NORMAN — Is this Oklahoma defense is the worst in school history?
The sad truth is there’s still a few games left before that claim can be made. Recent OU defenses have set the bar extremely high (or low, in this case), but statistically speaking, this team absolutely can make ignominious history.
One thing is certain, the 2018 Sooner defense has lived up to the program’s recent shortcomings, especially with a trip to high-powered West Virginia looming on Friday night. If Kansas strafed the Sooners last week in Norman, imagine the numbers WVU might put up in Morgantown.
There are greater titles at stake this week than all-time worst defense, of course. The Sooners want a fourth consecutive Big 12 Conference championship, and need to beat WVU to return to next week’s title game in Arlington against the Texas Longhorns. Once there, they’ll have a shot to avenge their only loss of the season and possibly even get back to the College Football Playoff.
That playoff return, however, seems less and less likely thanks to an OU defense that’s on its way to setting numerous school marks for futility. The CFP selection committee has made it clear they want to include teams they consider complete — good offense, good defense and even good special teams.
Oklahoma has an exceptional offense and strong special teams. But that defense can’t be called good by any measure.
Mike Stoops put together worse defenses than this in his second stint at OU, but this year’s model — now coordinated by Ruffin McNeill since Stoops became the first OU assistant in recent memory fired at midseason — is right there with the worst of them.
This year’s defense is allowing 29.8 points per game, which doesn’t touch the all-time OU record (35.6 set in 1996), but would surpass the Stoops-era mark of 28.8 set in 2016. This year’s group is allowing a school-record-tying 21.2 first downs per game and a school-record .621 opponents completion percentage. The 2018 Sooners also could set school marks for passing yards per game (currently 272.4), totals yards per game (currently 416.0), yards per play (currently 5.6), total touchdowns (currently 38), fewest takeaways (currently 8) and more.
Stoops’ recent defenses are all over OU’s bad end of the record book, with dreadful numbers posted almost every year since his return in 2012.
Stoops grew frustrated with being unable to get players from this generation to play hard. That has gotten better under McNeill, head coach Lincoln Riley said Monday during his weekly new s conference.
“I think our effort’s been good,” Riley said. “Would I say our effort’s been elite all the time? Not all the time. It’s been good, and I think it’s been particularly good since we made the change.”
“I definitely think it’s gotten better since the Texas game,” linebacker Kenneth Murray said Monday. “Guys are on the same page more, I think. Scheme-wise, I think things are a lot more simple. As a defense we have to focus on the little things, tackling, having great effort and stuff like that. But overall we’ve gotten better since the Texas game.
“To be honest, in my opinion, we’re only a little bit away. A lot of people don’t see it that way. A lot of people see it as us being far away because we gave up 40 points the last three games. But at the end of the day, if we fix all of those little things we’re right there, right where we need to be.”
It may be more accurate to say these Sooners are only a little bit away from allowing the most points and most yards in school history. Here’s a look at how this year’s defense stacks up to others records set in the Stoops era as well as the school records:
|Statistic||2018 mark||Stoops-era||OU record|
|Points/Gm||29.8||28.8 (2016)||35.6 (1996)|
|1st Downs||21.2||21.2 (2016)||21.2 (2016)|
|Rush Yds||143.6||192.2 (2012)||198.9 (1960)|
|Rush Avg||3.6||5.2 (2012)||5.2 (2012)|
|Rush TDs||21||27 (2012)||28 (1997)|
|Pass Yds||272.4||276.2 (2014)||276.2 (2014)|
|Pass Avg||12.7||12.9 (2016)||15.1 (1975)|
|Comp Pct||0.621||.603 (2006)||.603 (2006)|
|Pass TDs||17||27 (2012)||28 (1997)|
|Plays/Gm||74.3||76.1 (2015)||76.1 (2015)|
|Total Yds||416||432.0 (2016)||432.0 (2016)|
|Yds/Play||5.6||5.8 (2016-17)||5.8 (2016-17)|
|Total TDs||38||47 (2017)||49 (1996)|
|3rd Down Pct||0.409||.426 (2016)||.426 (2016)|
|Fumbles||3||3 (2012)||3 (2012)|
|INTs||5||8 (2004, ‘17)||5 (1997)|
|Takeaways||8||16 (2012)||13 (1997)|
Saturday night, Kansas — at or near the bottom of each of the Big 12’s statistical categories — rushed for six times as many yards against OU (348) as it did against FCS opponent Nichols State (56). Against Central Michigan, Kansas mustered only 361 total yards. Against OU, the Jayhawks had 524. In a game versus Rutgers, KU managed 22 first downs. Against the Sooners, 25.
It was an historically bad night for the OU defense, but Riley said he found some positives.
“I was proud of our communication,” he said. “… I thought we were in the right calls. I thought we were in the right position. I think we had one or two busts in the game. So really, we mentally played very clean. I mean, very clean. Maybe even — you ask me if I was surprised by anything — I was maybe a little surprised by how clean we played: guys being where they need to be, not busting calls, the adjustments from the sideline. We were really good at that.”
Riley said KU’s yards after contact “was off the charts; probably the highest we’ve had here certainly all year and maybe the last couple years.”
Against Kansas, missed tackles was the culprit. WVU doesn’t have a Pooka Williams on the roster (he ran for 252 yards on just 15 carries), but the Mountaineers do have a greater number of game-breakers than the Jayhawks did. That should be cause for concern for a team that fancies itself a national title contender.
“Right now, we’re really getting back to the basics and focusing on the fundamentals,” Murray said, “because that’s really all you need as a defense is just to keep things simple and focus on the fundamentals of tackling.”
“I do think we’ve taken some steps there since we made a change mid-season,” Riley said.
There have been some improvements, and the Sooners have taken a step back since McNeill took over. On the whole, any differences have been minimal:
When Stoops was fired, OU was giving up 27.3 points per game (76th in the nation). That number is now 30.7 (86th nationally). First downs per game went from 23.3 (114th) to 23.5 (113th). Rushing yards per game went from 156.8 (65th) to 162.2 (64th). Passing yards went from 264.3 (107th) 263.6 (106th). Total yards went from 421.2 (97th) to 425.8 (87th). Third down percentage defense went from .424 (101st) to .416 (89th). Red zone defense went from 100 percent (tied for 126th) to 97.3 percent (129th).
Oklahoma has been renowned for dominating defense ever since Bud Wilkinson started winning national championships in the 1950s. There have been two short stretches when OU’s defense was notoriously bad: the late 1960s and the mid 1990s.
For the rest of the last 70 years or so, college football has been afraid to face an OU defense. Those have been the expectations.
“When we don’t live up to those expectations, it kills us as players,” Murray said. “It makes us want to go out there and work even harder. At the end of the day, stuff is not going our way, we’re hitting some adversity.
“But like I said before, this defense will never stop fighting. We’ll never give up. You know that sometime the storm is going to end and there is going to be some sunshine, and we’re going to come out and have the performance I know we can have as a defense.”
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.