Film Room: Can Georgia slow down Oklahoma’s RPO-based offense?

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley runs one of the most sophisticated offenses in the country.

The Rose Bowl will pit strength on strength: Oklahoma’s devastating offense against Georgia’s blisteringly quick and overwhelming defense.

It’s the type of game for which the College Football Playoff was invented. Let’s go into the Film Room to see how the two match up, and the game-plan specific tweaks both coaching staffs will need to make.


Defenders, beware! Lincoln Riley and Baker Mayfield are coming to read each and every one of you.

Under Riley, the Sooners run one of the most sophisticated run-pass option (RPO) attacks in the country. First-level (defensive lineman), second-level (linebacker), and third-level (safety) reads are all littered throughout the playbook. And they’re supplemented with all kinds of misdirection plays just to make things that much trickier.

It’s all about creating what coaches call “eye violators” — one of my favorite coaching-isms. You dangle one thing in front of a defender, force them to commit, then morph the play on the fly.

It’s you go here, I go there football — less complex than you think.

Riley and the Sooners run the usual tropes: They’ll tag an inside-zone run with a quick pop pass. But there’s more nuanced designs, too. Riley likes to tag a counter action (two backside pullers) with a quick slant, in order to get linebackers flowing one way before zipping the ball in behind them.

And there’s vertical shots just for some added explosiveness. Tagging an outside-zone/stretch design with a deep crosser, for instance:

There’s even a nifty drag-screen tagged with a quarterback draw:

I mean, that’s football porn. Mayfield reads the backside linebacker:

If he fires out to defend the screen, it leaves acres of grass for the quarterback to maraud into. If he stays in his lane, the Sooners can out-leverage the defense to the flank.

It’s all darn near impossible to defend when Mayfield is in form (is he ever not?). He’s known for his moments of magic, but he orchestrates his system as well as any quarterback in the country.

Oklahoma’s offense has rampaged through everyone. It leads the nation in efficiency and explosiveness, a seemingly impossibly feat. It’s averaged 44.9 points per game, the fourth best total in the country. And it enters the playoff first in offensive S&P+ — the very best mark in the nation.

Riley, Mayfield and Co. make most of their RPO hay on second-level reads.

Georgia presents a slight bugaboo, though: They love to take away those linebacker reads. It’s baked into Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker’s pattern-matching defense.

I’ve chronicled before the Smart-Tucker ethos (lifted from the school of Nick Saban and Bill Belichick) of having a safety rotate towards the line of scrimmage late. It helps take away deep shots down the field. But it also allows the defense to form a secondary wall against the run, match the pattern of any vertical release from an inside receiver — a tight end, running back or H-back — and makes reading defenders more difficult for the quarterback — there’s a lot to process and not much time.

They also have Roquan Smith, the best all-around linebacker in the country. Together, that’s a nice RPO antidote.

That makes things tricky for the Sooners. Do they dare continue to read those linebackers? Even if you get a linebacker cheating downhill, there well could be a safety dropping into that void.

Expect Georgia to send some inverted trap looks in a bid to bait Mayfield. Smart and Tucker will blitz a linebacker/dime ‘backer, and displace that guy with a safety:

Misread the play and a quarterback is in trouble. As the linebacker drives towards the line of scrimmage, the quarterback’s instinct is to flip the ball to one of his receivers on a quick slant or post pattern — usually running into all kinds of space.

That’s exactly what the defense wants. The safety gets a clear drive on the ball, giving him a chance to meet the ball before the receiver exits his break.

Mayfield is not a risk taker. But even the best can be baited by the glimpse of a wide-open playmaker. It only takes one mistake to turn a big game.

Riley needs to get creative. He must put that rotating defender into conflicts rather than the linebackers.

There’s an issue, though: Those plays can take longer to develop. The Sooners offensive line would have to stonewall the Bulldogs’ fearsome front. Not an easy task. And Riley won’t know which of the two safeties is rotating prior to the snap (he can stack the deck through his formations and the pre-snap alignment of his receivers).

Do-everything back Dimitri Flowers may be the solution. He’s a flexible weapon who can line up all over the formation: as an H-back, an attached tight end, lead blocker in a pistol formation, and split out as a receiver. He does it all at the highest level. He’s not unique, but he’s special.

Riley and Co. like to leak Flowers out of the backfield on vertical releases, while optioning a linebacker or safety:

It gave Ohio State fits earlier this season. Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano — who runs a similar system to Smart — had difficulty with his safety rotations, and knowing what personnel group to be in. He never figured out the answer. Riley coached circles around the former NFL coach.

The first year Sooners coach will have to draw up something similarly stupefying to the Georgia staff.

Split-backfield RPOs could do the trick:

They give the best of both worlds: The QB can read a rotating defender; it matches up a running back on a linebacker in the passing game. It’s a wicked combination. If the rotating safety drops toward the back releasing upfield, Mayfield hands the ball off. If not, he attacks the linebacker in space. You can exploit an overly aggressive linebacker, while still hitting the pause button on the crucial part of the Bulldogs defense — that notorious, moving safety.

But still, will Mayfield have enough time to execute on those kinds of designs?

It helps that he’s protected by one of the best, and biggest, offensive lines in the country. Five players have over 300 pass protection snaps. Combined, they’ve conceded just 30 pressures (it helps that Mayfield is mobile).

Oklahoma will force Smart et al. into more nickel than they’d like. Georgia would prefer to attack with three down linemen and a pair of stand-up edge defenders. It keeps some variation. You never quite know who’s coming, or from where. In nickel (with four rushers) they’re more predictable.

The Bulldogs will need a superhuman effort from its extraterrestrial pass rusher, Lorenzo Carter.

Carter is a twitched-up rusher with arms so long he can tie his shoes standing up. He can dip and bend around the edge. And he has just enough pop to worry offensive tackles with a suspect anchor.

Smart and Tucker like to move him all over the formation. Check out some of these funky looks:

Yeah, that’s the team’s top pass rusher covering a slot receiver and acting as the up-back in some kind of Banjo coverage. Probably not the best use of resources.

Carter will move into some quirky looks at points — enough to bait a quarterback into a bad decision. But his assignment likely will be more orthodox on New Year’s Day: Hit Mayfield.

His combination of burst and tenacity makes him a menace to block:

(Note to Oklahoma: Try not to leave him unblocked all too often. He may kill your quarterback.)

Carter is a quick-option destroyer. Notre Dame attempted to leave him initially unblocked on split zone or as a first-level read — tagging an inside run with a bubble screen. It didn’t work:

Notre Dame was trying to “block” him through a read. There’s supposed to be a pause there, as he figures out where the ball is going. Nope, not Carter. He sets his radar and fires. All gas, no brake. It’s as if he’s seen an advanced copy of the game.

It’s not just Carter, either. Georgia’s front is blessed with a bunch of pterodactyls who can get to the quarterback or disrupt passing lanes. The linebacking corps sits 11th in the nation in havoc rate. Everyone can disrupt from multiple spots.

D’Andre Walker, Davin Bellamy and Carter bring it from the edge. Smith is the best blitzing linebacker in the game; he has 10 TFLs and 5.5 (!) sacks. The down linemen get in on the fun, too. Jonathan Ledbetter leads the team in total pressures – 17, per CollegeFootballFilmRoom.

Bellamy and Carter will take turns going after Orlando Brown, the Sooners’ left tackle and marquee name. The pass-rushing duo are true dip-and-rip rushers. Brown is a 6-8 behemoth. Can he bend down and get a hand on either one before they come flying off the edge? It will be a scintillating battle.

Something is going to give up front. Notre Dame represented a similar talent test for Georgia’s cast of studs. Oklahoma hasn’t seen this kind of size-speed combination. If the Bulldogs push the Sooners into third-and-long territory, they’re in the business.

If Georgia can’t get instant pressure off the snap, Riley will have the extra beats needed to set up his creative RPOs.

When players start to think, they don’t play as fast. What typically gives Georgia a schematic advantage would be conflicted.

Then it falls on Mayfield: Can he sort fact from fiction? Can he read the rotations, and figure out what’s a trap and what’s not? And can he execute the passing game in rhythm? I’m not going to be the one who bets against him.