The Norman Transcript

October 23, 2013

Where did the Sooners’ vertical passing game go?

By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Oklahoma’s offense appears to be in a quagmire. The Sooners have run the ball well, but their struggles throwing the ball deep have them stuck in a rut.

By far and away the Sooners’ biggest problem has been finding big plays in the passing game. They connected on a 47-yard touchdown from wide receiver Lacoltan Bester to wide receiver Sterling Shepard, but the play was just one of two completions the Sooners had for more than 20 yards in the game. Over the last four games, quarterback Blake Bell has completed just six passes that went for 20 yards are more.

The lack of long completions has been a drag on the Sooners.

“You have to be able to convert them. We’ll keep going after them and I believe we will,” OU coach Bob Stoops said of taking deep shots. “We had some opportunities the other day, but we weren’t able to complete them. We’ve got to keep doing them.”

The inability to connect on deep balls has an adverse affect on OU’s ability to run. Opposing safeties play closer to the line of scrimmage because they’re much more fearful of the ball getting run down their throat than getting it thrown over their head.

If OU can somehow start converting, it could have an entirely different looking offense. One that would be much closer to the one it envisioned early in the season.

The initial plan was to throw less this season with the hope of getting bigger chunks when it did. The ability to run the ball — which OU has exploited in every game this season — was supposed to cause defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage, opening opportunities to throw deep balls in ways OU hasn’t in years.

The Sooners are throwing less — significantly less — than last season. They averaged 43.9 passing attempts per game in 2012. Through seven games this season, they’ve averaged 29.2 attempts per game. Some would argue that’s too many for a team averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

It would be if OU could hit more of those deep shots. The reasons OU hasn’t are multiple.

“That goes along with a little bit of everything with the offense,” Bell said. “We can get our running game going a little bit better — obviously, we are doing a great job with our running game, but going that way and then obviously taking shots down the field and connecting on a couple of more. Missing, obviously, some is a little bit of the reason too. That can be a little bit on me, the receiver and the offensive line.”

This will be essential for the 17th-ranked Sooners (6-1, 3-1 Big 12) when they face No. 10 Texas Tech (7-0, 3-0) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Owen Field.

It’s a game OU will try to dominate by running the ball, controlling the clock and thereby controlling the game.

But it has to do something to loosen up defenses. In its last two games defenses have shown little fear of being beat deep. Texas and Kansas both sold out to stop the run. They kept one safety deep and played mostly man coverage on the outside.

It’s the scheme of choice to stop the run, but it makes it very hard to cover deep.

Midway through the season, the Sooners still haven’t shown enough reasons for defenses to get out of it.

The offense is going to struggle until it does.

“It’s the difference, whether it’s in the run game or throwing it,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We haven’t the big hitters.”

John Shinn

Follow me @john_shinn