New Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch isn’t exactly a stats geek.
But he will, from time to time, rely upon statistics to gauge his defense’s performance.
“Those statistics that he does bring up,” said new OU linebackers coach Brian Odom, “you can apply it to how you play defense.”
Grinch won’t obsess about total team defense (inarguably, the Sooners do need to rank better than 114th nationally, where they ranked last season), but he will demand certain standards for yards per play.
Grinch won’t live or die with scoring defense (OU must improve on its ranking of 101st; the other College Football Playoff teams ranked first, 12th and 13th; obviously it matters), but he will pay attention to points per possession.
But meaningful measurements like those are probably a bit down the road for this team. For now, Grinch and his staff are emphasizing one statistic that takes, frankly, a culture change: takeaways.
In his time as Mike Leach’s defensive coordinator at Washington State, Grinch emphasized takeaways and it made all the difference in elevating the program to contender status.
In 2017, Washington State ranked ninth nationally with 28 takeaways, and the Cougars finished 9-4. In 2016, WSU ranked 38th with 23 takeaways, and went 8-5. In 2015, the Cougars ranked 34th in the country with 24 takeaways, and finished 9-4.
Last year, when Grinch was at Ohio State, the Cougars still had 23 takeaways, which ranked 28th nationally, and they went 11-2.
The numbers are thus: 24 takeaways equates to nine victories. Mark it down. It’s math, Grinch says.
“We did a study, several years,” Grinch said. “Essentially, 24 takeaways equates to nine wins, regardless of any other statistic in football, whether offense, defense, total offense, scoring defense. You can name ‘em all. Get to that 24 is kind of that magic number. So you see the impact.”
Now pair that formula with Lincoln Riley’s offense.
Last week, Grinch was introduced as the Sooners’ new defensive coordinator, and not a moment too soon. In addition to those other historically awful defensive rankings, the 2018 OU football team set a program record for the fewest takeaways in school history with 11.
Eleven. In 14 games.
Change was overdue in Norman, and Riley is confident Grinch is the man to implement change.
“Going back to his career at Washington State,” Riley said, “you see the immediate success that happened when he took over defensively, and just always admired from afar the way his groups played. Loved what they do schematically, but more important than that, loved the mentality that he’s instilled in his players. It’s something we very much believe in here and will very much align us with a very similar mentality on all three sides of the ball.”
That mentality is simple: get the football.
“We kind of coined a phrase: takeaways equal victory,” Grinch said. “So it stems from the fact that the sole purpose of the defense to be on the football field is get the ball back to the offense.”
Consider how good the 2018 OU football team could have been if, instead of giving up long touchdown drives, they doubled their takeaways and got Kyler Murray and his offensive mates just one extra possession per game. That’s an almost 14-point swing every week — one less TD for the other team and one more TD for the Sooners.
Mathematically, that equates to victories over both Texas (a 3-point loss) and Alabama (an 11-point loss) and, off of that, a berth in the national championship game.
Now, it sounds unrealistic at first to ask a defense to double its takeaways. But is it? Certainly not if that number is 11.
From 2000-2011 — the year before Mike Stoops returned — Oklahoma’s defense averaged 31 takeaways per year.
Since Stoops came back, the Sooners averaged 19 turnovers per year. During that span, OU’s average yearly total defense ranking was 62nd. Four of the last five years and five of Stoops’ seven seasons, the OU defense failed to get 20 takeaways.
“Defensively, you want to contain yards. Obviously, you want to limit points,” Grinch said. “But the purpose behind every play in football is for the defense to get the ball back to the offense.
“And, oh by the way, the ball doesn’t have any working knowledge of who it’s supposed to be thrown to. It doesn’t know the quarterback is supposed to throw to a receiver. It doesn’t know it’s supposed to stay in the running back’s arm. So if the ball doesn’t know, how on earth do we know? So that gives us every opportunity on every snap of football to get the ball back.”
Know what else doesn’t know? Or care? Recruiting rankings.
“I don’t care if you’re a 5-star or a 1-star (recruit), guess what? Everybody can get the ball out,” said new cornerbacks coach Roy Manning. “Everybody can run to the football. Everybody can punch it out, strip it out — just developing that mindset. That doesn’t take talent or really ability to have an awareness or to have a mindset that every time we’re going out there, we’re going to get the ball back. We’re going to put that emphasis. Two more takeaways — that’s what we’re always fighting for.”
That’s exactly the kind of culture change that can push Oklahoma to the next level — and maybe, finally, produce a national championship.
“He gives guys, you know, something to shoot for,” Odom said. “… Those reliable statistics that he can bring in front of a kid can allow those guys to kind of have something to shoot for. It gives you a little bit of bite when you talk to the kids of why it’s important to get two turnovers a game.”
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.