Uneven Sooner defense ready for Missouri test

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Oklahoma's dynasty under Bob Stoops wasn't built on fancy offensive attacks that rolled up yards and produced point-a-minute scoring totals.

At its very peak when the Sooners claimed the 2000 national title, Oklahoma had a solid offensive attack. But the Sooners' major claim to fame was a bruising defense that was seldom dented by opposing teams.

Players such as Rocky Calmus, Roy Williams, Torrance Marshall and Derrick Strait dotted the Sooners' roster back then. In those days, Oklahoma's means of stopping opponents was about as subtle as a roundhouse punch.

Those days appear to be long gone as the Sooners are struggling through the worst statistical defensive season of Stoops' 10-season coaching tenure. The Sooners have already allowed 298 points, more than in any season since 1997. And their 249.7 yards per game allowed through the air would be the worst mark in the school's records, which date to 1937.

Those figures have intensified scrutiny on a defense that has allowed at least 28 points in six of its last seven games heading into Saturday's championship game against Missouri.

The Tigers' chances will likely depend on getting into a shootout with the Sooners' explosive offense. Quarterback Chase Daniel keys an explosive attack that ranks fourth nationally in scoring and passing and sixth in total offense, which might give Missouri a chance to upset the Sooners.

And considering that third-string linebacker Mike Balogun will be making his first career start after playing only 20 snaps earlier this season, the Sooners' defense could have a weak link in the middle.

Such talk has caught the attention of the Sooners as they prepare for Saturday's game.

"This defense is definitely going into this game with a chip on its shoulders, because people don't think we're good enough to stop (Missouri)," Oklahoma freshman linebacker Travis Lewis told reporters earlier this week. "But we think we deserve to be there. And out of the three (South) teams, we think we're the best team."

The Oklahoma defense was under increased scrutiny before the Texas Tech game and the Sooners' defense responded with their best game of the season. The Red Raiders were limited to a season-low 21 points that was swelled by a late touchdown with 11 seconds left.

And despite struggles against Oklahoma State last week, the defense showed flashes late in the game. After being ripped for 41 points through the first 50 minutes of the game, the Oklahoma defense rose up to shut out the potent Cowboys attack over their final three possessions, limiting them to 26 yards on their final eight snaps.

And perhaps owing to the transformation of the offensive game in the Big 12, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables has tweaked this team to perform differently than some of his previous defenses. The Sooners have been dented for yards and points, but they do have a knack for a big play. Oklahoma is third nationally with 39 sacks and tied for sixth nationally with 29 turnovers produced.

"I think we're getting much better as the season goes on," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Some teams have gotten us early. But I think we're really getting into a strong rhythm and groove over the past couple of games. How we played Tech and Oklahoma State down the stretch gives us something to build on."

Stoops likes to point out that Sooner defensive substitutes have allowed four touchdowns in the final minute of blowout victories over Cincinnati, Kansas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. And the Sooners have been victimized by poor special-teams play that has allowed four more touchdowns on kickoff returns, the most in the country.

"You look at those touchdowns and it does have an effect," Stoops said. "People look and see how we've played, but we've also allowed some touchdowns late that have skewed those numbers a little. And that's not always considered when people look at stats."