Oklahoma-Ohio State: The case for beating the Buckeyes

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 17: Baker Mayfield
NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 17: Baker Mayfield /

All eyes this week in college football are on Oklahoma-Ohio State and the classic confrontation that will take place Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio.

This week’s matchup features the No. 2 Buckeyes and the No. 7-ranked Sooners in just the fourth game ever between these two historic college football programs. Ohio State leads the series 2-1, with the road team winning all three games. Upset alert: Oklahoma is the road team this year.

The most recent game in the series was played a year ago in Norman, where Ohio State took control early and dominated the Sooners en route to a 45-24 victory. In the previous two games between these two longtime college powers (1977 at Ohio State and 1983 in Norman), the margin of victory had been a combined 11 points.

The fact that both teams come into the 2017 game ranked in the nation’s top 10 is entirely fitting. The Buckeyes and the Sooners have been ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press weekly college football poll more times than any other school. In the 81 years that the AP poll has been in existence (since 1936), Ohio State has been ranked No. 1 105 times, Oklahoma 101 times.

These same two programs were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, is the AP All-Time Top 25 college poll, which came out last year about this time.

The talent that has come out of these two storied college football brands over the years is incomparable. Oklahoma and Ohio State have combined to produce 818 NFL Draft picks and 12 Heisman Trophy winners.

Given the way the Buckeyes manhandled the Sooners in Norman last season, handing the Sooners their worst home defeat in the 18 seasons Bob Stoops was the Oklahoma head coach and only the ninth home loss in 110 games in the Stoops era, it is a relatively easy bet to pick Ohio State to prevail this season and break the home-team jinx in the series.

According to the latest odds put out by the Las Vegas handicapper Sportsbook Review, Ohio State is a 6.5-point favorite on Saturday.

This is certainly the most difficult road opponent the Sooners will go up against all season and perhaps the most difficult since traveling to play Notre Dame in 2013. Ohio State has won 16 of its last 20 night games at Ohio Stadium (The Horseshoe) and seven of its last nine games against opponents ranked in the top 10.

So how does Oklahoma overcome these odds and pull off what many would consider to be a major upset?

Here is a game plan for a marquee win by the Sooners that would put them on the high road to a spot in the 2017 College Football Playoff.

Baker Mayfield must play a smart, error-free game

NORMAN, OK – SEPTEMBER 02: Quarterback Baker Mayfield
NORMAN, OK – SEPTEMBER 02: Quarterback Baker Mayfield /

The Sooners’ fifth-year senior quarterback is the key to an Oklahoma victory. Mayfield completed just 53 percent of his passes (17 of 32) for 226 yards and two touchdowns in last season’s loss to Ohio State. More importantly, he threw two critical interceptions, both leading two Buckeye touchdowns. The OU captain and team leader must do better than that this time around.

Mayfield contends that he learned a lot from the Ohio State game last year, and his play thereafter reflected that. The Sooners did not lose another game the remainder of the 2016 season, and currently have the longest active win streak in college football.

In OU’s two biggest games after facing Ohio State last season — against No. 10 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Auburn — Mayfield completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for combined 584 passing yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. He must have that kind of performance to beat Ohio State in Columbus.

“It was a huge learning curve for me, losing that game (to Ohio State last season) and watching the film and realizing I didn’t play well at all,” Mayfield told Ryan Aber of the Oklahoma City Oklahoman. “We had some good plays and wound up scoring 20-plus points on a good team, but obviously we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, and a huge part of that was on me.”

Oklahoma’s offensive line must hold its own against an outstanding Ohio State defensive line

Perhaps the biggest matchup in Saturday’s game will be the OU offensive line, considered by many to be the best in the nation, against the Ohio State defensive line that draws equal acclaim as the best in college football this season. If the Sooners upfront are able to provide protection for Baker Mayfield and also create running lanes for the Oklahoma running backs, it will enable the OU offense to advance the ball, sustain drives and keep Buckeye senior quarterback J.T. Barrett and the potent Ohio State offense on the sidelines.

Take advantage of the young, inexperienced Ohio State secondary

NORMAN, OK – SEPTEMBER 02: Tight end Mark Andrews
NORMAN, OK – SEPTEMBER 02: Tight end Mark Andrews /

Ohio State suffered some big losses to the NFL in its defensive secondary. The Sooners need to utilize the speed of Jeff Badet and Marquise Brown and the accurate passing arm of Baker Mayfield to spread the field and attack the Buckeyes’ young secondary with go routes and throws downfield. The Sooner offense should also look to create mismatches covering the 6-foot, 5-inch wide-out Jeffery Mead and big tight end Mark Andrews. Ohio State ranks 116th in the country one week into the 2017 season in passing yards allowed.

Stop the Ohio State running game

Oklahoma allowed 291 rushing yards to Ohio State a year ago. Mike Weber produced 123 of those yards, and he will be back in the lineup this week after sitting out the season opener at Indiana with a hamstring injury. As it turned out, the Buckeyes didn’t need Weber in the win over Indiana, with talented freshman J.K. Robbins stepping in and delivering 181 rushing yards and 6.2 yards per carry. Ohio State ranks fourth nationally in the rushing category after one week; the Sooners are 52nd in stopping the run. To win this game, Oklahoma must be able to stop or at least make it tough for the Buckeyes to get yards on the ground, especially on early downs.

In his weekly press conference on Monday, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley acknowledged that Ohio State is one of the best teams in the country and that going to Columbus to play the Buckeyes poses a major challenge for the Sooners. He said that the Sooners are going to have to play really well to beat Ohio State.

The Sooner head coach couched his praise of the Buckeyes, though, by adding that Oklahoma is a very good team as well and that Ohio State is going to have to play well to beat the Sooners.