LOS ANGELES — Baker Mayfield’s numbers are mountainous. They just scream to be climbed whenever discussing the Oklahoma Sooners.
The Heisman Trophy-owning quarterback can flat-out spin the football. On his way to winning college football’s most prestigious individual award earlier this month, Mayfield completed 71 percent of his passes for 4,340 yards and 41 touchdowns with only 5 interceptions.
Any notion that it was a fluke season for this 6-foot-1, 220-pound quarterback is dismissed with a peek at his career numbers. Mayfield has completed 70 percent of his passes for 12,005 yards with 117 touchdowns and 20 interceptions at Oklahoma. Including one year at Texas Tech — the Austin, Texas, native transferred to OU after the 2013 season — Mayfield has thrown for 14,320 yards and 129 touchdowns in four seasons.
But the number for which Mayfield and the Sooners are proudest is this one — three. That’s how many Big 12 championships OU has won in Mayfield’s three years behind center. The kid’s a winner.
So, yes, to have any chance of beating the Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, the Bulldogs must have a plan for containing Mayfield. That challenge is compounded by the fact that Mayfield is elusive in the pocket and can run the ball as well. He has rushed for 310 yards and 5 touchdowns this season and has run for 21 scores in his career.
“Yeah, he’s really elite,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart acknowledged. “He goes up in that category beyond Johnny Manziel when it comes to creativity with the ball. He can make all the throws from all the angles. It’s not just scrambling. It’s the fact that when you get to him sometimes you can’t get him down. He’s strong.”
The problem with trying to defend and defeat the Sooners is there’s more to them than just Mayfield. He is surrounded by a cast of elite players, including All-Americans at tight end, tackle and defensive end.
Here’s what Georgia must do to win this matchup, which will send the winner to Atlanta for the national championship game on Jan. 8:
The football adage is that the best defense is a good offense. That definitely applies to what Georgia needs to do to beat the Sooners on Monday. The good news is the Bulldogs have an offense built to do it.
There is not another backfield in America that features two running backs who have combined for more than 7,000 career yards rushing. That’s what Georgia has in Nick Chubb (4,599 yards), who is second all-time behind Herschel Walker in SEC history, and Sony Michel (3,359 yards). The Bulldogs have added a third weapon this season in freshman D’Andre Swift (597), who some think will be just as good if not better, and have utilized five tailbacks in all this season. So they keep them fresh.
Add it all up, and the Georgia compiled a school record 3,426 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns this season. That translated into an average time of possession of 32:23 per game, or a little over half.
Look for the Bulldogs to be even more stingy with the football against the Sooners. Mayfield and the OU’s explosive offense can’t do any damage on the sideline. Georgia will try to keep them there as much as possible. It will try to do that by running the football straight at the Sooners and with the controlled passing game that was so effective in the SEC title game against Auburn.
Contain and control
As for Mayfield, the first thought for most when it comes to trying to stop him is get after him with pressures and blitzes. But that can be dangerous.
Some of Mayfield’s best work comes when he’s flushed out of the pocket. He is fast and strong and extremely elusive. He specializes in the ad-lib play, escaping pressure and then pointing one of his receivers to an open spot on the field or just heaving it deep and having them run under it.
For that reason, Georgia’s best ploy might not be to have outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter come after Mayfield with reckless abandon. A more effective strategy might be to keep Mayfield between the hash marks. Meanwhile, the secondary drops in deep coverage to keep receivers underneath and then come up to make hard hits and try to create turnovers.
That said, Mayfield’s incredible accuracy dictates that he can’t be left to just pick and choose targets unimpeded. Look for the Bulldogs to have All-America linebacker Roquan Smith spy on Mayfield from the middle of the field and come after him if and when the opportunity presents itself.
Cover like a blanket
Georgia’s secondary probably hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves. The Bulldogs led the SEC this season and are currently No. 2 in the nation in passing yards allowed at 158.3 yards per game. So while it’s true that they haven’t faced a quarterback like Mayfield all season, it’s also accurate to say the Sooners haven’t faced a secondary or a defense like Georgia’s.
The Bulldogs enter the Rose Bowl tied for 34th in country in turnover margin with a ratio of plus-5. They have collected 18 takeaways, including 10 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries. Six different defensive backs have registered picks, led by senior safety Dominick Sanders’ 3.
Mayfield has 10 receivers who have 10 or more receptions this season, but his primary target is the 6-5, 254-pound Andrews, who leads tight ends nationally with 58 catches for 906 yards and 8 TDs. The other top receivers are sophomore flanker Marquis Brown (49-981) and freshman split end CeeDee Lamb (40-741). But those wideouts are smaller physically, especially compared to a lot of the receivers Georgia faced in the SEC. So if officials allow defensive backs some level of physicality in coverage — a sore spot at different times this season — the Bulldogs should be able stick with them and make some plays.
Special teams is an area in which Georgia dominated its opponents almost every week. It will need to keep that up in this game, and should.
The Sooners are an all-in-one shop in their kicking game. Junior Austin Seibert handles field goals, kickoffs and punts and is more than serviceable in all disciplines. He was second-team All-Big 12 as a punter (42.6 ypp) and honorable mention as a kicker (15 of 18 FGs with long of 51). With OU’s high-scoring offense, he has kicked off a lot and those kicks are rarely returned. He has 79 touchbacks. That’s 19 more than Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship, who set a school record this season with 60.
Blankenship was a Groza Award semifinalist. He is similar to Seibert in range, with a long field goal of 49. The Bulldogs have a decided edge in punting in senior Cameron Nizalek, who has a 44.5 yard average and has had only 11 punts returned all year.
Where the Bulldogs could make a significant impact is in the return game. Sophomore Mecole Hardman has emerged as a real weapon on both punt and kickoff returns, piling up 616 yards and coming an eyelash from breaking free for touchdowns on numerous occasions, especially in the second half of the season.
As always, avoiding turnovers and muffs are always important. That will be especially important in a game of this magnitude.