the offensive side and clog running lanes and blowup the pocket on defense. Over the course of an entire game, how well the guys in the trenches do their individual and collective jobs more times than not has a key bearing on the game’s outcome.

The offensive line was one of the big question marks for the Sooners heading into the 2015 season. With four starters gone from last year’s team, two of them NFL draft picks, the question was whether the growing pains from the inexperience on the O-line would create additional problems in trying to install a new offense and with a new starting quarterback behind center Ty Darlington, the lone returning starter up front.

Those concerns were validated and became and fairly apparent early in the season as the OU offense struggled to get traction early in games, and the running game, which had been the strength of the offense a year earlier behind the powerful, gashing ground attack led by Big 12 rushing champion Samaje Perine, was grinding and mostly sputtering in trying to make anything positive happen.

Nov 7, 2015; Norman, OK, USA; Iowa State Cyclones running back Mike Warren (2) is tackled by Oklahoma Sooners defensive tackle Charles Walker (97) during the fourth quarter at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

This led to further concerns that perhaps the Sooner run game was being abandoned in favor of the forward pass, which, after all, was the main element of the new Air Raid offense. Even though Baker Mayfield threw for more than 400 yards and 10 touchdowns in three of the first four games, the Sooner quarterback was sacked eight times in those three outings, for which the offensive line bears at least some of the responsibility.

It all came to an ugly head, however, in the fifth game of the season in OU’s annual Red River rivalry game with Texas. The Sooners managed a measly 67 yards rushing on 37 plays, and they weren’t much more effective when they threw the ball. Mayfield’s stat line for the afternoon was 20 out of 28 for 211 yards and one touchdown, far below his season average. But the worst stat of all was the six sacks allowed by the OU offense.

The Longhorn offense stayed almost exclusively with a ground attack, putting the ball in the air only 12 times the entire game. That put tremendous pressure on the Sooner front six or seven to make plays at the line of scrimmage. Texas moved the chains on more than 50 percent of its third-down plays, mostly on the ground.

Since that alarming afternoon in the Cotton Bowl, however, Oklahoma has undergone a transformation that may never have taken place if Texas had not risen up with such authority and shocked the Sooners right down to their very core.

Oklahoma unleashed a balanced run/pass attack at Kansas State in registering a 55-point blowout, while holding the home Wildcats to just 110 yards total for the game.

Then in the three games after the win at K-State (all blowout wins over Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State), the OU offense has exploded for over 600 yards in all three games, with Perine and redshirt freshman Joe Mixon finding all kinds of rushing lanes and peeling off sizeable gains.

“You have seen what we’ve been able to do, so obviously we have some good momentum going into this last stretch.” —Ty Darlington, OU senior center

The Sooner starting offensive line is composed Darlington in the middle, a pair of freshman starters at the tackle position (Orlando Brown and Dru Samia), sophomore Jonathan Alvarez and senior Derek Farniok alternating at left guard and senior Nila Kasitati at the other guard spot.

The O-line is playing at a high level right now, and the fact that it has gotten progressively better every week since the Texas game is not an accident, says Darlington, a two year starter:

“We have a lot of confidence right now,” the Sooner center said in postgame comments after last weekend’s win over Iowa State. “Since the loss to Texas, we have had gradual improvement.

“You have seen what we’ve been able to do since then, so obviously we have some good momentum going into this last stretch.”

The guys up front on the other side of the ball are getting in the act as well as the OU defense has been the best in the conference over the last month. The Sooners have recorded 19 sacks in their last four games and are second in the nation in that category.

Chief among the Oklahoma sack artists are Eric Striker, credited with 7.5, and Charles Walker and Charles Tapper, who have 5 apiece. All three rank in the top 10 in the Big 12 in getting to the quarterback. Striker, one of the best pass rushers in the college game, also is credited with 7 quarterback hurries to go along with his sack totals.

Defensive tackles Matt Romar and Matt Dimon have created their fair share of disruption to opposing offenses, as well.

One highly noticeable trend that has emerged watching OU’s performance over the past month is that both the Sooner offensive line and the D-line are controlling the line of scrimmage, and when you are able to do that, it generally translates into wins. The better you are able to do it, the more sizeable the victory. That has definitely been the case for Oklahoma in its last four conference wins.

The next three games will be the true test, however, and it starts with Baylor this weekend.