Sooners struggling to force turnovers

NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma's offense has shouldered the majority of the blame for the Sooners' 24-19 loss to Kansas State. Three turnovers on the offensive side of the football are a central reason behind the first loss to a ranked team at home under Bob Stoops.

But the OU defense deserves part of the burden for the loss. And it has nothing to do with its inability to make third-down stops when it needed them against the Wildcats.

Through three games, the Sooners have forced just one turnover.

"That's one of the biggest downfalls thus far on our defense," cornerback Demontre Hurst said.

OU sits at minus-4 in turnover margin (an average of -1.33 per game), ranking last in the Big 12 alongside Oklahoma State and No. 105 nationally, joining the likes of Southern Mississippi, Buffalo, Central Michigan and Houston. Those six teams have a combined record of 7-11, with four of those wins recorded by OU and OSU.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State, Kent State, Alabama and Ohio are the top four ranked teams in turnover margin in the NCAA (per game average). Those teams have a combined record of 14-1.

Winning the turnover battle drastically increases the Sooners' chances of winning games.

They've done it before, both last season and during defensive coordinator Mike Stoops' previous stop in Norman. In wins over Florida State and Texas last season, OU was plus-5 and won both games by double digits. The defense forced six turnovers in its first two games of 2011, including three in its 23-13 win over then-No. 5 Florida State.

"We need to get more turnovers, there's no doubt about that," linebacker Tom Wort said. "At this time last year, I don't know how many we had, but we had a lot."

And when Mike Stoops was at OU from 1999 to 2003, his defenses had a knack for forcing game-changing turnovers in big games, such as Roy Williams' Superman play against Texas in 2001 or Torrance Marshall's interception return against Texas A&M in 2000.

So what's the answer? How can OU start creating game-changing opportunities with Texas Tech, Texas and Notre Dame looming in three of the next four games after this weekend's bye?

"We have to start gambling," Hurst said. "Start stripping the ball, start gang-tackling, start knocking the quarterback's arm down, jumping routes -- just trying to make a difference in the game."

Gambling? That sounds like a scary proposition, particularly when straying from sound defense and trying to do too much was as problem for last year's defense, leading to big plays, particularly in the secondary. What about being assignment-sound?

"That can only go so far," Hurst said. "We have to get out there and start creating turnovers -- we have one in three games; I'm pretty sure we're last in the Big 12 in turnover margin.

"That's not good."

Fortunately for OU, being assignment-sound and taking risks to force turnovers are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to do both -- the Sooners just have to be smart about the risks they take. For example, if a teammate has secured the tackle, the second man on the scene should tackle the football. Recognizing opportunities like that and being mentally prepared to take advantage of those limited opportunities is the key.

Regardless, one thing is clear: The Sooners need to be more aggressive if they have any hope of improving their turnover numbers and improving their chances of success with five ranked teams remaining on their schedule.

"You have to be aggressive to get turnovers," defensive end David King said. "Occasionally, a quarterback will overthrow a ball or running back will fumble it. But most of the time, it comes off of being aggressive.

"If you're not going to be real aggressive, you're not going to get turnovers; if you're going to be conservative, it's not going to come."

And it starts in practice this week.

"We have to concentrate more on that in practice and try to create some drills, get in rush lanes, get tipped balls and some deflections," Mike Stoops said. "That's an issue, and we are trying to create some turnovers."

Said Wort: "We need to work hard on stripping the ball and making more competitive plays in the air. It's something we'll be working on."

OU is -6 in turnover margin in 16 games since the start of the 2011 season. In 2010, OU finished with a positive turnover margin (plus-14) and, not surprisingly, ended the season with a five-game winning streak and Big 12 title. Therefore, finding a way to win the turnover battle consistently needs to happen.

And it needs to happen now if the Sooners want to get back on the right track.