For the second straight season, Alex Grinch’s Oklahoma defense heads into Bowl season staring down the nation’s most explosive passing offense.
But this time around, the opponent has been watered down.
With Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask pulling the strings, Dan Mullen’s Gators are passing for an eye-popping 388.4 yards per game this season. Completing almost 70 percent of his passes, Trask has thrown for 4,125 yards and 43 touchdowns this season while only surrendering five interceptions.
But news Monday that Florida’s top three wide receivers — Kadarius Toney, Trevon Grimes and Jacob Copeland — have opted out of the bowl game, following the Dec. 19 announcement of All-American tight end Kyle Pitts opting out, means Trask won’t have his usual array of dangerous weapons against the Sooners.
Oklahoma’s secondary still figures to have its hands full against Florida, especially since the Sooners are also down a man.
Senior cornerback Tre Brown, fresh off a pair of well-timed kickoff returns and a game sealing interception in the Big 12 Championship game, will forego the Cotton Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Brown’s absence will make way for a pair of freshmen to play a bigger role in the game plan. Woodi Washington and D.J. Graham will likely be the duo getting Brown’s split of the snaps, representing the next evolution of Grinch’s defense on the back end.
Washington, the 5-foot-11 sophomore from Murfreesboro, TN, was called upon in the Peach Bowl romping at the hands of Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers a year ago. Washington was thrown into the fray after Brendan Radley-Hiles was ejected for targeting against Tiger running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Graham will be getting his first taste of bowl action on Wednesday. The converted athlete has come on strong at cornerback to close the year, flashing his ball-hawk instincts with an athletic interception to help seal Bedlam earlier this season.
It will be interesting to watch Trask operate without his usual arsenal of weapons.
After reeling in 12 touchdowns and 770 yards this year, Pitts elected to opt-out of the Cotton Bowl to prepare for the draft. The first team All-American could be a top 15 selection in the NFL Draft.
Toney and Grimes tormented SEC defenses all season as well. Toney, who caught 70 passes for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns this year, has drawn comparisons to Florida standout Percy Harvin with his big-play ability and versatility in every aspect of the offense. Toney’s efforts were rewarded as he was named an All-SEC selection at three different positions.
The key to slowing down the Gators will likely not come on the back end of the Sooner defense, but with their vaunted pass rush. Behind the efforts of Isaiah Thomas, Ronnie Perkins, Perrion Winfrey and Nik Bonitto, the Sooners sit third nationally in quarterback sacks, bringing the opposing QB down 38 times this season.
Bonitto showed amazing progress this season, as his six solo sacks (7.5 total) and relentless pass rush was good enough to earn him first team All-America honors from Pro Football Focus and second team from the Associated Press.
Lining up on the other side of Bonitto, Perkins will look to make an impact in what could be his last outing in the crimson and cream. Coming off his NCAA suspension, Perkins held nothing back, totaling 20 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
Oklahoma could put additional stress on Trask by making the Gators’ offense one dimensional. The Sooners enter as the nation’s second-best run defense, allowing just 90.6 yards per game. Mullen’s Gators have struggled to move the ball on the ground all year, entering the Cotton Bowl as the No. 110-ranked rushing offense at just 120.5 yards per game.
Though Trask has been efficient all year, he hasn’t faced a rush defense quite like the Sooners. If Oklahoma can continue to dominate on the ground, they will be able to bring pressure on Trask on a more consistent basis, and then hope to force a turnover or two.
While Trask has taken care of the football, the Sooners are forcing 2.2 turnovers per game since Perkins returned to the lineup against Texas Tech.
The Florida offense is going to make plays and will get theirs, and the Sooners must come up with some timely stops, force Florida to kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, and cause a few turnovers to put themselves in position to emerge from Arlington victorious.
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