NORMAN — Think about it: if Oklahoma’s defense could get just one or two more stops per game, the Sooners would be unbeaten and firmly in the College Football Playoff picture.
Instead, games like Saturday happen — OU 48, OSU 47 — and for the second year in a row, an historically good offense must shoulder the burden of being perfect, or at least great enough to carry the Sooners back to the playoff.
This time, the offense was good enough to win the game (with plenty of help from the opponent). Five weeks ago in the Cotton Bowl, the offense — as good as it was — wasn’t good enough, and Texas walked away victorious.
Instead of being in the top four, OU is ranked No. 6 (the new rankings come out Tuesday) and has Kansas this week, so no big deal. But next week’s regular-season finale in Morgantown looms, and the West Virginia Mountaineers look strong.
After nearly giving Oklahoma State a new lease on life Saturday night at Owen Field, the OU defense is reeling.
Comparing the NCAA statistical rankings from six games under Mike Stoops to four games under Ruffin McNeill, the Sooners have shown improvements in many areas, but have fallen off in others:
OU now ranks 83rd nationally in points allowed (down from 76th), 115th in passing yards allowed (up from 107th) , 80th in total yards allowed (up from 97th), 45th in rushing yards allowed (up from 65th), 83rd in third-down defense (up from 101st), 108th in first downs allowed (up from 114th) and 129th — still dead last in all of college football — in red zone defense. And remember, Florida Atlantic, UCLA and Army fell in the first part of that schedule. McNeill is working solely against Big 12 offenses.
Still, coach Lincoln Riley stood defiant during his weekly news conference on Monday.
“A lot of teams right now would love to be 9-1,” Riley said, “with every single goal in front of them like this team has.”
Riley was asked about OU’s defensive culture being in disarray and if it needed a complete offseason overhaul.
“If being 9-1 is disarray, then we’ll define it what it is,” he said. “Our defense has had a hand in winning all the nine games we’ve had this year. Are there areas we need to improve? Yes. I’m not looking the other way.
“But at the same time, we’ve got a team that’s capable of winning a championship right now, so our focus right now is on getting better and putting ourselves in position to do that, which we’ve done up to this point this season.”
Coaches dream about a phenomenon known as “complementary football.” That’s where the offense and the defense and even the special teams are all having a good day, or at least good stretches within a game, and that’s how blowouts happen. It’s really quite simple: score a touchdown, then get a stop, then don’t screw it up on special teams.
But OU is making look a lot harder.
Saturday’s game was a perfect example of how to not play complementary football:
In the first quarter, when the Sooners scored a touchdown on offense, they also gave up one on defense. Then in the second quarter, after finally forcing an OSU punt, the OU offense managed just a field goal. Then, after OSU missed a field goal, the OU offense punted.
In the second half, the same thing happened. OSU punted on its opening drive, but all the Sooners could muster was a promising drive that ended on fourth down. When the Cowboys responded with a touchdown, the OU offense halted and punted again.
The Sooners had a 34-21 lead that melted away into a 35-34 deficit because neither the offense nor the defense could sustain success during that stretch.
“Playing complementary football is big,” wide receiver Marquise Brown said Monday. “Special teams as well as offense and defense — we call it ‘we-fense.’ We’re out there and try to compete. When the defense makes the stops, we try to go out and put points on the board. We just have to continue to improve playing complementary football.”
All of which emphasizes the need for Brown, Kyler Murray, Trey Sermon, CeeDee Lamb, Kennedy Brooks and the whole Sooner offense to be perfect.
“As an offense, we know what everyone’s saying about the defense,” Murray said. “We’re not going to add on to that. Everybody knows what we need to be better at. I think we’ve just got to go back in every week and just keep getting better. That’s all you can really do is just go back to work, watch film, practice hard, compete and get better. So as far as the defense goes, we try not to add any pressure on them or anything like that.”
Murray said as one of the team leaders, it is his role to put an arm over a someone’s shoulder and encourage someone if the need arises.
“Obviously, it’s my job and other leaders’ jobs to encourage everybody and talk people up when they’re down,” Murray said. “But at certain points, obviously when they’re not going good, or when we’re not going good, nobody wants to have to be that guy.”
The hard truth is that Riley’s offense has become so special that huge numbers and record-breaking efficiency has become the norm — expected, even. Murray said it’s simply the standard here.
That’s why, even after 702 yards and 29 first downs and 48 points against the Cowboys, all Sooner Nation is talking about Monday is OU’s defense. Linebacker Kenneth Murray even addressed fan backlash on sports radio and social media by saying, “I really don’t care what anybody thinks about me besides my coaches and my teammates.”
Kenneth Murray is no dummy. He and his defensive teammates know the score here. The defense, he said, will continue to fight.
“It’s great to have an offense like that,” Kenneth Murray said, “but as a defense, we don’t feel no pressure as far as feeling like, ‘Oh, we gotta carry this, we gotta carry that.’ You wanna go out there and play great defense. That’s our whole mindset. And so our mindset is to go out there and shut the team out.
“Now sometimes, that doesn’t happen. Like I said before, they got guys that are on scholarship too. They got good players too.”
The Oklahoma defense has now allowed 34 scores on 35 opponents’ trip into the red zone. Of those, 30 are touchdowns. OSU scored at will early, punctuating three consecutive 75-yard drives with touchdowns, and scored late, with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
But the Sooners won the game — partially because Taylor Cornelius couldn’t complete an easy 2-point conversion pass and Matt Ammendola missed an easy PAT kick, but also partially because Curtis Bolton separated Chuba Hubbard from the football and Tre Brown disrupted any chance Tylan Wallace had of catching Cornelius’ errant throw.
There are flashes. So how close are the Sooners to playing true complementary football?
“I don’t think far off,” Riley said. “I mean, the margins are slim there. There were so many times where we were extremely close to doing it, whether we had a chance to separate offensively and get a drive going and then have a penalty or stall out; several times defensively where we’re getting ready to get a stop, got ‘em third-and-long, getting ready to get the ball back, we’ve been moving the ball well, you think you’re gonna separate and then we give up a big play on third-and-long. So I don’t think we’re far away.
“One of the many positives, I would say, is the time of the game that we played the best complementary football was at the end, when it mattered the most.”
Riley emphasized how equal things are among Big 12 teams, especially in a rivalry game. In seven Big 12 games, OU’s defense ranks eighth in points allowed, fifth in total yards allowed, third in rushing yards allowed — but 10th in passing yards allowed. The Sooner defense also ranks ninth in quarterback sacks, last in fumbles, last in interceptions, and last in total takeaways.
“By Big 12 standards, we’re winning a bunch of games,” Riley reminded. “I know that. You can put all those stats every which way you want. Go look up the Big 12 records in the last four years of teams and tell me which one you would rather be.”
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.