Oklahoma football: Takeaway issue takes nothing away from defensive gains

MORGANTOWN, WV - NOVEMBER 19: Neville Gallimore #90 of the Oklahoma Sooners sacks Skyler Howard #3 of the West Virginia Mountaineers in the second half on November 19, 2016 at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
MORGANTOWN, WV - NOVEMBER 19: Neville Gallimore #90 of the Oklahoma Sooners sacks Skyler Howard #3 of the West Virginia Mountaineers in the second half on November 19, 2016 at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

For some time in the world of sports it’s been proffered that great offenses win games, but great defenses win championships. The goal of Oklahoma football this season is to remain strong in the former while becoming more complementary in the latter.

Game balls for the OU win over West Virginia. light. Related Story

For the past two seasons, Oklahoma has fielded the most potent offense in college football. Scoring close to 50 points a game, which the Sooners did a year ago, is going to win you most games — it won OU 12 games last season — that is, until you go up against a team or teams as prolific on offense as you are.

As good as the four-time defending Big 12 champions have been on the offensive side of the ball in recent seasons, they have been just the opposite on defense. There were few teams as bad defensively as the Sooners were last season. Oklahoma ranked 114th out of 129 FBS teams in total defense a year ago, allowing opponents’ 454 yards a game, and dead last (129th) in passing yards allowed (294 yards a game).

In the offseason, Alex Grinch was hired from Ohio State, where he was co-defensive coordinator, as the new OU defensive coordinator. Grinch came to Norman with a plan and a scheme to simplify the Sooners’ defense and with a goal of attacking the ball, playing more aggressively and creating more takeaways. He instilled a mind set that the sole purpose of the defense is to get the ball back for the offense.

Most all of those changes appear to have taken hold, and the result has been a more dangerous Oklahoma team than we have seen the past few years. Most experts believed the Sooners were better on defense this season than last, and evidence of that became clear with OU’s dominant defensive performance against archrival Texas, the nation’s 11th-ranked team at the time of the Red River rivalry game a couple of weeks ago.

The Sooners recorded nine sacks on Longhorn quarterback Sam Ehlinger and 15 tackles for loss in holding an explosive Texas offense to just 301 total yards. That same Texas offense unloaded for 501 yards against the Oklahoma defense in the 2018 Red River Showdown.

While OU has improved in practically every defensive category this season under Grinch, perhaps the most noticeable area of improvement is in the ability to get off the field on third down. The Sooners rank seventh in the country this season, holding opponents to just a 28 percent success rate in third-down conversions. A year ago, the OU defense ranked 118th in this category, getting third-down stops just 46 percent of the time.

Through seven games the Sooners are 28th in the country in total defense, an improvement of 86 spots over a year ago; 37th in pass defense (compared with 129th last season); and 23rd in scoring defense.

If the critics of Oklahoma’s championship legitimacy weren’t criticizing the so-called softness of Oklahoma’s 2019 schedule, they refused to fully accept the notion that the defense was better this year, even after OU’s five impressive wins to start the season. The Sooners needed to go up against somebody good, they said, somebody that would challenge the defense before it could be said the improvement many had been alluding to was indeed for real.

The Red River Showdown afforded that opportunity, and the Oklahoma defense shined before 90,000-plus raucous fans in the Cotton Bowl and a national television audience.

"“Defensively just was awesome,” head coach Lincoln Riley said after the Texas game. “We tackled well, covered them well, and obviously were able to get quite a bit of pressure on the quarterback.”"

Now everyone knows what this revamped Oklahoma defensive unit is capable of, and against good offensive teams. But in a conference that is loaded with offensive firepower, the Sooners will have other big challenges straight ahead, starting with this Saturday at Kansas State, a team that plays good enough defense itself to cause Oklahoma problems on offense.

"“Regardless of what the outside world thinks,” Riley said. “We believe in our defense. And we’re going to continue to get better.”"

Although defensive coordinator Grinch is very pleased with what he has seen so far from his defense, he is troubled that the Sooners haven’t had a takeaway in three consecutive games and just six so far for the season, especially with that being such an emphasis this season.

"“It’s something (for which) we’ve got to come up with a better plan as a defense,” Grinch said after the West Virginia game last Saturday."

“For us, obviously it’s a huge disappointment that we haven’t had turnovers in the past three games, and I think that for us it adds more fuel to the fire to go out there and get it done,” senior linebacker Kenneth Murray said to reporters during OU’s weekly press conference on Monday.

“There are a lot of factors that lead to turnovers,” Murray said. but it is really just about mind set. The Sooners’ mind set needs to be all about the ball.”

Oklahoma had just 11 takeaways all last season, and Grinch was hoping to double that number this season.

Although creating turnovers is an important factor in making defensive stops and getting the ball back for the offense, the fact that the Sooners have underperformed expectations in this area so far does nothing to takeaway from the vast improvement we are seeing in the way Oklahoma is executing on the defensive end this season.

If you put the work in and you prepare the right way, it’s generally going to go the way you want it to, says Grinch. “That’s the way this thing goes.”

So far, so good…It’s certainly going the Sooners’ way on all fronts halfway through the 2019 college football season.