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The Blueprint: How Tennessee Can Beat Oklahoma

Jalen Hurd

Editor’s note: For big games this season, Daniel Lewis will put together a blueprint for how Tennessee can have its best chance to knock off that week’s opponent. It’s written from a Tennessee coach’s mindset and isn’t necessarily representative of how RTI predicts the game to go.

Offense: While the opponent was weak on the defensive side of the ball, Tennessee’s performance on offense against Bowling Green had to be close to the ideal showing for Butch Jones and Mike DeBord. It was a pro-style, physical, down-hill running attack out of a lot of spread looks with ideal tempo (87 total snaps on offense) and a great blend of what all is working around college football right now in various forms.

Now the challenge is to duplicate that against a more talented defense – an athletic and multiple 4-2-5 look that lost a good bit from 2014, but also returns some studs. The gameplan has to start with identifying and limiting hybrid rush end/outside linebacker Eric Striker, who is one of the most athletic and versatile players UT will see in 2015. The Vols know all about him after he set up camp in UT’s backfield in Norman in 2014.

Two things the Vols can really do to limit his effectiveness – run the ball right at him, and use help from the backs in pass protection. The problem with Striker is that he runs like a safety and is a mismatch for virtually any offensive tackle as a speed rusher off the edge. Tackles are either going to get beat by him flying around them, or they’re going to overset and open up an inside lane for him to rip or spin into, disrupting the quarterback. Striker came mostly off the right side of the O-line in 2014, but in the Akron film he comes from the left side, setting up a big challenge for SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week Kyler Kerbyson.

And of course, a few of these from Jalen Hurd would certainly help out:

Running the ball right at Striker can help limit him as well. The Vols can use his size against him here and wear him down if all goes well. The Sooners don’t have a ton of size on the defensive front relative to some other programs the Vols will see this year. They miss 6-6, 324-pound stud defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who the Vols struggled to move last year in the middle of that defensive line. Even Akron was able to find some space on the ground against the Sooners last week, putting up 138 yards of rushing. No, that’s not a massive total, but it should give UT confidence that it can run for significantly more than the 112 yards that the Vols produced last year.

If the run game goes as it should, there will be some opportunities to be had through the air as well. Being careful around cornerback Zack Sanchez will be important – he’s the biggest threat to take the football away. Blocking Striker and the entire defensive front successfully every play isn’t realistic, so Dobbs will have to show good awareness, get out of the pocket and get some help from the receivers on the scramble drill from time to time.

OU may choose to sell out to stop the run and put the game in the hands of Dobbs and the receivers. If that’s the case, this could be the chance for that group to finally break through.

Curt MaggittDefense: Last week wasn’t pretty. Explain it however you want, but the Vols didn’t play at a level defensively that will get them everywhere they want to go in 2015. That must improve against the Sooners.

Oklahoma presents several challenges for an opposing defense. It starts with new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, a Mike Leach disciple who has made some adjustments to the Air Raid offense to make it more running-game compatible. But at the end of the day, he wants to play out of the spread, go fast and have his quarterback get rid of the ball quickly to OU’s variety of athletic receivers. Quarterback Baker Mayfield won the job because of his background with a similar system at Texas Tech, his quick release and decision making.

So while there’s a trio of talented backs in Samaje Perine, Alex Ross and Joe Mixon at OU’s disposal, the defensive game plan has to start with finding ways to disrupt the timing and flow of OU’s offense. That’ll be a balancing act for John Jancek and Tennessee’s defensive staff. Pressure can be futile sometimes against a system that gets the ball out so quickly. So while the Vols should certainly pick their spots to bring extra pressure, they need to be as disruptive with four or five guys as they possibly can be.

Oklahoma’s offensive line, while talented, should give UT the opportunity to play some games with an inexperienced bunch overall. Twist, stunt, move guys around – do whatever it takes to make this inexperienced group, which will struggle to communicate in Neyland anyhow, uncomfortable. If the front four can get consistent pressure, that leaves seven defenders to cover receivers/passing lanes. That will be extremely helpful. That gives flexibility to press some of OU’s smaller, shiftier receivers to throw their timing off, yet also gives the numbers to have more support over the top after Emmanuel Moseley and Malik Foreman, especially, got run by last week multiple times.

The Vols can mix in more zone than what was shown last week as well. Tennessee kept it largely basic against Bowling Green last week schematically, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a lot of new wrinkles against the Sooners on Saturday.

But aside from all of that, the Vols need to play with a tougher edge overall on this side of the ball. Yes, Bowling Green had some experienced players on offense, a great system and made some great plays. Nobody expected the Vols to be perfect. Tennessee won’t beat Oklahoma, however, if it doesn’t win more individual matchups and play with more intensity on this side of the ball. Where were the Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt that refused to be denied on the way to the quarterback? Where was the secondary that had so much pride in not getting beat deep last year?

At times, it looked like Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton were the only two on this side of the ball playing consistently on a snap-to-snap basis against Bowling Green. There were a lot of factors that play into that, but for all of the schematic talk to matter, this defense has to look and play more like the unit that has flashed potential in the past and less like the one that got shelled at times in Nashville last week.

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