John Hoover

Ask Hoover: on the OU defense, Justice Hill, the OSU o-line, Blankenship v. Montgomery, the aging CFP committee and Major Applewhite

Ask Hoover: on the OU defense, Justice Hill, the OSU o-line, Blankenship v. Montgomery, the aging CFP committee and Major Applewhite

Oklahoma State wide receiver Tylan Wallace (2) is tackled by Oklahoma cornerback Tre Norwood (13) just before the end zone in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

Time again for Ask Hoover, the weekly blog where I answer your college football questions, and this week’s edition is all about the OU defense.

We are down to the final two games of the college football regular season. Almost bizarre how the daily routine and seven-day segments make the season seem to fly by.

No. 6 Oklahoma (9-1, 6-1) hosts Kansas and OSU hosts West Virginia (9-1, 6-1) this week, but it’s impossible to not look ahead to next week’s Sooners-Mountaineers showdown in Morgantown. If OU and WVU both win Saturday, there still will be big games elsewhere in the Big 12 Conference next week.

That’s because Texas (7-3, 5-2) and Iowa State (6-3, 5-2) play this week. While the loser is officially eliminated from the Big 12 race, the winner might get another shot next week to backdoor its way into the championship game.

If Iowa State beats Texas, the Cyclones must hope OU beats WVU, because ISU holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Mountaineers. (Iowa State hosts K-State next week.) If Texas beats Iowa State, the Longhorns need WVU to beat OU because UT holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Sooners. (Texas visits Kansas next week.)

So, lots to play for this week for four teams at the top of the table.

Tulsa visits Navy in a 2:30 p.m. game in Annapolis before wrapping the regular season at home next week against SMU.

Let’s get to the questions:

 

For Oklahoma: Success is beating WVU twice (or WVU and Iowa State) to win a fourth straight Big 12 crown and get to the College Football Playoff. Failure is losing to the Mountaineers and then watching WVU and Texas play for the Big 12 crown in Arlington, and then really getting embarrassed by an SEC team in the Sugar Bowl to finish 10-3.

For Oklahoma State: Success is relative here. This has been a failure of a season. Losing to WVU this week means going into the season finale needing a win at TCU just to get bowl eligible. Going to a bowl in an era there are 41 bowl games is no big thing for a program that has been to 12 in a row. But not going to a bowl would turn this season from failure to disaster.

For Tulsa: Too late. This season is an abject failure on all accounts. The defense has been better than expected, but that’s not saying much. At this stage, TU is 2-8. Winning at Navy and beating rival SMU in the finale would be nice, but finishing 4-8 is by no measure a success.

 

I’m not a fan, but I’m confident the answer here, almost unanimously, would be to take their chances against Alabama in the playoff. There is little doubt Alabama would have its problems with Oklahoma’s offense. Someone suggested this week OU would score 40 but Alabama would score 60. I think that’s entirely likely. But that’s why you play the games. Kyler Murray and his posse of wideouts against the Crimson Tide would be fun to watch, and who knows, maybe even competitive. But, as we’ll address throughout this blog, there’s just too much pressure on the Sooner offense to be flawless.

 

Just a guess here, but I would say there is zero chance he returns next year no matter what. He’s too good, and a running back’s window to maximize his earning potential in the NFL closes too fast. He absolutely must go now.

Or, he could return for his senior season and average 15.8 carries per game like he has this year. What a waste of talent. Mike Gundy and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich have found a formula for which opposing defensive coordinators around the Big 12 have searched for three years: mitigate OSU’s offensive opportunities (and best chance of winning games) by keeping the football out of the hands of the Cowboys’ best player.

And it’s worked brilliantly: OSU is 5-5.

 

This is the question of the year in Norman. How can a program that recruits 4- and 5-star talent and beats other national powerhouses for the services of those athletes be so abysmally bad at playing defense?

Someone should commission the History Channel to investigate how such a mystery has happened, how a program that has thrived on dominant defense for most of the last seven decades gradually has become a national punchline.

Sounds like Lincoln Riley has grown tired of it all, and I expect him to make significant changes in the offseason. But will that be enough? Or is the whole OU defensive culture rotted from the inside out?

 

The change made midseason (Ruffin McNeill for Mike Stoops) did produce tangible results. Check out the numbers in this column I wrote Monday.

I don’t know what the offseason will bring, though it sounds like Riley will bring in a young, aggressive defensive coordinator.

I’m not sure any changes to the scheme, per se, will yield the results Sooner fans want. A change in attitude won’t hurt. Adding accountability to the players and the staff would be a step in the right direction. But ultimately, OU needs better football players. Maybe going after more blue-collar overachievers in recruiting (think the 2000 roster) is the answer.

 

The short answer is no. There is no hope.

Things will look great against Kansas, and West Virginia will throw for 500 yards (both times if the Sooners are good enough to get to the Big 12 title game). It’s the same old story we’ve seen play out all season long. This team isn’t going to suddenly figure out the proper technique or learn the ideal scheme in 2-3 weeks. It is what it is.

Maybe there can be some lasting changes made ahead of the bowl game when the team isn’t just focusing on its six-day game prep routine. But likely any real substantive changes won’t happen until the offseason.

 

I get what you’re saying, but that would be kind of a panic move. What this team needs to focus on is trying to get good (not great) and two or three things — whether that’s cover 2 or run fits or getting creative at getting to the quarterback or just tackling drills. Truly, this squad needs one or two additional stops per game and the offense is good enough to carry the rest.

 

I’ll disagree with your premise here in that when he was healthy, he was the most aggressive hitter on the field. Since he suffered a shoulder injury against Kansas State and missed the Texas Tech game, he seems to have shied away from contact. If he has a bad wing, I can’t say I blame him. I admire his toughness for trying.

But I’ve also felt that part of what you’re saying is absolutely true: he’s 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds and hasn’t been able to pull in an interception yet and can’t be physical when he’s hurt — how was he a 5-star again?

Radley-Hiles has a terrier attitude, small but fearless, and that has served him well.

 

I’m confounded by OSU’s offensive line travails.

Joe Wickline both landed great recruits and developed NFL players as offensive line coach. They were well-suited to mash people in OSU’s power scheme, and his coordinators were pretty gifted: Larry Fedora, Dana Holgorsen, Todd Monken.

But since Mike Yurcich took over the offense in 2013, the level of offensive line play has diminished.

From 2006 to 2012, OSU failed to average 5 yards per carry only once (2009), and failed to average more than 200 rushing yards per game only three times (2009, 2010 and 2011, when OSU’s fancy passing was plenty).

But since Yurcich arrived in 2013, OSU has failed to average 5 yards per carry and has failed to average more than 200 rushing yards per game every year, six years in a row. This year’s averages of 4.8 per carry 194.0 per game are close, and at least show improvement.

After several years of turnover coaching o-line, Josh Henson has settled in. Much of the statistical improvement we see can be attributed to his coaching. This year’s o-line is playing better than any of the last four or five seasons.

 

I offered a short answer earlier in the week on Twitter, and I think it’s absolutely true: Bill Blankenship came to TU from the high school ranks and so never garnered the kind of respect that comes with the job. Philip Mongtomery, meanwhile, came to TU from college — from Baylor, from the Big 12 Conference, from Texas — and, fair or not, brings a level of instant credibility.

I’m always tempted to jump on the pile and say Blankenship knows Xs and Os but wasn’t a good recruiter — he won early with Todd Graham’s players, remember — but the fact that Montgomery took Blankenship’s players and won immediately shows that Bill indeed did get good players.

What this era of TU football will be remembered for is bad quarterback play. If TU had a good quarterback (and wasn’t snakebitten by injuries), things would be different.

But with every record and every award Mason Fine owns, the stain will darken on Montgomery’s quarterback recruiting and development. Montgomery should have taken Fine seriously,  should have looked beyond the stats and the crazy scheme, should have taken the time to study every play of every game like Seth Littrell did, should have sent people (including himself) to Locust Grove to size up Fine like Littrell did. Fine’s stigma — short QB running a gimmicky offense against Class 3A talent — didn’t follow him to Denton, and it wouldn’t have followed him to Tulsa.

I don’t think the heat is on Montgomery just yet. But you’re right, his career arc at TU is startlingly similar to Blankenship’s.

 

I’ll offer you up this theory:

The playoff selection committee is old, and they have old values. In other words, their formative football years happened in the days of I-formation football and two tight ends and 4-3 fronts that emphasized stopping the run — traditional football.

The average age of the 13-person committee is 62, includes three septuagenarians and only two younger than 50 (48 and 49). Not that there’s anything wrong with being old. I’m old. But their attitudes and ideas about what football should look like were set decades ago.

And don’t misunderstand: I’m not making excuses for Oklahoma’s defense here. The Sooners play awful defense.

But the advent and infiltration of the spread offense and its innovative concepts are still scoffed at by older generations.

“Oklahoma doesn’t play real football. All they care about is scoring.”

I mean, don’t tell me that kind of thinking doesn’t exist.

So when a team like LSU comes along, a team that places more value on getting defensive stops than on getting touchdowns, that team is going to be viewed differently than what teams like Oklahoma or West Virginia are.

 

You guys are really in sync here. Please see my previous answer.

 

First, I’d blitz more. Second, I’d blitz a lot more. And third, I’d blitz all the time.

Sure, that kind of risk-taking puts stress on your secondary and would result in a lot of 50-yard touchdowns. But how would that be different than what’s currently happening? These guys are thinking too much. Cut them loose, let them have fun and let them get after the quarterback and hit people.

Probably the greatest defensive turnarounds I ever got to cover was Arkansas in 1998, first year under Houston Nutt, who replaced Danny Ford. The old defensive coordinator was trying his best to play traditional football, but the new guy, Keith Burns, came in and just threw caution to the wind. Burns, a former USC defensive back who played with Ronnie Lott and other stars, blitzed constantly, from all angles.

That team was still flawed, but they had all kinds of fun and scared the hell out of the rest of the SEC because they were trying to change attitudes. And it worked, as pretty much the same roster went from 4-7 in 1997 to 9-3 in 1998 and nearly won the SEC West.

 

Oh boy. I think both parties are at fault. Both Major Applewhite and Ed Oliver could have handled it better.

But for some odd reason, I tend to side with the coach here.

Major Applewhite has a team policy about active players wearing certain team gear during games. Fine. Lots of teams do this. My daughter’s soccer team at the University of Tulsa had a policy like this in place (although Houston football certainly has a greater quantity of coats to go around than TU soccer did). For cold games, players who were injured wore different sideline apparel than the players who were able to play. It’s perfectly normal.

The fact that Applewhite called out his star player, however, and made him take the coat off, and it was caught on national television and digested by the sports consuming public, doesn’t sit well with the whole “poor, poor athlete” crowd.

Oliver was cleared to play weeks ago by the team medical staff, and yet he hasn’t played. He was seen in pregame warmups making a leaping, one-handed catch — so obviously his knee isn’t bothering him.

Let’s call it what it is: Oliver has done a lot for Houston, and now he wants to do for himself. He’s able to play, but he’s protecting his future — as he should. But, doing so means he has quit on his team. Applewhite’s job is to foster a successful team environment. He has a lot more to think about than a first-round draft pick who has decided he doesn’t want to play any more.

It’s certainly Applewhite’s privilege to tell Oliver to take off the coat. And it’s his privilege to decide who gets to stand on his sideline and who doesn’t. If a guy has quit on the team, then maybe he shouldn’t be on the sideline — you know, with the team.

 

Yes, I think the game will continue to evolve and at some point replay will be a fully integrated part of the officiating process. Bad calls happen, but if they can be avoided — if Parnell Motley’s interception at Texas Tech was allowed to stand instead of what was an obvious bad pass interference call — then games will be decided more fairly.

It’ll be a herky-jerky process, with lots of growing pains. But it’ll happen.

______

Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. 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 also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.

 

John Hoover

Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he's now co-host of "Further Review" on The Franchise Tulsa (weekdays 12-3, fm107.9/am1270) . In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. Hoover also covered Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Oral Roberts and the NFL as a beat writer. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist. As a columnist, Hoover won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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