NEW ORLEANS — As the college football season spun out of control for Oklahoma in 2014, Bob Stoops reminded Sooner Nation over and over and over again how cool it was that, just a few months earlier, OU had defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
The refrain got so tiresome, even the staunchest OU fans rolled their eyes every time he played the ‘Bama card, imploring their head coach to stop living in the past and do something about that awful 2014 season.
Well, on Saturday, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops pulled out the Crimson Tide card once again.
Only this time, there is no eye-rolling. There is instead a distinct relevance to the 2013-14 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama, what with OU playing Monday in the 2016-17 Sugar Bowl against another team from Alabama.
“There’s a little bit of a style clash here,” Mike Stoops said of the 10-2 Sooners’ upcoming game against 8-4 Auburn, “but we faced that playing Alabama three years ago. You play a team from the Southeastern Conference, you’re going to get a physical football team and a talented football team.
“I think our players understand that, respect that, and know that we are going to have to play great technique at the line of scrimmage. We are going to have to get off blocks, and that’s football. And hopefully they’re looking forward to that challenge because it’s going to come.”
The style of clash OU faces this time is even more pronounced than it was three years ago. That Alabama team could throw the football. This Auburn team prefers not to.
The Tigers have rushed for 3,342 yards this year and have passed for only 2,049. Among Power 5 conference offenses, only Georgia Tech (3,089 rushing, 1,574 passing) had a higher run-pass ratio and a greater run-pass yardage disparity than Auburn.
“There are a lot of things in that offense that we have to get used to, misdirection and things like that,” said OU safety Ahmad Thomas. … “The misdirection, a lot of things going all over the place, a lot of motion, a lot of wildcat, and a lot of things that we have to keep our eyes right to see.”
“We are going to have to be ready to stop their running game,” said safety Steven Parker. “There is going to be a lot of play-action pass, and we have to be on our toes.”
The Tigers play three quarterbacks in Sean White (nine touchdowns, three interceptions, 164 yards per game), John Franklin (19 pass attempts, 179 total yards) and Jeremy Johnson (a 6-foot-5, 234-pound senior who played in four games this season, threw 38 passes for 219 yards and ran for two TDs). All three QBs are running threats, but the 6-1, 186-pound Franklin (41 rushes, 10.4 yards per carry, two TDs) is the one that really adds to the Tigers’ thundering ground game.
Kamryn Pettway (1,123 rushing yards, 6.1 average) and Kerryon Johnson (862 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) are the feature backs. The 6-foot, 240-pound Pettway leads the SEC in rushing this season at 124.8 yards per game, but in conference games, his average was 138.7.
“Their run game is very big with two great running backs,” said OU defensive tackle Jordan Wade. “The big guy, Kamryn Pettway, is a really powerful guy who runs downhill and we know we can’t let him keep going. He’s a big guy who runs like our Samaje Perine. He’s a hard runner who comes downhill and just runs people over. And they have Kerryon Johnson who is pretty fast also. We just know we have to play the run up front and be strong to stop these really good running backs.”
Mike Stoops, however, warns of a hidden versatility.
“Pettway is obviously a big part of what they do,” Stoops said. “But … I think the quarterback play is really important to try to keep balance with their offense and keep you off guard so you can’t just load up and try to stop the run, because they have very skilled receivers and can get the ball deep. So you just have to try to manage it with the way we like to play and not overcommit to the run.”
Auburn may indeed have skilled receivers, but if they are, they’re underutilized. No receiver has more than 30 catches, and only two have more than 25. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is an offensive innovator who enjoys a good forward pass, but this team, with five upperclassmen up front — all 300-pounders — is built to run the football.
“They bring a lot of different things to the table that we haven’t seen before,” said OU linebacker Jordan Evans. “They have a lot of great players and are very physical and big up front.”
Listen, this Auburn team is no 2013 Alabama. The Tide were steaming toward a national championship return that year when Auburn’s Chris Davis gutted those title hopes with his infamous 109-yard Kick Six runback. These Tigers are good, but lost four games — three in an increasingly average SEC.
But Mike Stoops’ comparison is legitimate. That Alabama team was more physical on both sides of the ball than any opponent the Sooners faced in Big 12 play. Same goes for this year’s Auburn squad.
That OU team was able to make the adjustment. Will this year’s Sooners do the same?
“We have to be able to play physical at the line of scrimmage,” Stoops said. “We have to be able to get off blocks. We have to be able to leverage the football. They like to get the ball to the perimeter more than any other team we have seen.
“So, there’s lot there.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.