Oklahoma football: Numbers show Oklahoma defense is (a little) better than last year

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops of the Oklahoma Sooners.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops of the Oklahoma Sooners. /

Get your pitchforks ready, I’m going to defend the Oklahoma defense (kind of).

The Oklahoma defense got a lot of hype through the offseason. Was this the season that Mike Stoops and his staff finally had the personnel to execute his scheme?

After getting pushed around by Army, beaten up by Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler and watching Baylor put up nearly 500 yards of total offense, the critics are starting to come out and chirp.

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Oklahoma is 90th in the country in total defense so far this year, but looking through the stats there are some reasons to believe this team might actually be a season better than it was last year on that side of the ball.

Comparative performances

The Sooners have two common opponents from last year’s schedule so far this year in Iowa State and Baylor. Though both teams featured different personnel from the previous year, the schemes in which the Cyclones and Bears attacked the Oklahoma defense were comparative. Let’s look at how they stack up.

Iowa State

Against Iowa State Oklahoma gave up 38 points in 2018. The Cyclones passed for 368 yards and averaged a gaudy 13.6 yards per attempt. Trever Ryen averaged 24.8 yards per catch. Allen Lazard averaged 23 yards per grab. Even David Montgomery, who mostly caught screen passes around the line of scrimmage, averaged 12.7 yards per catch in the game. The Sooners gave up 150 yards on the ground and sacked the quarterback just once.

In 2018 Oklahoma gave up 27 points to the Cyclones. The Sooners surrendered 360 yards through the air and 10 yards per attempt. Hakeem Butler was the main recipient of the yards the OU gave up through the air, catching five passes for 174 yards at a 34.8 yards per catch average, but the Sooners held the rest of the team’s leading receivers all under 10 yards per catch. The Sooners gave up just 87 yards on the ground and sacked quarterback Zeb Noland one time.


Against Baylor the Sooners gave up 41 points in 2017. That included 463 yards passing and 9.26 yards per passing attempt. Three receivers averaged 14 or more yards per catch.  They gave up 62 yards on the ground and sacked Bears’ quarterback Zach Smith five times.

This year the Sooners gave up 33 points to the Bears. Oklahoma allowed 400 yards through the air, six yards per attempt. No receiver who caught more than two passes averaged better than 12 yards per catch.  The Sooners gave up 67 yards on the ground and sacked quarterback Charlie Brewer six times.

What it all means

Though many of the stats might look similar to the outsider, the yards per attempt allowed and yards per catch allowed show significant improvements for Oklahoma. Against two teams with big, physical wide receivers – something the Sooners have struggled mightily against in the past – Oklahoma kept plays in front of them and weren’t beaten deep as often (Butler’s two big plays came because of missed tackles).

Oklahoma’s ability to score quickly can force the Sooners’ defense to be on the field more than it would like, but it also demoralizes an opponent that has to spend 12-plus plays trying to do the same thing.

In 2017 Oklahoma’s opponents were able to answer with big plays of their own and turn games like Iowa State and Baylor into shootouts.

That resulted in a narrow seven-point win over a Baylor team that wasn’t as good as this year’s version and a seven point loss at home to Iowa State. This year the Sooners blew Baylor out by 33 and beat Iowa State on the road by 10.

Teams are having to nickel and dime their way down the field against Oklahoma. It is resulting in more points and yards given up than the Sooners would like, but still a better average than in previous seasons.

These are all steps in the right direction, but they are far from being leaps and bounds. The Sooners’ defense clearly has a ways to go to be compared with even the best in the Big 12 (TCU, Iowa State and Texas), much less the best in the country (Clemson and Alabama).

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Still, with the offense blowing opponents away again and another Heisman trophy candidate at quarterback, holding teams to one or two less scores per game might just be enough to win a national title.