NORMAN — Optimism abounds around Sooner football, and defense is the reason.
Trevor Knight played an all-world Sugar Bowl and is protected by a deep and salty wall of blockers. But Knight has played two good games since San Antone’s Ronald Reagan High School, and veteran playmakers are in short supply. The Sooner offense might be gangbusters, but let’s see.
Defense, that’s the OU calling card in 2014. Even with the squishy status of linebacker Frank Shannon, the Sooners have gaggles of starters returning. Depth on the line. Proven playmakers. Just ask Alabama.
But speaking of the Crimson Tide, the Sugar Bowl brings a little caution to the revelry. Yes, OU beat ’Bama in part because Eric Striker and Geneo Grissom assaulted the Sons of Saban with Braveheart fury, and Zack Sanchez made an interception that will live in infamy, and the Sooners produced five, count ‘em, five takeaways.
Yet Alabama wounded the Sooners, too. The OU defense was boom-and-bust in New Orleans. ’Bama had 14 possessions and totaled four touchdowns and one field goal, which while not spectacular defense is OK, when you’re playing a behemoth quarterbacked by one of college football’s greatest winners, A.J. McCarron.
But the way ’Bama scored sounded alarms that should not yet have subsided. Pass plays of 67 and 61 yards. A 43-yard run. Non-scoring pass plays of 53 and 63 yards. Five takeaways, but also five plays of greater than 42 yards. That’s football on the margin. That’s football that could go either way.
“That’s where we need to get better,” said OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “Consistency … our awareness on the field … we were very inconsistent at times.”
And Alabama was no aberration.
Even in the good times of OU’s season-ending three-game winning streak against favorites, all played away from Owen Field, big plays were prevalent.
In frigid weather, OSU had seven plays of at least 20 yards, including runs of 23 and 51 yards. In cold weather, Kansas State produced four touchdowns and one field goal in 11 possessions, thanks to pass plays of 90, 48, 43, 30 and 22 yards.
Bottom line, the Sooner defense got off the field unscathed enough to win all three games and reroute the course of Oklahoma football. But before we start hailing this defense as dominant or championship-caliber, fewer home run balls would be nice.
“Overall, we played pretty good,” Striker said. “We made big plays. But the expectations are the same. We want to be a great defense. If we can eliminate teams from scoring, that’s what we want to do.”
More caution: the Sooner defense was fortified down the stretch by the OU offense. Knight was superb against K-State and Alabama, games in which he threw five touchdowns total and completed 72 percent of his passes. And in Bedlam, OU’s kicking game kept the Sooners alive, with two special-teams TDs.
“With the teams we play, you’re going to give up some big plays,” Mike Stoops said. “You have to stay aggressive. Once our offense got going, I thought we were able to keep up. That makes a big difference in how you call the game. Sometimes it gets hard when you’re in tight games, don’t want to take chances.”
Bingo. Look at the Baylor game. The OU defense hung tough for most of the first half, but the offense was awful. The Sooners’ first-half possessions ended with punt, punt, fourth-down stop, field goal, punt, interception. OU still led 5-3 midway through the second quarter and was down just 10-5 until the final minute before halftime before the dam broke and Baylor eventually won 41-12.
So the defense needs a little help from its brothers on the other side of the ball. That help was abundant against Alabama. Mike Stoops could unleash his ballplayers and say sic ‘em. Even then, the Sooners got burned. Without that offensive help, Mike Stoops might have to hold the reins a little on a defense that is the reason for OU optimism.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.