Oklahoma football: Not OK for Sooner defense to be just OK

Perhaps the biggest surprise from the five-point Oklahoma football win over Tulane to open the 2021 season was how poorly the Sooner defense played after all the preseason buildup otherwise.

Most everyone who covers or follows college football expected the OU defense, in its third season under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, to be the deepest and strongest Oklahoma has had since Lincoln Riley became head coach, and maybe its best unit in well over a decade.

That’s not what we saw last Saturday, however. The Sooners get somewhat of a reprieve this weekend when they entertain Western Carolina, a team that competes in the Football Bowl Championship division, a level below where Oklahoma resides.

Regardless, we should learn some things from Saturday’s Week 2 game. Primarily, as one CBS Sports writer described, whether the Sooners’ effort a week ago was the result of the typical Week 1 fog, or did the Sooners drink too much of the offseason Kool-Aid?

Most Sooner fans are anxious to see how the OU defense responds to its up-and-down performance against Tulane, particularly the letdown that occurred in the second half, allowing the Green Wave to come back from a 37-14 halftime deficit and nearly pull off a stunning upset of the nation’s  No. 2 team.

“The second half we lost our edge. You could just see it,” head coach Lincoln Riley said at his weekly press conference earlier this week.

“Our effort was off, our mentality was off…We lost our edge and we turned into average pretty quickly, as did the entire football team.”

That’s not want you want to hear about a team that throughout the offseason was touted as one that had finally put it all together and was a serious threat this year to breaking its College Football Playoff winless streak and winning it all.

Not so, though, if the Oklahoma defense isn’t able to walk all the lofty talk that’s been said about it leading into this season and continues to reprise the defensive lapses that exposed the Sooners in recent seasons.

“It’s not OK to be OK here,” said Grinch, speaking at OU’s Tuesday press conference. The Sooner defensive coordinator was probably the most disappointed of all of how Oklahoma played on defense against Tulane.

The Sooners were not sharp early in the game, but then settled in for the rest of the first half, on both sides of the ball, and played like what we had expected to see from this Oklahoma team, including three takeaways.

The second half was a completely different story and way too symptomatic of what we’ve seen too many times from OU the past several seasons.

Part of the struggles defensively may have been the fact that Oklahoma played 31 different players. That’s a lot of players, almost a third of the roster, and makes it tough to establish continuity and consistency.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. It shows you have a lot of depth. “But you don’t play 31 guys to get more rest,” Grinch said. “We play 31 guys to get your absolute best. I don’t think we got that across the board (in the Tulane game).

“It’s definitely fixable,” said junior linebacker David Ugwoegbu. “We didn’t play up to out standard, (but) I think we’ve already moved past that and will definitely show up the remainder of the season.”

The Sooners can still be expected to rotate a lot of guys in and out on defense for the rest of the season, but it probably won’t go more than two deep at most positions.

The rest of the season for the No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners begins on Saturday against Western Carolina. Don’t expect the Sooners to play down to the level of the opponent in this one.

Every team has a bad game over the course of the season. Oklahoma has already had its clunker. Time to get serious and show what this team is really made of.