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OU defense looking for answers

NORMAN, Okla. -- After Oklahoma's dramatic comeback and overtime win in Bedlam, Mike Stoops ran around the field, pumping his fists and slapping fives with anyone in the vicinity not wearing orange.

After his defense surrendered another 500 yards and 48 points, why was Stoops so ecstatic?

"We didn't have to play anymore," he said. "That's what I was most excited about."

The Sooners survived a third consecutive week of defenseless football, placing them on the precipice of finishing outside the top 50 nationally in total defense for a third consecutive season.

This is not what the Sooners imagined would happen when Bob Stoops brought his brother back to resurrect an OU defense that had gone soft in the waning seasons under Brent Venables.

But after another string of dismal defensive performances, OU has been relegated to winning in shootouts yet again. The regime is different; the results, the same. Is there any hope in sight of a return to the championship defense the Sooners played at the advent of the Stoops era?

"We have to make some adjustments," Mike Stoops said. "Some short-term. Some, we're going to have to make long-term."

Short-term or long-term, the answers don't appear to be easy.

Earlier this season, the Sooners seemed to have turned the corner, shutting down Texas Tech and Texas and checking Kansas State until the fourth quarter.

But when the heavyweight offenses came along, the Sooners capitulated. Collectively, Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State put up 131 points -- the most OU has allowed over any three-game stretch under Bob Stoops.

"It's not a real comfortable feeling," Mike Stoops said. "No one is more upset than we are. We just have to keep moving forward and have a better plan."

The plans the last month have left much to be desired. The Stoops brothers tried to get out ahead of the previous three-game stretch by daring to play with seven defensive backs and no linebackers. But that just allowed the Bears, Mountaineers and Cowboys to gash the Sooners on the ground. Baylor rushed for 252 yards; West Virginia, an OU-record 458; and OSU, 201.

"As a defense and as a defensive coordinator, you've got to be able to stop the run and feel good about your commitment to stop the run," Mike Stoops said. "We've been a little resistant to that. We've been more pass conscious, and we're not good enough right now at both things, and in this league you have to try and find a balance."

The change in scheme, though, has done more harm than good, something linebacker Corey Nelson said the coaches have admitted as much to the players. Nelson said the coaches were so concerned about getting beat deep in the pass, they overcommitted, leaving the Sooners vulnerable to the run.

"I feel like the coaches may have tampered with the defense a little bit too much," Nelson said. "That's what (position coach Tim Kish) told the linebackers, and it kinda got out of hand.

"They messed with it too much and it just allowed the structure to not be what it was."

The Sooners aren't getting beat deep as much. But they're still giving up huge plays. Going into the final week of the season, only Baylor, Kansas and West Virginia have given up more plays of 30 yards or more. The Sooners have allowed twice as many of those plays as Kansas State.

"Those are probably the most disappointing parts of it," Mike Stoops said. "We had been pretty good in containing those. But those have become problematic for us.

"We're having a lot of issues here of late. Some of it is scheme, some of it is the talent you playing against. They're exploiting some of the weaknesses of our defense, let's put it that way.

The way offenses have exploited the Sooners these last three games has been spreading them out, folding the defensive line over and running up the middle.

West Virginia's Tavon Austin piled up 344 yards, the majority coming on inside zone runs. OSU took advantage of the Sooners there, too. In fact, on the Cowboys' go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, they called nothing but zone runs up the middle. The Sooners were powerless to stop them.

"When somebody finds a weakness in your defense, we haven't been able to correct it the right away," Mike Stoops said. "The one-back zone has really hurt us. We'll see it again until we fix it."

Whether OU fixes the run defense these last two games, the larger question still looms: Can the Sooners get back to playing championship-caliber defense next season -- and beyond?

One obstacle has been transitioning away from Venables' scheme, which revolved around recruiting and developing linebackers. The last three weeks, the Sooners have barely used their linebackers as they attempt to combat the multitude of slot receivers they face.

"If you play two linebackers, can you play man?" said Mike Stoops, who, unlike Venables, is a proponent of man-to-man coverage. "Now your safety has to cover a slot receiver. How is that matchup? Not real good."

While Venables leaned on his linebackers, the goal of Mike Stoops' gap scheme is to funnel tackles to the safeties. Strong safety Javon Harris has 75 tackles this season, and free safety Tony Jefferson leads the team with 105. Nobody else has more than 50.

"We have to understand that we have to turn all the runs outside to the safeties, and we just have to understand that we normally won't get as much (playing time) as we normally want at the linebacker position, due to the personnel that is out there at the time," Nelson said. "That's where it gets frustrating at times. We want to show the coaches we can play the pass as well as the nickel or the dime."

Problem is, the Sooners' deepest position is linebacker; their thinnest is safety, where former walk-on Jesse Paulsen has had to fill in as the primary backup. It will take at least another year for the change in philosophy to catch up in recruiting.

Harris, meanwhile, graduates this season. Jefferson could explore leaving early. If that happened, good luck handicapping who would be playing the two most pivotal positions in Mike Stoops' scheme.

Going forward, the Sooners have other issues, too. OU will lose its top three tackles -- Jamarkus McFarland, Casey Walker and Stacy McGee -- as well as its best end, David King. There's some promise with young ends like Chuka Ndulue and Charles Tapper. But the only returning tackle to show glimpses of anything is freshman Jordan Phillips, which is why the Sooners have tried to land a junior-college tackle in this recruiting class.

The good news is that the offense figures to be explosive again next season, even with a new quarterback.

But the Mike Stoops defense still needs work. And at this point, more than anyone would've expected.