NORMAN â€” On the bus ride back to Norman after Oklahoma's defense kept Oklahoma State's high-powered offense out of rhythm much of the game, OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables wasn't celebrating a Bedlam win.
â€œHe had his laptop out and was already thinking of ways to scheme Nebraska,â€ said linebacker Travis Lewis. â€œThat's how intense a guy he is.â€
Rumored to be a candidate for the Miami coaching vacancy, Venables installing a â€œ50 defenseâ€ played a key role in OU's 47-41 win that earned a matchup with Nebraska on Saturday in the Big 12 title game.
Some fans criticized Venables after the defense didn't match expectations early in the season. But after his game-week adjustments for the Cowboys, some radio callers used terms like â€œbrilliantâ€ and â€œgenius.â€
â€œFunny how that works,â€ said Venables, who credited his players for executing the game plan.
Venables said Tuesday he hasn't been contacted by Miami. But the defense's performance against an OSU offense ranked No. 1 nationally was another example why some believe he might be a head coach someday.
The Sooners limited the Cowboys to a season-low 19 first downs and held Doak Walker Award finalist Kendall Hunter to a season-low 55 rushing yards.
â€œBrent works hard at it,â€ said coach Bob Stoops. â€œHe's creative. He looks for different ways adjusting to what people are doing, whether it's up front or in the secondary. He grasps the whole scheme and does a good job getting it communicated with assistant coaches and the players.â€
Statistically, this will be the lowest ranked OU defense in the Stoops era. The Sooners are ranked 63rd nationally in total defense, 63rd in run defense, 62nd in pass defense and 36th in scoring defense.
But Venables has said all season this could be a good defense if the Sooners could eliminate surrendering too many big plays.
Heading into Saturday's conference title game, the defense is playing as well as it has all season, coming off solid performances against Texas Tech, Baylor and OSU, three offenses that average more than 450 yards and 32 points.
â€œSome of it has been injury related,â€ Venables said. â€œFor us as coaches, it's been one of the weirdest years, trying to find what we do well and consistently what we're good at in different areas. There are a lot of variables and reasons why that has taken place.â€
Defensive tackle was expected to be a drop off after Adrian Taylor never fully recovered from a broken ankle and Gerald McCoy was the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft. Other key losses included linebacker Keenan Clayton, who is playing for the Philadelphia Eagles. Last year's starting cornerbacks are on NFL rosters.
Still, the defense struggled more than expected early in the season. Middle linebacker Austin Box was sidelined two months by a back injury, forcing redshirt freshman Tom Wort to start most of the season. Injuries at defensive tackle hit an area that was already thin.
Two reasons OU's defense has improved late in the season are Box has solidified the middle and Ronnell Lewis has made an impact at defensive end after missing three games with a sprained knee.
â€œIt goes without saying it's been a work in progress,â€ Venables said. â€œThe inconsistencies have been frustrating. (The improvement) was everybody starting to understand what their responsibility is, playing together and guys improving overall.â€
Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said scrutiny comes with the territory for coordinators at high-profile programs.
â€œIt's great to be at a place where people care, they have passion,â€ Wilson said. â€œWe want to shut everybody down. We want to score a touchdown every time. No one is any more critical of ourselves than we are. ...
â€œBut if you just look at Big 12 stats against comparable teams, our defense stacks up pretty well. Our defense has played well down the stretch.â€
In conference games, OU ranks third in the Big 12 in total defense, second in run defense and third in pass defense.
The past month has been a turnaround for a defense that surrendered 486 yards in a loss at Missouri and struggled in the fourth quarter at Texas A&M.
â€œIf we're giving up 400 yards, it's 100 percent on the players because he puts us in the right calls,â€ Lewis said. â€œHe's up here 23 out of the 24 hours each day. I bet his wife (probably) hates him by now. I'm surprised they're not divorced. ... He's a coach you really respect.â€