NORMAN, Okla. -- The last time out facing an elite quarterback, the Oklahoma Sooners defense did not fare well.
After a slow start to last year’s Capital One Orange Bowl, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson exploded in the second quarter and finished the game throwing for 187 yards and a touchdown while rushing for another 145 yards and a score. Early in the fourth quarter, the Tigers had already put Oklahoma away, leaving a Sooners defense that had shined all season in shock.
“He pretty much opened our eyes,” Oklahoma nickelback Will Johnson said. “We knew he was good. But we didn’t think he was that good.
“It was definitely a learning experience. ... how much stronger we need to come as a team against a quarterback of that caliber.”
This September, the Sooners will get another crack to prove their mettle against an elite quarterback.
And then another.
No team in college football has a more daunting task this nonconference season when it comes to defending opposing quarterbacks than Oklahoma.
The Sooners open with Houston’s Greg Ward Jr., then two weeks later square off against Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett in Norman. Both Ward and Barrett are preseason Heisman hopefuls. And in ESPN.com’s recent #CFBrank series, both came in among the top five quarterbacks in the country, along with Watson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
“Two really great athletes, two really great quarterbacks, two really great leaders,” said Oklahoma safety Steven Parker, who confessed he began watching film on both signal-callers more than three weeks ago.
“We’re going to have to really get after them.”
Going into the postseason last year, the Oklahoma defense had gotten after every quarterback it had previously faced. The Sooners finished the regular season tops in the Big 12 in almost every major category, including pass defense, rush defense, turnovers and sacks.
But in the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma had no answer for Watson, who carved up the Sooners with his athleticism in and out of the pocket.
“His playmaking ability to make one guy miss killed us,” Johnson said. “We had stuff set up perfectly for him, but he would make one guy miss and that would kill the whole play.”
Both Ward and Barrett boast skill sets to do just the same.
Two seasons ago, Barrett replaced an injured Braxton Miller early in the year and finished fifth in the Heisman voting after totaling a Big Ten-record 45 touchdowns. He also set a school record with 3,772 total yards, including 2,834 through the air and 938 on the ground. He led the Buckeyes to the brink of the playoff before suffering a season-ending injury in the regular-season finale against Michigan. But Cardale Jones finished off the magical season, as Ohio State defeated Alabama and Oregon in the playoff for the national title. Last year, Barrett eventually won the job back from Jones and dominated Michigan in the regular-season finale and Notre Dame in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl to close out the season.
This year, for the first time, the job is firmly his.
Ward, meanwhile, joined Watson last season as the only quarterbacks to pass for at least 2,000 yards while rushing for more than 1,000. In a 38-24 win over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Ward passed for 238 yards and rushed for two scores as the Cougars finished 13-1.
“We’re excited," Oklahoma defensive lineman Matt Dimon said. "How can you not be? More than just the two quarterbacks, they’re really good teams, with really good players all over the board.”
Yet how Oklahoma defends Ward and Barrett will go a long way in determining whether the Sooners emerge from this brutal non-conference slate unscathed.
“We know what’s at hand and what’s in front of us,” linebacker Jordan Evans said. “We know that we’re starting off the season with some pretty great opponents, and it gives us a little more edge, a little more drive. We know we have to be ready. There is no building up to -- we have to be ready Game 1.”
Though the linebacking corps is rather inexperienced after Evans and the pass rush a question with All-Big 12 ends Eric Striker and Charles Tapper no longer round, the Sooners still have enough pieces to field an elite defense. Headlined by Parker and fellow preseason All-Big 12 defensive back Jordan Thomas, the Sooners could own their stoutest secondary in years. Led by Dimon and Charles Walker, Oklahoma appears to be deeper up front, as well.
“What we did last year was alright. We came close, but we didn’t get to where we wanted to be. We weren't satisfied," safety Ahmad Thomas said. “We still have to prove ourselves.”
The Oklahoma defense doesn't have to wait much longer for another chance to prove itself in the wake of the Orange Bowl.
Two more elite quarterbacks are just around the bend.
“It’s definitely exciting, definitely motivating us to push our game, knowing we’ve got no room for errors or time to tighten our game up,” Johnson said.
“It’s motivating this defense real hard.”