New Orleans — Effectively running the ball is an Oklahoma goal every time it plays. Where it ranks on that list of plans can fluctuate. There’s no doubt where it ranks in terms of priorities for tonight’s Sugar Bowl meeting with No. 3 Alabama.
“That’ll be something we have to establish early to set up our game plan,” center Gabe Ikard said Monday.
That determination to run the ball is the biggest physical and philosophical change the 11th-ranked Sooners have made in years. The bubble screens and four-receiver sets that were the base of their offense from 2009-12 all but disappeared in November.
The belief going into the season was physical teams that run the ball are the ones that win championships. OU will face one chiseled from the mold Thursday. The ability to run the ball against the Crimson Tide is the final test in an experiment months in the making.
Early last spring, OU brought in offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and tasked him with forging the Sooners into a team that could play power football. The blocking schemes were shifted from simply trying to maneuver defenders to blowing them off the ball.
“I think what we’re doing schematically is a little bit different than any of us in the offensive staff room have really been in the last four or five, six, seven years,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We’ve been growing with it together as a unit, and as a staff and really like the direction that we’re heading in with it.”
The results the changes have made have been overwhelming. The Sooners enter this game averaging 235 rushing yards a game and 5.3 yards per carry.
The Crimson Tide has noticed the difference.
“When they get in their run offense, it’s a little bit different than their passing offense,” Alabama All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “When they pass they like to spread things out and do the things that people have done [against us] all year. But, when they run, they’re pretty physical.”
OU coach Bob Stoops’ decision to not name a starting quarterback for the Sugar Bowl has had the intended effect. Alabama has spent the last three weeks studying film on both. The offense OU was running in the middle of the season with Bell as the starter spreads the field and is very similar to the one OU ran under Landry Jones.
It has its uses. The Sooners couldn’t have beaten Oklahoma State and set up the Sugar Bowl berth without the classic two-minute drive Bell led for the game-winning touchdown.
But the offense OU has used since the second half of the Iowa State game — the zone-read-heavy one that Trevor Knight directs — has been the most effective and the one that seems to take the Sooners in the direction they want to go Thursday and in the future.
The drawback: fail to run the ball and the winning formula goes from a science to a fluke. The Sooners aren’t really built to covert third-and-10s like it once was.
“We have to match up on first and second down, get some good yards. We have to make our zone read work. We have to make the right reads,” Knight said. “We absolutely have to be in third-and-manageable situations.”
When the Sooners have done those things, they’ve been a formidable team. The only time it really hasn’t was the losses to Texas and Baylor. The offense has changed some since then. The running game, however, has been a constant all season and its importance is elevated. OU’s hopes hinge on its success Thursday.
“If we can’t run the ball, it’ll be a long day for us,” Ikard said.
Note: John Shinn is a sports writer for the Norman Transcript.