NORMAN — Throughout its illustrious football history — from the Selmon brothers to Brian Bosworth to Roy Williams and Rocky Calmus — Oklahoma's identity has largely depended on uncompromising, ironclad dominance on defense.
Bob Stoops reestablished that identity when he arrived in 1999 and rode it to the 2000 national championship, won in a 13-2 knockdown, drag-out Orange Bowl victory over Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Chris Weinke and Florida State.
The past few seasons, though, Oklahoma's defense hasn't lived up to Oklahoma standards. Not by a long shot.
There are plenty of reasons for the Sooners' defensive struggles — evolving offenses and recruiting busts, to name a few — but lacking aggression is a culprit, too. That's how Williams sees it, anyway.
“That guy Johnny, Johnny Football, we give him too much praise,” Williams said of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner who scorched OU's defense in a 41-13 Cotton Bowl rout.
“Watching that defense play, they were in awe playing against him. I don't really ever recall myself tackling a quarterback, slapping him on the helmet and talking to him. I think the guys now lack that dog mentality. Hopefully coach can get it back in them. Somehow, someway.”
Throughout spring practices, coaches and players have said they're already playing more aggressive, especially up front. Last season, the Sooners ranked 112th nationally in tackles-for-loss per game, and recorded just 55 for the entire season.
“That's really the main difference between last year and this year,” said junior defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue, who's now playing under first-year position coach Jerry Montgomery.
To put OU's lack of tackles-for-loss in 2012 into context, when the Sooners won the 2000 national championship, Williams and linebackers Rocky Calmus and Torrance Marshall combined for 45 tackles-for-loss — only 10 less than the entire OU defense made last season — and those numbers don't include the Orange Bowl (the NCAA didn't count bowl games toward team or individual statistics until 2002).
“Just the aggressive, attack-style front that has always been Bob Stoops and Oklahoma since he's been here in 1999, playing on the other side of the ball, dominating the line of scrimmage, that's not there,” said former OU defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek. “As a player, that's fun. These guys that are out there playing for Oklahoma, when you're playing on the other side of the football, when you're creating havoc, when you're making plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage, that's when football is at it's best.”
But the Sooners' defensive woes can also be attributed to the offenses they're up against. As college football programs have embraced the spread, no-huddle offenses that often feature dual-threat quarterbacks like Manziel, defenses nationwide have struggled to keep up.
Manziel even torched Alabama's vaunted defense in the Aggies' upset win in Tuscaloosa last season.
“We can praise Alabama all we want, right? I mean, Alabama, they've got it all figured out,” Dvoracek said. “Well Johnny Manziel went there and had his way with them.”
Manziel's performance against Oklahoma, though, wasn't terribly shocking because of the success other, similar offenses have had over the past few seasons against the Sooners. Robert Griffin III threw for 479 yards and four touchdowns, playing the best game of his 2011 Heisman Trophy campaign in a 45-38 win over the Sooners.