Oklahoma defense much improved since last trip to Morgantown

NORMAN, Okla. — Two seasons ago, Oklahoma gave up just short of a hectare’s worth of yards to West Virginia.

The next week, Oklahoma allowed another land-grab worth of yards to Oklahoma State in a 51-48 overtime win. And the game after that Johnny Manziel undid the Sooners as Texas A&M gained 633 yards and won 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl. In those three games, OU allowed nearly 2,000 yards.

And then the Sooners gave up on their defense. 

Point to West Virginia for the argument that sheer embarrassment was the reason OU ultimately made a defensive switch. After all, West Virginia gained almost 800 yards that night. Only Donald Trump claims more real estate on a regular basis, but whatever the reason, it was necessary. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops junked the 4-3 for the 3-4 after the season. 

Oklahoma’s defense hasn’t just changed since that meeting in the mountains with West Virginia, it’s gone through a full makeover – from nonexistent on the field to becoming a rare existence in the game.

Alabama’s defense has slipped, struggling with up-tempo teams such as Auburn, Oklahoma and West Virginia, as has the reputation of defenses across the SEC. Baylor has been great on offense, Texas Tech and West Virginia, too. Oklahoma State has been impressive, but none of those teams have made the defensive improvements the Sooners have.

OU gave up 398 yards per game in 2012. In 2013 the number was 350. Now, through three games it’s 295.

"We’re starting to see the benefits of guys being in the right place," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said.

Stoops was in place, returning back to Oklahoma as the team’s defensive coordinator. And in less than a season – from that 2012 circus when West Virgina scored 49 points, to scoring just seven last year against OU.

By the end of the 2013 season, OU wound up finding its quarterback in Trevor Knight and finding its rhythm on defense, sacking Alabama seven times in a Sugar Bowl win.

Now? Even better through three games. OU has allowed just 11 points per game so far this season, less than 90 yards rushing and has forced eight turnovers. The Sooners rank in the top 20 in the nation in all of those categories.

How rare? Well, even bad teams can gain yards with the spread offense. There are 51 teams in the country averaging more than 450 yards per game, yet OU has gone from worrying about whether the offense can bail out the team to having a defense that’s good enough to win on its own.

And that’s light years removed from the defense that gave up 49 points two seasons ago at West Virginia.

"That’s quite a range," Stoops said from the 2012 team’s undoing to last this season. "Our goal is to execute our defense every time we step on the field and to have few mental mistakes. That’s what we’ve done well. You’re going to miss some concepts, but our goal is to make them earn every yard and that’s what we are doing well now."

These days in college football, a handful of stops is generally enough to win games, particularly in the Big 12 which has a history of high-scoring offenses with Baylor, West Virginia, Texas Tech and others.

But OU’s switch is shocking. Not only is the trend toward offense now in college football, but to go where the Sooners have in so short a time is remarkable. 

The defensive line, which was the biggest issue on the team in 2013, is now its biggest strength. Eric Striker is a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy, from his linebacker spot and Zack Sanchez is playing himself into the first round of the NFL draft from his cornerback spot.

"We have goals," Stoops said of his defense. "I’m not going into get into those. The big thing is to win. Keeping them out of the endzone will always be our goal."

Stoops spent the end of the 2012 season with his head in hands, unable to watch as the Sooners were gouged.

"The defense didn’t win that game," remembers Sooner lineman Charles Tapper of the last trip to Morgantown.

True, but the defense was so bad that day it became the reason to start new.

And if the Sooners are able to make it through the season and into the four-team playoff, it will be because of defense, not offense.

Quarterback Trevor Knight’s identity has yet to be established. He has just eight career starts, some as good as the win over Alabama, some as bad as the 16-7 win last season over West Virginia. Coaches don’t want him to run, but need him to for the offense to succeed.

Running back Keith Ford, the best of three new running backs this season, is hurt for two weeks. The other two, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine have been good, but they are untested and without many credentials. 

Same goes for the receivers. Sterling Shepard is quality. Everyone else is looking to be the No. 2 option.

Oklahoma has been good on offense through three games, but not elite. That comes next year when all three running backs return, OU’s young receivers have more experience, the possible addition of Dorial Green-Beckham and Joe Mixon at running back. Even Knight should be one of the best quarterbacks in the country by that time.

Next year for the offense. This year for the defense.

Rank the best players on the team. Put Shepard in the top 10, but past that, it’s all defensive players, so good, in fact, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said the Sooners were much more of a test defensively than Alabama was. Alabama beat West Virginia in the season-opener for both teams.

Who would have thought that two seasons ago? 

Then again, who would have thought defense could win a championship in this age of college football?

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK