NORMAN — There's no way around the fact that Oklahoma's secondary, and particularly its free safety, had major issues Saturday night against Baylor. But its coaches — as well as that safety, Javon Harris — are considering it an aberration relative to the rest of the season.
“We've played 10 games,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. “You've seen some good and, in two games, you've seen some bad. We've played really well more than we haven't.”
Statistically, Stoops is to some extent correct. Through those 10 games, the Sooners (8-2, 5-2 Big 12) are currently giving up 258.1 passing yards a game — 93rd in the country.
Take out the Baylor and Texas Tech games, in which OU surrendered a mind-boggling 931 passing yards, and the Sooners are giving up 206.25 passing yards a game. That would be 43rd in the FBS. That's not sterling, but it's not 93rd, either.
Reality is, you cannot remove those games from the schedule. They're a part of the fabric of a disappointing season that was initially labeled “BCS title or Bust.”
The route has been reconfigured; 2011 is now about winning another conference title for the school.
To do that, though, the secondary issues have to be resolved. It might not be a huge factor against Iowa State this week, considering the Cyclones have a freshman quarterback and are 67th in the country in passing.
But then there's Oklahoma State, on Dec. 3 in Stillwater.
So, what's the deal? Why has this happened all season with Harris, in varying degrees — with the worst coming Saturday in Waco?
Harris' explanation is a pretty simple one. It's not an overcomplicated scheme confusing him. It's not even poor alignment. It's Harris doing one thing incorrectly that leads to big, big problems.
He has gotten caught, on a number of occasions, looking up at the quarterback from his field safety spot. When he does that, even for a split-second, he loses track of the receiver. By the time he realizes what he's done, he turns around to see the back of his man's jersey.
“You try to do too much and you get out of position,” OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables said, “and they can really take advantage of you. They did.”
It happened over and over against Baylor, which had four plays of 50 or more yards in the 45-38 victory. And it could have had more. Even the second play of the game was a 79-yard score, on Harris, that was called back because of a holding penalty.
Quite simply, Harris was his own worst enemy. He knew it then. He knows it now.
He described the sickening feeling of fruitlessly giving chase.
“The first thing you think is that you messed up,” he said. “It hits you hard, knowing that big play after big play is happening. It's like someone just daggered you, real quick.
“Me, as a player, I took it hard. You know they're about to score a touchdown. It's detrimental to the team. It's hard.”
Even for the positive things he's done this season, is Harris out of second chances? After mildly injuring his lower leg, he said he was healthy enough to come back in late against Baylor. But the coaches asked him to stay on the sideline.
It was reserve Sam Proctor, Harris' backup, who was beaten on the final touchdown, though Proctor was close by until the very last second.
Could Proctor, a senior, start on Senior Day against Iowa State? And what about Tony Jefferson, who had played the field safety until he was moved up into the rover spot?
“Oh, we'll see,” Stoops said Tuesday, “but I'm not much on broadcasting any of that.”
He later called Jefferson a “candidate” for safety, but said that could leave a void where Jefferson has been playing.
“Believe me, we're … I thought of that,” Stoops said of moving Jefferson. “Sometimes you can rob Peter to pay Paul. There's a price to pay.”
Venables said he's not much for making big changes, personnel or schematic, after one poor performance.
“I think human nature is to push the panic button,” Venables said. “I've been doing this long enough. Things haven't been perfect for 13 years. We've had our share of obstacles to overcome. The one thing that's been consistent is exactly that, just staying consistent.
“Correct the mistakes. Be demanding. Get your players to stay focused. And not change the course.”
Cornerback Demontre Hurst would like to see this group get mentally tougher, even if it's not making wholesale changes.
“It's not what we want on defense. It's not acceptable,” he said. “We won't accept this. We have to get after these last two games.”
And note this about Harris: He's accountable. He handled the criticism from coaches on the sideline. He tried to come back into the game after the leg injury, when some players might have sulked. And he came into the interview room after practice Monday and faced questions for nearly a half-hour.
Harris didn't get defensive, or excuse himself. He calmly explained his take on what went wrong and what has to change moving forward. One team captain and the secondary coach ducked the media Monday, but Harris didn't have a problem facing his failure, which was quite evident to everyone Saturday night.
“You don't sit here and make a bunch of excuses and you move on,” Venables said. “You learn and grow from it.
“The right thing from a maturity standpoint is to face it and address it.”