<
>

A key item on Oklahoma's checklist is countering Auburn's physicality

NEW ORLEANS -- Orlando Brown is well aware of the narrative that emerges nearly every time a Big 12 offense faces a defense from the SEC -- as will be the case when Brown's explosive Oklahoma meets Auburn's feisty defense in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

The Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year knows that Monday's game (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will test his team's physicality.

"The conference where they play, the SEC, is a very physical conference, so obviously they're coming in here with the mentality that they've already faced some of the more physical teams in the country, and we're known as a spread, this that and the other, blah, blah, blah," Brown said Friday. "We just have to impose our will on a great team. We know they're not going to back down, but we have to do what we have to do."

Ever since its struggles at the beginning of the season, Oklahoma (10-2) has done that consistently. Heisman Trophy finalists Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook get most of the headlines as the big-play men in the Sooners' passing game, but Oklahoma has also run the ball effectively. Since a Sept. 17 loss to Ohio State dropped the Sooners to 1-2, they have averaged 257.2 rushing yards per game over nine games and won them all.

They didn't face a defensive front as nasty as Auburn's during that run, however.

"We can be as physical as we want to be for nine weeks in a row, but if we're not physical on Monday night, then it doesn't matter," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. "So we're concentrating on trying to be very physical in this game. We know it's going to certainly be a key. We are playing a very talented and physical front, and obviously our ability to run the football here, over the last couple of months of the season, has been very, very important to what we're doing. It will be again."

The Sooners' offensive line is a young bunch -- everyone on the two-deep is a junior or younger -- that has jelled as the season progressed. Brown, the left tackle, pointed to sophomore Ben Powers' emergence at left guard after Cody Ford broke his leg against Ohio State as a key development.

"Ben Powers was able to step up and has been very consistent with the five guys we've been playing with," Brown said. "It's just been a whole lot of mentality, just a lot of guys that want to win and a lot of guys that want to get better and want to dominate each and every week. That's what we've really been focusing on."

So about that defensive front from Auburn (8-4): In Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, the Tigers have a pair of All-SEC honorees who, as Mayfield puts it, "wreak havoc." But it's not just the two stars, the Sooners quarterback said, who can cause problems. The Tigers' size and depth are further reasons why only two teams have surrendered fewer touchdowns than Auburn's 18.

"We all know about Lawson and Adams," Mayfield said. "You can talk about the two stars, but the guys who rotate in are very good too. They have a lot of big guys. It will be a big challenge for us, but I'm looking forward to it, and our offensive line is too."

Perhaps it's simplistic to attempt to boil this down to another Big 12-SEC game where finesse meets physicality. There will obviously be more to it than that, especially since the Sooners hope to continue the run they've been on lately with their ground game.

Samaje Perine has rushed for 100-plus yards in the last three games, including 239 in the regular-season finale against Oklahoma State. Joe Mixon was one yard shy against Oklahoma State of being able to say the same.

Oklahoma is the versatile spread team that believes it can counter any opponent's defensive approach with something to exploit it.

In this case, it comes down to toughness. If the Sooners can come close to matching Auburn's physicality, Perine thinks Oklahoma's up-tempo pace and its array of weapons will be good enough to win.

"It's going to be a tremendous challenge for us," Perine said. "But I feel like once we get them with that tempo, because they don't really face too much tempo, we can kind of tire them out just enough to make plays. Obviously they're going to be bigger than us, but I feel like with our tempo and the physicality that we do have, it's going to be a great matchup."