NORMAN, Okla.--Last year was a educational one for Mike Stoops.
The Oklahoma defensive coordinator experienced a season of ups-and-downs during his first year back in Norman after his years as a head coach at Arizona. His OU defenses were dominant during his first stint as defensive coordinator from 1999-2003. But when he returned, he came back to a much different Big 12.
Offenses were more explosive, spreading the field and exploiting mismatches has become the name of the game and the league’s playmakers and coordinators were too good to let them dictate the game. Stoops and the Sooners learned the hard way as their read-and-react scheme had some good stretches but failed miserably against West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
Times have changed however. Through two games this season, it’s been the Sooners defense dictating the game with their aggressive approach. OU’s 16-7 win over West Virginia was a perfect example. Last season, the Mountaineers used Tavon Austin, Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey to terrorize the Sooners’ defense. On Saturday, WVU was more concerned about stopping the Sooners from terrorizing them as they placed an emphasis on protecting quarterback Paul Millard.
In 2012, WVU often used five-receiver sets, even putting Austin in the backfield at times. Those type of personnel groupings were nowhere to be found this time around.
“That’s the first thing I noticed,” Mike Stoops said. “They didn’t line up in 10 [one-back] personnel the whole game, and that tells you we’re changing people’s philosophy against us. They weren’t going to let us get to the quarterback.”
While the Sooners have recorded just two sacks in two games, they’ve consistently been in the opponents backfield. Neither Millard or Louisiana-Monroe’s Kolton Browning got into a rhythm or looked comfortable in the pocket against OU. It’s one reason the Sooners haven’t given up a touchdown pass in their first two games.
Stoops’ decision to go to a more aggressive scheme and force the action with the hope of making offenses react to his defense has worked like a charm. WVU coach Dana Holgorsen, who has a reputation as one of the best offensive minds in college football, spent his preparation time figuring out ways to protect his quarterback against the Sooners instead of creating ways to exploit their defense.
“We at least made it uncomfortable and different for their offense, so that was a positive,” Stoops said. “We went in, we weren’t going to let them get comfortable regardless. We felt like we wanted to put pressure on the quarterback, make the quarterback work throughout the course of the game and not let him sit back there and go deep on us.”
Millard finished 21 of 41 for 218 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt and one interception. Holgorsen used phrases like “they’re going to attack” and “they’re not going to sit on their heels” when describing the Sooners’ defense before the game but knowing what to expect didn’t help improve those numbers.
“We tried to keep him off balance, and we did a pretty good job of that throughout the course of the night,” Stoops said of Millard. “We didn’t have a bunch of sacks -- that’s two weeks in a row we’ve only had one-- but there’s a lot of pressure. We’re making it uncomfortable in the pocket for the quarterback to get the ball out. That’s just as effective.”
OU ranks No. 15 nationally allowing a 17.7 opponent Total QBR, is allowing 173 passing yards per game and just 4.32 yards per pass attempt. They’ve also been superb in clutch situations allowing just 17.2 percent of third-down conversion attempts to be successful.
So, yes, there’s plenty of reasons for Sooners’ fans to be excited that the OU defense has turned the corner. Yet, the Sooners’ defense had similar good stretches and finished among the Big 12 leaders in pass defense in 2012. A terrific early start could quickly lose its luster with one or two poor performances in the future. That’s the main reason Stoops continues to talk about his defense changing throughout the season and promises to build on the Sooners’ 3.5-point per game allowed average.
“It’s definitely something we can build on,” he said. “We keep bringing in new wrinkles to the package. Each week is a little bit of a chess match. What’s great about it is that we put stuff in. It’s controlled chaos in a way, but our players, it keeps them thinking all the time, it keeps them working, and that’s what I like about it, too. We’re not stagnant.”