NORMAN — Only one person on the planet would use the word “travesty” when examining the Oklahoma defense’s performance in 2019.
And that’s defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
To be fair, Grinch’s descriptive wasn’t a summation of the Sooners’ season on defense, but rather another level of disappointment he has reached over OU’s lack of takeaways.
Sooner fans need only compare their team’s rankings through eight weeks this season to last year’s debacle — actually, “travesty” fits pretty well:
- Last year, Oklahoma ranked 114th in the nation in total yards allowed (453.8) per game. This year, that ranking is 28th (326.3).
- Last year, Oklahoma ranked 101st in the nation in points allowed per game (33.3). This year that ranking is 23rd (19.4).
- Last year, Oklahoma ranked 129th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game (294.0). This year that ranking is 37th (198.6).
- Last year, Oklahoma ranked 59th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (159.8). This year that ranking is 38th (127.7).
- Last year, Oklahoma ranked 111th in the nation in pass efficiency defense rating (151.87). This year that ranking is 57th (127.68).
- Last year, Oklahoma ranked 129th in the nation in first downs allowed (342). This year that ranking is 59th (140).
- Last year, Oklahoma ranked 118th in the nation in third down percentage defense (46.4). This year, that ranking is seventh (27.8).
By virtually any measure, the Sooners are galactically better on defense this season under Grinch than they were last season. Even in turnover margin, OU has improved from 81st last season (minus-0.14 per game) to 67th this season (even, 0.00).
But that’s not what Grinch preached about when he arrived from his one season at Ohio State. Breaking even on turnovers is not what his defenses did in three seasons at Washington State.
“If you get two takeaways, it’s two more possessions that you’re gonna give your offense,” Grinch said after practice on Monday. “And you say that out loud, and to think that we haven’t gotten that done is a travesty in terms of our role in this building. Our sole purpose in getting on that field is to get that ball back to the offense. That’s defensive football. And not to suggest we haven’t done that at all, but we haven’t don’t it the way we think it needs to get done to ultimately have the goals we want to reach.”
The Sooners’ next chance at taking the football away is Saturday morning in Manhattan, Kansas, when No. 5-ranked OU (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) takes on Kansas State (4-2, 1-2).
Oklahoma is now on a three-game streak with zero takeaways. For Grinch, that turns his stomach. He arrived talking about the need for two per game. Instead, through seven games, the Sooners have but six takeaways: four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
None at Kansas, one of the lowest-ranked teams in any Power 5 conference. None against Texas, the Sooners’ most bitter rival. And none at home last week against West Virginia despite one of college football’s most anemic offenses.
Grinch said he has no memory in his 17 seasons as a college football coach — or as a player, for that matter — of a streak this long with no turnovers.
“I literally can’t remember the last time when it’s been this dry of a stretch,” he said.
That might be hyperbole on his part, but clearly it perturbs him.
“For us, obviously, it’s a huge disappointment that we haven’t had turnovers in the past three games,” said linebacker Kenneth Murray, “and I think that for us, it adds more fuel to the fire to go out there and get it done. … The big thing about us is no excuses, and when we don’t meet our standards we’re still going to hear about it. And so our coaches have been harping on it, and they’re going to harp on it about us today at practice, and so we’ve got to get it done. There’s going to be a big emphasis around here to get it done. And so I’m looking forward to having results from this weekend.”
That could be a challenge. Kansas State ranks 22nd nationally with just seven giveaways: six interceptions and one fumble lost.
The bottom line is Oklahoma’s defense is performing at a high level for the first time in years. Tackling has improved, pass coverage has improved, pressure on the quarterback has improved, effort as a whole has improved.
Is there a danger, then, in putting too much emphasis on turnovers? Can it become a sort of mental block?
In other words, if a Sooner tackler has in his head the desperation for knocking the football loose, is there a possibility he’ll overlook the tackling fundamentals that have helped turn this thing around and let the runner slip through his fingers as he rakes at the football?
Or if an OU defensive back sees his man breaking out of a route and instead of putting himself in position for an immediate and fundamental tackle, he decides to gamble on an interception and allows a big pass play?
“You can’t let them be (a distraction to fundamentals),” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “Our way of coaching it has been identifying the time in games when we had the opportunity to cause a turnover.
“The thing for us is we keep finding a couple of opportunities in each game we feel like we can make a play on the ball. Whether it’s stripping the quarterback on a sack or an opportunity with a ball-carrier that is already wrapped up to rip the ball or make a play on the ball in pass coverage or a defensive lineman tipping the ball up, you just have to continue to create opportunities. We’ve had a few, not a ton, that have fallen in our lap in the last couple. We’ll have a couple if we keep playing the way that we can. We just have to find those opportunities and coach off them and take advantage when they come.”
Said Grinch, “We’re pretty specific. The whole point being the second guy, the second guy in. But where’s the third guy? Where’s the fourth guy? If you’re content with being around the pile as opposed to being that second guy stripping at it, punching at it — do we believe when a play is made against our defense, that somehow gets across the line of scrimmage, do we believe that’s an opportunity for us? Do we truly believe that? That’s an opportunity for us to get the ball out.
“To suggest that we’re always going to be in the backfield and we’re going to punch it out back there … a 10-yard throw that’s secured, can the second guy pursue? There’s a screen that breaks on us, if you’re coming from behind, that ballcarrier hasn’t identified you. What a great opportunity. Do we truly believe that? And the answer is no. So we’ve got to do a better job as coaches.”
Much of Grinch’s frustration, he said, “stems from the fact that we do make such an emphasis on every single play in practice. Why aren’t we getting the carryover (to games)? Why aren’t we seeing three or four guys stripping at the football? Not saying it’s not happening at all. Why is it not happening more? I think some of it might tie into the human element, when the scoreboard’s a certain way. Does that take away the impact of a win or loss? The answer is yes. It may not happen yet, but the answer’s yes.
“It’s not that I like them (getting turnovers) because it’s cool to get a takeaway. I like it because it impacts winning and losing.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.