Tweener LBs stop the spread

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
8:54
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Eric Striker's job description doesn't fit on a depth chart or a flip card.

"I'm an outside linebacker or a Sam, a nickel, whatever you want to call it, and I rush," the Oklahoma junior said.

It's a mouthful, but outside linebackers such as Striker are proving to be a handful for opposing offenses. They should also show up more and more on college defenses.

As the sport becomes increasingly more of a space game, defensive coaches, especially those employing three-man fronts, are prioritizing speed over size at the outside linebacker position. The burly box linebacker is virtually extinct.

"The neck roll is dead," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former two-time national defensive player of the year who once sported an impressive neck roll. "The game is played more vertically and horizontally than it's ever been, as compared to 10-15 years ago."

Consequently, teams are using more versatile players such as Striker, who last season led Oklahoma in both sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (10.5). He showed up to OU at barely 6-foot and 198 pounds. He played most of last season south of 220 and is now listed at 221.

"[Striker] broke the mold, being as dynamic as he was," Indiana defensive coordinator Brian Knorr said. "You don't have to be a 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end to rush the passer.

"We're searching for those guys, that kind of athlete."

Those guys are typically called "tweeners" in recruiting, and they can fall through the cracks. Striker knows. He was one of them despite recording a record 42 sacks at Armwood High School, a central Florida powerhouse.

"Coaches were like, 'I don't know where you fit,'" Striker said. "Some had me at safety, some had me at outside linebacker. I probably didn't get offers [because of it]."

But once coaches figure out how to best use tweeners, as Oklahoma did with Striker, the upshot is significant. They fill up box scores, providing both tackles for loss and takeaways.

And they rarely have to leave the field.

"He can cover wide receivers, he has great change of direction, he sees everything and he's very rarely wrong," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "He's such a hybrid guy, but he has so many unique characteristics.

"You don't want him off the field. Ever."

Offensive coaches are also noticing the change.

"When you were 3 yards and a cloud of dust and you had two tight ends and these bigger fullbacks, the linebackers were 240 pounds and it was a fistfight," Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said. "Now that things have become more spread out, defenses have had to adapt their personnel.

"The more athletic those outside linebackers are, the glorified strong safety types who can still pack a punch and be physical, those guys are at a premium."

Why is the tweener so valuable to today's defenses?

So far, fourth-ranked Oklahoma and seventh-ranked Baylor have looked like the class of the Big 12. But is there a third team that could emerge as a threat? Earlier this week, we examined who that third team might be.

SportsNation

After the first month of the season, who has the best chance to challenge Oklahoma and Baylor for the Big 12 title?

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    39%
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    18%
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    11%
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    26%
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    6%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,167)

Brandon went with West Virginia, even though the Mountaineers already have a conference loss. Quarterback Clint Trickett and wideout Kevin White have been phenomenal, and West Virginia could be geared for a run with the scheduling easing up a bit. If the Mountaineers can knock off Baylor at home on Oct. 18, then they could definitely emerge as a contender, despite the loss to Oklahoma.

While Max and I like what we’ve seen from West Virginia, we both went with Kansas State. The Wildcats won the Big 12 title just two years ago and appear to have a team with similar strengths. The front seven appears to be formidable, after snapping Auburn’s 13-game streak of at least 200 rushing yards last week. Bill Snyder remains one of the best coaches in the country. And Tyler Lockett is as big of a playmaker as anyone player in the league. The Wildcats to do have to travel to Norman and Waco. But K-State won its last trip to Oklahoma, and will have an extra week to prepare for the Sooners. And the Wildcats played Baylor tough last year, even without Lockett.

Of course, West Virginia and Kansas State aren’t the only possible teams that could emerge as Big 12 contenders.

TCU is 2-0, and appears to have another top-flight defense. The Horned Frogs have a huge game with Oklahoma in two weeks, which could dictate whether they can finally challenge for the conference title in their third year in the Big 12.

Oklahoma State, meanwhile, looks better than its preseason prognostication. The Cowboys played No. 1 Florida State tough in the opener and have cruised in their last two games. Coordinator Glenn Spencer’s defense has been stout so far despite inexperience at several positions. The key will be whether backup quarterback Daxx Garman can get the Oklahoma State offensive attack humming to the level of previous seasons.

We’ve given you our thoughts. Now we put the question to you in our weekly Big 12 poll. Who is the biggest threat to Oklahoma and Baylor in the Big 12 race?

Is it West Virginia or Kansas State? TCU or Oklahoma State?

Or maybe even somebody else.

Let us know what you think by voting in our poll.

Big 12 morning links

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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I must admit, as a Nuggets fan, my reaction was more like ... "YES!!!!!"
  • How do you stop Baylor? Bobby La Gesse of the Ames Tribune takes a closer look at how Iowa State will try to stop the Bears. Among the priorities is stopping the running game. Baylor is thought of as a high-flying attack but the Bears lead the Big 12 in rushing yards per game (207.5) since 2009. Art Briles has always built his offense around the running game so the Cyclones focus on stopping that ground attack is a great place to start.
  • Oklahoma's offensive line is big and physical, writes Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman. OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh has been one of the best hires in the Big 12 in recent years. The Sooners have averaged a Big 12-best 5.35 yards per carry since Bedenbaugh was hired before the 2013 season. OU averaged 4.15 yards per carry in the three seasons before Bedenbaugh's arrival.
  • An excellent piece by SI.com's Lindsay Schnell on Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury gives you a glimpse at his extremely competitive nature among other things. It should be no surprise that Kingsbury's competitive drive is strong. It's hard to rise so quickly from quality control assistant to head coach at your alma mater without unique traits like Kingsbury's competitiveness.
  • TCU running backs are sharing the ball-carrying load reports Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The Horned Frogs running backs might be splitting carries but I was expecting TCU's new offense to bring a little more commitment to the running game than we've seen in the first two games. TCU is averaging 36.3 rushes per game after averaging 33.58 rushes per game a year ago. It will be interesting to see if that number increases in Big 12 play or remains between 35-40 rushes per game for the duration of the year.
  • His Kansas State teammates weren't surprised to see linebacker Dakorey Johnson make a big impact against Auburn last Thursday, writes Joshua Tinder of the Manhattan Mercury. Johnson earned Big 12 defensive player of the week honors with six tackles including two tackles for loss and one interception in the loss to the Tigers. Johnson brings increased athleticism to K-State's defense so it will be interesting to see if he can consistently play at a high level for Bill Snyder's squad. If he can, the Wildcats defense could end up among the Big 12's best units.

Key stretches for Oklahoma, Baylor

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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It's hard not to look toward the Nov. 8 battle between Baylor Bears and Oklahoma Sooners with anticipation and excitement. The game between the Big 12's highest ranked teams could decide the conference title.

Yet both teams are staring at a stretch of games that could define their seasons.

Baylor will start Big 12 play with three of four games on the road including Saturday's visit to Iowa State. After the Cyclones, BU plays at Texas, hosts TCU then travels to West Virginia. Oklahoma will regroup with a bye on Saturday before playing at TCU, taking on Texas in the AT&T Red River Showdown and hosting Kansas State to end the three-game stretch.

It's an opportunity for the Bears and Sooners to cement their places among the nation's best teams or stumble off the radar before their head-to-head matchup in November.

The Sooners can learn from a similar stretch in 2013 when OU was flying high heading into Big 12 play, fresh off a road win at Notre Dame. A narrow home win against TCU was followed by a shocking loss to down-and-out Texas, which knocked the Sooners out of national title conversations in the third game of their toughest three-game stretch of the season. OU has been dominant this fall but the bye week comes at an ideal time, allowing Bob Stoops' squad to make proper preparations for this year's season-defining, three-game obstacle course.

"This off week comes at a great time," Stoops said. "We can really focus on some areas we can improve. You get a little breather here as we go into this stretch. Sometimes those stretches are positive. You know 'Here they come' and you're ready for them. In 2000, it was that way we had Texas, K-State and Nebraska in that stretch so sometimes when they're bunched in that way it's a positive."

The four-game stretch for BU is just as important. The Bears are 32-10 since the beginning of the 2011 season including a 21-1 record in Waco, Texas. Learning to carry their dominant play into opposing stadiums is the next step for Art Briles' program, which is 6-8 on the road since 2011. BU's lone regular-season loss came at Oklahoma State during their Big 12-title winning season a year ago. Even though they went 3-1 in true road games last season, the Bears are anxious to re-affirm their road-game struggles are a thing of the past.

"I think it is going to show us a lot of what this team is capable of," quarterback Bryce Petty said. "This next month, three of the four games are away, and they're not easy. The venues that we are playing at aren't easy to win at. Each game is going to be a fight and struggle."

BU knows wins at ISU, UT and WVU are hard to come by after making road trips to all three schools in 2012 and heading home with losses. The tough early conference schedule is an opportunity for Petty and his teammates to show how far the program has come since 2012.

"It's going to show us who we are, and I like that," Petty said. "I like that it's front-loaded at the beginning of the season. It's important for us to make sure that our focus is small and that we grow as a team pretty fast. We're going to have some hostile environments early, which will prepare us for down the road."

UA jersey tour: OL Jalin Barnett

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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For someone who only recently has taken football seriously, ESPN 300 offensive lineman Jalin Barnett has come a long way.

Before high school, Barnett’s primary focus wasn’t on the football field. He was a gamer -- just not wearing pads and cleats. Video games, like many youngsters, fueled Barnett’s passion.

“I was way more about Xbox and stuff like that,” Barnett said. “I loved 'Halo.' That was my game.”

It was only until the seventh grade when he took football seriously. And it was around the middle of his freshman season when he actually began watching extensive amounts of football on TV. Coincidentally, this was about the same time he began garnering interest from college coaches.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, and Barnett is the top-ranked player in the state of Oklahoma and also an Under Armour All-American. Barnett was the guest of honor during an Under Armour Game jersey presentation Wednesday at Lawton High School.

At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Barnett can play guard or tackle. He’s considered the nation’s top-ranked offensive guard and is ranked No. 43 in the ESPN 300. Barnett is 30 pounds leaner since the spring and said he notices the difference when he lines up on the ball.

“It was getting kind of hard to move around,” Barnett said, referring to once being 330 pounds. “This summer, I worked hard. I knew if I got skinnier, I could move a lot better. Now I’m catching safeties.”

Barnett has roughly a dozen offers but has trimmed his list to four schools -- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Oregon State. He’s taken an official visit to Arkansas and is looking forward to upcoming official visits.

So what is about the four schools that attracts Barnett?

“With Oregon State,” he said, “a couple of kid who went to my school are there. I like [offensive line] Coach [Mike] Cavanaugh. I have a great relationship with him. With Oklahoma State, a couple of our kids went to school there, too. I feel like that’s a really great team, and I like all the coaches.

“With Oklahoma and Arkansas, I’ve been watching them for a while. They’ve really opened my eyes with the things that they do.”

Barnett said none of the four schools lead the race, but many believe Oklahoma and Arkansas are running neck and neck for top billing. Barnett said he hopes to make a decision by the end of October.
 
Some more random thoughts from Barnett:

On who he's looking forward to seeing at the UA game: “I’m looking forward to playing side by side with Josh Wariboko. I met him at a couple of camps. I found out he did track, and I did track. He and I have gotten real cool.”

Best player to play in the UA game: Jameis Winston

Earliest football memory: “It was around when I first started, back in the third or fourth grade, I blocked two kids at once. I blocked an end and a safety coming off the edge.”

Why do you wear your number? “I wear 77. I got it my freshman year. The kid in front of me just graduated, and he was pretty good. I wanted that number because I wanted to see if I can be better.”

A “did you know” fact: “My shoe size is 18.”

Big 12 stat check: Week 5

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
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A closer look at one statistic worth keeping an eye on for each Big 12 team entering Week 5:

Baylor: Don't forget about Antwan Goodley. The potential All-America receiver went down with an injury in the season opener and enters Big 12 play with zero receptions. While KD Cannon and the rest of Baylor's wideouts feasted in his absence, Goodley is back this week, and he and Bryce Petty have some catching up to do. No Big 12 player matched his 598 yards after the catch last season.

Iowa State: Well, the Cyclones are 2-0 in home games against Baylor under coach Paul Rhoads. During the Art Briles era, Baylor has averaged 33.2 points per game on the road against the rest of the Big 12. In their losses in Ames in 2009 and 2012, Baylor's offense put up a combined 31 points. But ever since that 35-21 loss at ISU in 2012, the Bears are 19-3.

Kansas: Tony Pierson has recorded 280 touches on offense in his career at Kansas. He's gained 10 or more yards on 25 percent of his touches and picked up 20-plus yards on 26 of those 70 plays. The majority of his big plays have come on rushes, but Pierson is also averaging 12.7 yards per reception in his four seasons. He's instant offense, plain and simple.

Kansas State: ESPN Stats & Info analyzed the Auburn-Kansas State game tape and determined Jake Waters was pressured on nine plays. He completed three passes, threw two incompletions and an interception and took three sacks. K-State's net yardage when the Tigers got pressure on Waters? Just 15 yards. Waters and his linemen will have to handle the heat a bit better in Big 12 play.

Oklahoma: How will freshman Samaje Perine follow up his 242-yard night at West Virginia? In the past decade, 19 FBS running backs have surpassed 240 rushing yards multiple times in a season. If Perine does it again this year, he'll join some elite company that includes Reggie Bush, Matt Forte, Le'Veon Bell, Ray Rice, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Andre Williams and, yes, Adrian Peterson.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys rank No. 2 nationally in a statistic that's pretty darn important: red zone efficiency defense. OSU's defense has entered the red zone 10 times this season and permitted just two touchdowns. Opposing offenses have had to settle for field goals seven times (one was blocked) and Jameis Winston threw a red zone interception. Getting stingy under pressure like that will pay off big in Big 12 play.

TCU: The Horned Frogs are one of only two teams in FBS that have played just two games entering Week 5. (Cincinnati started the season bizarrely with back-to-back byes.) This isn't just some silly observation. The fact is, starting this week against SMU, Gary Patterson's team must play eight games in eight consecutive weeks before getting a pre-Thanksgiving reprieve. They face a brutal run in October (OU, at Baylor, OSU, Texas Tech) and need some gas in the tank if they hope to make a run in November.

Texas: It's hard to believe that, with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray both healthy and splitting time, Texas ranks No. 9 in the Big 12 in rushing right now at 123.7 yards per game. That's 99 fewer yards per game than Oklahoma is averaging and almost 115 fewer than Baylor. The culprit here is a shoddy offensive line, but the downhill run game was supposed to be the strength of the Longhorns' offense and they've struggled without one.

Texas Tech: One not-unreasonable excuse for Texas Tech's problems on defense: According to its sports information office, 17 of 27 Red Raiders who've recorded tackles this season are freshmen, sophomores or newcomers. That number does include Kenny Williams, who moved from running back to linebacker this spring. The rest are young guys who better catch up quickly.

West Virginia: Clint Trickett ranks No. 3 nationally now with 1600 passing yards, a feat through four games that most WVU fans probably wouldn't have predicted back in the spring. He leads all Big 12 passers with 20 completions of 20-plus yards (nine to Kevin White), but then again, Trickett also has 43 more completions than any other quarterback in the conference. Let's wait a few more weeks before assessing where he fits in the Big 12 QB hierarchy, but this is a heck of a start.

Big 12 Tuesday mailbag

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
4:30
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In Tuesday's mailbag we chat about West Virginia, Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight and the College Football Playoff hopes of Baylor and Kansas State. To submit questions for next Tuesday's mailbag, go here.

On to the mailbag:

Craig Dias in Dallas writes: You mentioned that Trevor Knight wasn't hurried more than once in the West Virginia game. Do you think hurrying Knight is the key to stopping OU's offense?

Brandon Chatmon: I think it’s the key to stopping any offense, not just OU’s. Creating confusion and chaos in the backfield could be the key to beating the Sooners, but it’s easier said than done. As far as Knight specifically, I think he has the potential to handle added pressure better than most quarterbacks thanks to his athleticism and mobility, but there’s no doubt in my mind he would be more prone to mistakes if he was being constantly harassed in the pocket.

Marty in West Virginia writes: Is Kevin White the best receiver in Big 12?

Chatmon: He sure is playing like it. He has been consistent and dominant with 42 receptions for 633 yards (both Big 12 highs) and three touchdowns. Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett and Baylor’s Antwan Goodley, among others, will still have their say, but White sits atop the list after the Mountaineers’ first four games. He has been exceptional.

Zane Dennis in Waco writes: Hey, Brandon! Love the blog and read every post daily. Even as a Baylor fan/student, I think we can all agree that Oklahoma is the team to beat for now in the Big 12 (and I think they should be No. 1 in the country, as well). As it's looking right now, our whole season will likely end up coming down to that epic Nov. 8 showdown, but as far as the rest of our schedule, which game should we be more worried about: West Virginia or Kansas State? Also, are there any more possible upsets on the Sooners' schedule?

Chatmon: I’ll have a piece that touches on this in detail later this week, but both programs have some potential pitfalls before that massive showdown in Norman. For Baylor, the trip to West Virginia would be the biggest worry between those two games. I think the Mountaineers have proven they are a tall task for any team. And if Baylor is undefeated after 11 games, I have a hard time believing they would let the Wildcats come into McLane Stadium and take their College Football Playoff dreams away. The Sooners still have several tough tests, but the road game at TCU stands out.

Mike Quick writes: I'm looking for a positive note with this question. Baylor’s nonconference schedule is weak, there's no question there. But with Northwestern State beating Louisiana Tech over the weekend does that at least make Baylor’s win over Northwestern State a bit better in the eyes of the selection committee?

Chatmon: It doesn’t hurt. But the Bears' destiny will be decided in Big 12 conference play either way. An undefeated Baylor doesn’t get left on the outside looking in, even with a subpar nonconference slate.

Harry in Kansas City writes: If KSU and Auburn both win out, do the 'Cats make it into the playoffs?

Chatmon: Good question, Harry. I’m going to say yes because I don’t expect four undefeated conference champions. If fact, I only expect one, maybe two, undefeated teams. It’s simply too hard to go a season without a loss in college football these days. So if Auburn is 12-0 and Kansas State is 11-1, I think the Wildcats find their way into the College Football Playoff, particularly with road wins at Oklahoma and Baylor. Quite frankly, if they don’t there’s a problem.

Abimael Downing in Colorado writes: I know that this year will not be the best for Texas and I understand that Charlie Strong needs some time to get his team together, but how long do you think it will take for Texas to become a contender in the Big 12 again?

Chatmon: Next year. I doubt they win it in 2015, but I definitely think they can contend for a Big 12 title in Strong's second season.

David Hess in Glen Dale, West Virginia writes: Is WVU the best two-loss team in college football?

Chatmon: Yes. The Mountaineers will make their mark in Big 12 play. They’re better than I expected, and I’d be surprised if they don’t return to a bowl game with relative ease.

Kelly in Oregon writes: What are Iowa State's chances Saturday night?

Chatmon: It’s going to be a tough task for Paul Rhoads team, but I don’t expect a repeat of what we saw in Waco, Texas a year ago in Baylor’s 71-7 win. The Bears will win but I don’t think they embarrass the Cyclones again. I expect a competitive game with BU pulling away in the second half. I'll give them a 20-percent chance of pulling the upset.

rtXC in Denison, Texas, writes: Gotta love these polls! OU beats Bama in the Sugar Bowl, returns most of that team, then beats WVU on the road in better fashion than Bama did at a neutral site. BUT Bama stays ahead in the rankings. Thoughts?

Jason in Elkview, West Virginia writes: The emphasis on strength of schedule appears to be selective. I watched WVU give two top 5 teams all they wanted, but still lost. After watching WVU play and after watching at least one game from most of the rest of the top 25 ranked teams, I don't think 15 of them could beat WVU. Yet we continue to lose votes in the polls, and others that have played a smorgasbord of nobodies continue to get more votes each week. I realize you have to win, but this being rewarded for playing a tough schedule business is a farce.

Chatmon: Sounds like a pair of really good reasons to ignore the polls. Particularly since they don’t mean anything anyway. If the polls affect the College Football Playoff committee then we, as college football fans, have bigger problems.
video
While Billy Sims took in an Oklahoma practice this preseason, another Red River legend came to his mind whenever he watched freshman Samaje Perine.

“The strength, the power, the way he ran over people, it kept reminding me of Earl Campbell back in the day,” said Sims, who the Heisman Trophy for the Sooners in 1978, a year after Campbell won it at Texas in 1977.

Perine is no Earl Campbell yet.

But he’s off to an Earl Campbell-like start to his career.

[+] EnlargeSamaje Perine
Tyler Evert/Associated PressOklahoma freshman Samaje Perine is leading the Big 12 in rushing with 419 yards and five touchdowns this season.
The 5-foot-11, 243-pound “Tank” -- though “Optimus Perine” is his preferred nickname -- came a yard away from rushing for his weight, finishing with 242 yards and four touchdowns in Oklahoma’s 45-33 victory at West Virginia over the weekend.

Perhaps just as impressive, Perine carried the ball 34 times and afterward looked like as if he had done nothing more than taken a light morning jog.

“He works so hard with his conditioning and training,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He’s a guy that can handle all those carries. At the end of the game he wasn’t all that taxed. I saw him get on the bus and he looked great. He’s exceptional in his conditioning and his strength. He’s physically gifted that way.”

Like Campbell used to do to opposing defenses in the 1970s, Perine wore the West Virginia defenders down as they bounced off him like pingpong balls. While the Mountaineers' resolve to tackle him began to wane in the second half, Perine seemed to get stronger, as he finished with 84 of his rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

“He was able to sustain it for four quarters,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “That tells you what kind of shape he’s in.”

The emergence of Perine, who now leads the Big 12 with 419 rushing yards and five touchdowns, has left the Oklahoma offense in great shape, too, heading into the heart of the schedule. After the open week this weekend, the Sooners face three of the toughest front sevens in the league in TCU, Texas and Kansas State. But this Oklahoma rushing offense is beginning to smack of the Barry Switzer days when the Sooners could run right through opponents when they wanted to.

“I was glad to see the ground-and-pound game,” Sims said. “Let the big guys up front eat and the backs do their thing.”

The big guys up front ate well again after the game, too, courtesy of Perine. Showing he doesn’t just have physical maturity, Perine ordered pizzas for the entire offensive line Sunday.

“We were watching film, and he just walked right in and set the boxes of pizza down and walked out,” center Ty Darlington said. “That’s who he is.”

Though Perine was one of the major storylines in college football over the weekend, he wasn’t even the most highly touted running back in Oklahoma’s signing class. Joe Mixon, suspended for the year for an altercation before the season, was viewed as the gem of the recruiting class, with offers from every major program in the country. Perine, who hailed from the Austin, Texas, suburb of Pflugerville, didn’t even receive an offer from Campbell's Longhorns as he recovered from a knee injury his junior year and barely averaged double-digit carries his senior season for Hendrickson High School.

The Sooners, however, always felt Perine was a unique talent.

“He’s a very special player,” Stoops said. “We felt that all along in the recruiting process. We loved him. Physically, he’s so powerful and strong. He’s also got great vision, great speed. He’s got hands."

While Sims invoked Campbell to describe Perine, Stoops didn’t hesitate to compare Perine's immediate impact to other great runners to pass through Norman in recent years like Quentin Griffin and Adrian Peterson.

“Samaje, his performance the other night, was as good as any of those in one game,” Stoops said. “I believe he’ll continue to add on to it. He’s a similar player like that. He’s unusual in that his size and power are different than maybe anyone else we’ve had.

“We’ll see if he can continue to build on it.”

Sims, however, is a believer that will happen.

“After watching him in practice, what he’s doing now, it doesn’t surprise me,” Sims said. “Oklahoma is known for great running backs. He has the potential to be the next."

Kanell's Top Four Teams

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
11:51
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Danny Kanell ranks the top four teams in college football.
In our weekly Big 12 roundtable, we examine what should be a fascinating race for Big 12 offensive freshman of the year, the Sooners’ remaining schedule and which third team could emerge as a threat to Oklahoma and Baylor for the Big 12 championship:

[+] EnlargeSamaje Perine
AP Photo/Tyler EvertFreshman Samaje Perine has faced some tough competition in racking up his early-season numbers.
 Who has been the more impressive true freshman, Baylor wide receiver KD Cannon or Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine?

Brandon Chatmon: Even with Perine’s explosion against West Virginia over the weekend, KD Cannon remains the Big 12’s most impressive freshman. The Baylor receiver is a playmaker who makes the game look easy with his smooth strides and silky hands. Both players will be a handful for Big 12 defenses, but I have a feeling Cannon is the man to be for Big 12 freshman-of-the-year honors.

Jake Trotter: Cannon has been unbelievable while ranking third nationally with 157 receiving yards per game. But Cannon has piled up those numbers against two of the worst FBS teams in the country in SMU and Buffalo and an FCS opponent in Northwestern State. Meanwhile, in 34 carries before a hostile crowd in Morgantown, Perine rushed for 242 yards and four touchdowns against a quality opponent in West Virginia. Cannon will have his chance to impress against tough competition. But Perine has already done it.

Max Olson: I do agree that Cannon is the Big 12's best freshman so far, but I'm a little more impressed by Perine because he's faced a much better level of competition. True, he's got it fairly easy behind that mauling OU O-line, but Perine is blasting Tennessee and West Virginia for 7.2 yards per carry makes his future look pretty scary. His 242 rushing yards vs. WVU is fifth-best in FBS this year and perhaps just the beginning.

With West Virginia out of the way, what is Oklahoma's toughest remaining game, other than the Nov. 8 clash with Baylor?

Chatmon: The Sooners trip to TCU still looms large to me. The Horned Frogs can play defense and will have confidence on the offensive side of the ball heading into the matchup between the two teams on Oct. 4. TCU will put OU quarterback Trevor Knight in uncomfortable situations and could have the defensive line depth to handle OU’s physical running game. Add better ball protection from the offense and OU’s road trip to Fort Worth, Texas could be the toughest remaining test outside of Baylor.

Trotter: We witnessed last week how brilliant a game plan Kansas State coach Bill Snyder can design with an extra week to prepare. With the week off leading into the Oklahoma game Oct. 18, Snyder will have an extra week to prepare for the Sooners, too. Only this time, Oklahoma won’t have the extra week, as well. Instead, the Sooners will be coming off the emotional Red River showdown with Texas. This is a potentially dangerous game for Oklahoma. K-State won in Norman its last trip there. And with another brilliant Snyder game plan, the Wildcats are good enough to win there again.

Olson: The TCU game is a classic trap, but I don't think the Sooners should overlook their home meeting against Kansas State on Oct. 18. That game falls one week after the Red River showdown, a high-emotion, highly physical game, and I think we're going to figure out quickly K-State is not a team to be trifled with. A lot can change between now and then, but I'd be surprised if that isn't a four-quarter brawl that should really test OU's resolve.

Based on what you've seen, who is the biggest threat to Baylor and Oklahoma for the Big 12 crown?

Chatmon: K-State immediately came to mind, but the Wildcats face the Sooners, Bears, West Virginia and TCU all on the road. TCU is another team that could be considered, but Gary Patterson’s squad is looking at a three-game stretch that features OU, BU and Oklahoma State after SMU on Saturday. So I’m going to step out on the limb and say West Virginia, despite already having a conference loss to OU, is the biggest threat. If WVU knocks off Baylor and BU beats OU, WVU is right back in the mix. And with Clint Trickett and Kevin White playing like All-Big 12 performers, every game is winnable for Dana Holgorsen’s squad.

Trotter: This is a great question, with four possible answers. West Virginia has looked really sharp so far, but the Mountaineers already have a conference loss. Oklahoma State’s schedule is brutal, with road trips to Fort Worth, Manhattan, Waco and Norman. And I want to see more from this TCU offense before I elevate it into contender status. That leaves Kansas State, which has a veteran team and a Hall of Fame coach. The Wildcats have already proven that they can play with the nation's best. I don’t know if K-State has the firepower to win the league. But I do know that with Snyder at the helm, they’ll be a tough out for everyone, including Oklahoma and Baylor.

Olson: The gap between No. 2 and No. 3 in this league remains significant, but I'm buying stock in Kansas State after that Auburn game. I have a ton of respect for that Nick Marshall-led attack, and the Tigers would probably put up 35-plus on most Big 12 contenders. We'd be talking about KSU very differently today had they not made a few fatal mistakes. Plus, I generally have more faith in Jake Waters than in most of the other conference quarterbacks (excluding Petty and Knight) at this point.

Big 12 morning links

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
8:00
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I knew the Coke-for-tickets deal at Michigan was too good (or too bad?) to be true. Darn. On to the links...
  • Oklahoma's battle to get Baker Mayfield eligible remains ongoing, reports Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman. Bob Stoops alluded to having some new info, but OU is not ready to announce anything, and a TV report that Mayfield has been ruled immediately eligible appears to be premature or incorrect. You get the sense that, in this complicated appeals process, there's probably more that still needs to play out before Stoops can say anything definitive. If Mayfield is cleared -- and that's still a real if -- I'm curious if OU's perceived reluctance to let Trevor Knight run the ball (at least against West Virginia) will be impacted.
  • The Iron Skillet game is going to have a different vibe this year. This time, TCU is facing a winless SMU team that recently changed coaches. Gary Patterson isn't too interested in talking about what's going on with his crosstown rival, writes Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, saying the Mustangs' shakeup is "no concern to TCU." He's just trying to get to win No. 3. TCU's less-than-stellar 2013 offense put up 48 on SMU. You'd think this year's group should have an even easier time.
  • A Kansas team with a winning record is about to face a Texas team with a losing record for the first time in literally forever. Charlie Weis isn't taking the 1-2 Longhorns lightly, writes Matt Tait of the Lawrence Journal-World. The Jayhawks head coach makes what is probably an important observation for both teams: KU isn't going to win a shootout and has to adopt a mindset of surviving slugfests. The same is definitely true of Texas and its offense right now. Texas is a 14-point favorite right now, but could we be in for a game that plays out much closer than expected?
  • Kliff Kingsbury discussed two QBs on Monday: one from his past, one from his future. Now that Jarrett Stidham has signed, Kingsbury can publicly laud the Stephenville (Texas) High senior. He and OC Eric Morris got a chance to watch the incoming Texas Tech early enrollee play this weekend and were wowed by his leadership and demeanor. Kingsbury also talked up OSU's Daxx Garman, whom he pursued while at Houston, and isn't surprised by his early success.
  • Art Briles and Baylor's sports information staff have another ally in the push to get Bryce Petty in the Heisman race: Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads. On Monday, Rhoads told reporters Petty is the Heisman frontrunner in his book, according to Bobby La Gesse of the Ames Tribune. Rhoads and his players are rightfully in awe of what Petty and the Bears' offense appears capable of this season. I don't think the Cyclones' love is an act, either -- it's respect, especially after Baylor handed ISU a 71-7 loss in Waco last year.
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Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
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Taking stock of Week 4 in the Big 12:

Team of the week: Oklahoma. The Sooners took West Virginia’s best shot in the first half, then asserted their dominance in the second half on the way to an impressive 45-33 victory. After West Virginia took a 24-17 lead with 1:20 left in the second quarter, the Mountaineers were held to a single field goal until an empty touchdown late when the outcome had already been decided. The Oklahoma running game was unstoppable. The defense and special teams made big plays. And the fourth-ranked Sooners passed their first road test with flying crimson colors.

Disappointment of the week: Kansas State. The Wildcats had fifth-ranked Auburn on the ropes. But they missed out on a potential 16 points with three missed field goals and an interception at the Auburn 2-yard line. The Wildcats played well enough to win, especially a K-State defense that completely hampered Auburn’s high-powered running attack all night. But the Tigers made the plays needed to win. The Wildcats did not.

Big (offensive) man on campus: Samaje Perine. Oklahoma’s true freshman tank of a running back rushed for 242 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries while wearing down the West Virginia defense in the second half. His 242-yard output was the 13th-highest in school history and the highest by an Oklahoma freshman since Adrian Peterson in 2004.

Big (defensive) man on campus: Jake Love. Ben Heeney gets most of the love on the Kansas defense. But Heeney’s wingman at linebacker was the difference-maker in the Jayhawks’ 24-10 win over Central Michigan. Love had four tackles for loss and a sack and snuffed out two Central Michigan screen plays late in the game when the Chippewas still had a chance to tie.

Special-teams player of the week: Alex Ross. West Virginia had taken a 24-17 after a botched Oklahoma onside kick. But after the West Virginia score, Ross gave the Sooners the momentum for good, taking the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown with 1:08 to go in the first half. Ross, who added 56 yards rushing, currently leads the country in kickoff returns.

Stat of the week: Oklahoma kicker Michael Hunnicutt totaled nine points (one field goal, six extra points) in the West Virginia win, passing DeMarco Murray to become the Sooners’ all-time leading scorer with 392 career points.

Quote of the week: “The latter.” -- Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, when asked if Auburn had won the game or Kansas State had lost it.

Stats that defined Sooners' win

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
11:00
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Oklahoma is a legitimate national championship contender. The Sooners proved it with an impressive 45-33 win against West Virginia last Saturday in Morgantown, West Virginia. True freshman running back Samaje Perine was the story of the night with 242 rushing yards and four touchdowns. But there were several key stats that helped decide the Sooners' first Big 12 conference victory.

100 percent in the redzone: Oklahoma scored touchdowns on all five red-zone drives, largely because of the excellence of Perine. The bruising running back had 12 carries for 60 yards and four touchdowns inside WVU’s 20-yard line, an average of five yards per carry. The Sooners' ability to convert drives into touchdowns was critical. Oklahoma entered the game ranked 16th in the FBS in red-zone efficiency at 78.9 percent.

Oklahoma converted 50 percent of its third-down attempts: The Sooners' offense had struggled on third down heading into the game and started slow on third down against WVU with 2 of 6 conversions in the first quarter. But the Sooners' offense found a rhythm in the second half, converting four of seven attempts in the final 30 minutes. Oklahoma entered the game No. 64 among FBS teams and No. 6 in the Big 12 at 41.8 percent.

WVU’s single quarterback hurry: If Oklahoma's 301 rushing yards and 6.5 yards per carry average isn’t enough to convince you the offensive line dominated the game, consider this: Quarterback Trevor Knight attempted 30 passes, wasn’t sacked and was only hurried once. The offensive line paved the way on the ground and protected Knight throughout the game. The unit is the foundation of Oklahoma's College Football Playoff hopes.

Oklahoma's 9.5 yards per carry on first down: Perine and Alex Ross combined for 235 rushing yards on first down alone. Nothing underscores Oklahoma's dominance and Perine’s rise to stardom like the freshman’s 19 carries for 181 yards (9.5 yards per carry) on first-down plays. The strong running production also helped Knight complete 7 of 11 first-down throws for 111 of his 205 total passing yards. Once the Sooners decided to lean on the running game, it was all over.

WVU’s 3.4 yards per carry: The Mountaineers weren’t any less committed to the run than the Sooners, with 40 rushes for 137 yards and two touchdowns. But they didn’t have the success on the ground like Oklahoma. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Evans, who has seamlessly slid into the starting lineup for Frank Shannon, had a team-high 11 tackles including nine solo stops to help the Sooners slow WVU's rushing attack.

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