Prolific offense is the reputation by which No. 8 Oklahoma lives, but Bob Stoops doesn't mind hearing about how far his defense has come in a few short weeks as the Sooners pack their bags for a Big 12 showdown at 10th-ranked West Virginia on Saturday night.
In a 66-59 win at Texas Tech on Oct. 22, the Sooners gave up 854 yards of total offense.
Since, Oklahoma has given up an average of 321.4 yards per game in three wins.
“We haven't changed defenses,” Stoops said. “Guys are playing better.”
That improvement needs to keep up for the Sooners to have success this week when they travel to West Virginia in a game that will go a long way toward determining the Big 12 champion.
The most glaring improvement has been in the secondary, where cornerbacks Jordan Thomas and Jordan Parker have settled in after a rough first part of the season.
Thomas, who was strong a year ago as a sophomore, struggled to maintain his success early, being repeatedly beaten deep by opposing receivers.
Parker, a freshman, has been the latest to step into the other cornerback role after three other players started there early in the season.
Stoops said the improvement goes deeper.
“It isn't just the secondary,” Stoops said. “It's the linebackers, everybody. It's been — it was really solid the other day. I say the linebackers are a big part of it.”
Stoops specifically mentioned Oklahoma's two inside linebackers — Jordan Evans and Emmanuel Beal — for their improvement.
Evans had two interceptions and two sacks last week.
“It has been a complete U-turn from that game,” Evans said, pointing back to that game against Tech. “Our intensity, our effort. Guys are making more plays. The No. 1 thing is guys are having more fun doing it. Guys are wanting to get back out there each and every Saturday and wanting to get to practice on Monday to get better and to keep it going.”
Evans said while the Tech game wasn't necessarily a must for improvement, it's helped focus the defense in the weeks since.
“It should never have to happen,” Evans said. “We should have been doing that since Day One. The only reason I think it was good is we were still able to come out with a win in that game. We've kind of flipped out defense around. It was a good wakeup call for us.”
One way the Sooners can effectively quiet West Virginia's offense is to eat the clock with a deadly running game.
Samaje Perine ran for 242 yards and four touchdowns in Oklahoma's last game in Morgantown, his first career game with 100 or more yards on the ground. And tailback Joe Mixon is averaging 6.87 yards per carry during his career, the most in the Bob Stoops era among players with 100 or more carries.
Mixon is spending several snaps per game split wide of the formation, ala DeMarco Murray, to help get both players on the field and dictate matchups.
“It's probably not quite as striking now because more people do it,” Stoops said. “I still think it's effective and it still gives defenses some pause when you've got a linebacker that's way out on the numbers in a space where he's not used to operating. Just Demarco (Murray) along with Joe (Mixon) have such exceptional hands and an ability to get open. It works for us.”
Mixon enters the week second in the Big 12 in rushing with 937 yards.
West Virginia has a very balanced rushing attack of its own with Justin Crawford, Rushel Shell III and Kennedy McKoy all averaging between 67-51 yards per game. This week's effort might depend on injuries. Shell was sidelined last week at Texas and McKoy carried 25 times for 73 yards to be recognized by WVU coach as the Mountaineers' offensive champion.
The Mountaineers average about 211 yards on the ground while Oklahoma surrenders an average of 132.4. Last week, the Sooners struggled to slow down Baylor's rushing attack early, surrendering 212 yards to the Bears.
Perhaps more pressing for WVU is what the Mountaineers will get out of their quarterback.
OU allows upwards of 300 passing yards per game, but in part those numbers are a byproduct of grabbing big leads and playing a softer coverage in the second half.
WVU's Skyler Howard got away with one at Texas, leading the team to victory despite throwing three interceptions. Howard was 21 of 35 for 269 yards, guiding the offense to just one touchdown after they scored a quick 17 points in the first 15:11 of the game.
Oklahoma leads 6-2 overall and 2-0 in Morgantown. The Mountaineers have not beaten the Sooners since they joined the Big 12.