Oklahoma football: Defense the difference in Sooners fast 2017 start


Most all of the headlines and storylines coming out of the heavyweight Oklahoma football win at Ohio State last weekend centered around the magician-like performance of quarterback Baker Mayfield and the big-game coaching of head coach Lincoln Riley.

Those accolades are well deserved, but the truth of the matter is, without an absolutely superb performance turned in by the Sooner defense, the outcome of that marquee matchup might have been much different.

Ohio State came into its showdown with the Sooners sporting the 11th best offense in the country. The Buckeyes gained close to 600 yards of offense in their season-opener on the road at Indiana. The Oklahoma front seven put constant pressure on Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, and the Sooner secondary provided excellent pass coverage, allowing Barrett to complete just 19 of 35 passes for 183 yards and no touchdowns.

For the game, the Buckeyes totaled just 350 yards of offense, far fewer than what they gained in their opening game of the 2017 season.

Sooner cornerback Parnell Motley intercepted two passes (although he was only given credit for one when officials ruled that he didn’t have complete control of the ball all the way to the ground after appearing to have picked off a Barrett pass in the end zone, preventing an Ohio State touchdown). His first interception, early in the fourth quarter, set the Sooners up at the Buckeye 27-yard line. Oklahoma scored four plays later to increase an 11-point advantage to 18, at 31-13, with nine and a half minutes to go in the game.

To further illustrate how well the Oklahoma secondary played in this year’s rematch between the two teams, a year ago, Barrett completed 14 of 20 passes, four of which went for touchdowns, in Ohio State’s 45-24 win in Norman. This time around, however, the Buckeye quarterback found the going much more difficult against a more experienced and improved Sooner secondary.

Barrett completed just 5 of 14 pass attempts that went beyond 10 yards and was inaccurate on many of his throws.

Riley called the way the Sooner defense played the story of the game in OU’s win over the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes.

One of the question marks coming into the 2017 season was the Sooner defense and whether it could continue to get better. Mike Stoops’ defense was strong down the stretch a year ago, and he and the OU defensive coaches were optimistic that the defensive side of the ball would be even stronger this season, especially at the back end.

“I think more the mentality of that group (the OU defense) now is the biggest thing that’s stood out — the mentality and the leadership.” — Sooner head coach Lincoln Riley

After a sluggish start in the season-opening win over UTEP, allowing the Miners to march down the field and score of their opening drive, the Oklahoma defensive unit has given up only one touchdown and less than 450 yards of total offense over the last seven quarters.

Last season, despite an 11-2 overall record and 10 consecutive wins to close the season, the Sooner defense allowed 432 yards a game, which ranked 89th among FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) teams. Fast forward to 2017: the OU defense has surrendered 258.5 yards per game in its first two games and allowed just two touchdowns.

One way defensive coordinator Mike Stoops planned to shore up the Oklahoma defensive performance this season was by shifting to a 4-3 alignment upfront. Ironically, the Sooners haven’t shown much of that in the first two games, and didn’t use it al all against Ohio State.

“We want to be multiple (using different looks),” Stoops told the Oklahoma City Oklahoman this week. “We felt in that game (against Ohio State) they liked even fronts, and that’s what we thought going into that game and watching a history of them. We thought that the other front (a 3-4 alignment, which OU has employed the past several years) would give us a better chance.”

Turns out, it was the ideal alignment to stall the potent Ohio State offense.

More than anything, Riley said this week to Oklahoma City Oklahoman staff writer Ryan Aber, the Sooners defensive improvement this season is more the result of how Stoops and the other defensive assistants have worked with and handled the players rather than the alignments they are using.

“I think the mentality of that group now is the biggest thing that’s stood out — the mentality and the leadership,” the Oklahoma head coach said.

“Our scheme last year was good. Our scheme this year is good. Everybody has good schemes. Mike (Stoops) and them do a great job, but they’ve done an even better job this year with our guys heads, making sure that we’re in the right frame to play great team defense and to play the type of defense that this university has been known for for a long time.”