College Football
Oklahoma's improved defense might be showing some flaws
College Football

Oklahoma's improved defense might be showing some flaws

Updated Oct. 26, 2023 9:55 a.m. ET

Three days after his team nearly capsized during a seesawing win over Central Florida last weekend, Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables used a portion of his Tuesday news conference to describe a stack of cards that he said contains "our seasons' worth of plays that we didn't play well," despite an unblemished 7-0 start.

Every week, Venables explained, the defensive coaching staff creates a diagram for each explosive gain the Sooners allowed in their most recent game. Then they rep those concepts in practice to lessen the chances of making the same error twice. A professional courtesy, Venables called it, because opposing coaches hunt for exploitable weaknesses in exactly the same manner.


"They're going to put it in their rolodex," Venables said. "That's what teams do — and justifiably so. So our job is to fix some of those mistakes and the issues that we had, and make sure our guys are comfortable with what we need and want them to do [so they can] execute at a high level."


Venables' colorful explanation came in response to a question about whether last week's reps against the motion, misdirection and read-option looks employed by Central Florida would help Oklahoma in its preparation for Saturday's game against Kansas, whose offense relies on similar concepts and is ranked 21st nationally in scoring. Even with a revolving door at quarterback, where starter Jalon Daniels has bounced in and out of the lineup due to a lingering back injury, the Jayhawks are still the fourth-best team in college football at converting on third down this season (53.4%), trailing only Michigan (56.5%), Georgia (57.1%) and LSU (57.8%).

All of which is to say the Jayhawks should provide a legitimate test for a Sooners' defense that entered the season in the crosshairs following a disastrous 2022 campaign and, after a blistering start, has begun to show possible signs of regression while allowing 26.3 points per game to its last three opponents, though Oklahoma emerged unscathed each time. Still, there have only been five teams to reach the College Football Playoff while surrendering more yards than the Sooners are giving up this season, according to FOX Sports Research — 359.1 yards per game entering the weekend, which ranks No. 54 overall — and none of those schools wound up winning the national title: 2014 Florida State, 2014 Oregon, 2017 Oklahoma, 2018 Oklahoma and 2022 Texas Christian.

How high is Oklahoma's ceiling?

"There's not a team that I've been a part of — a championship team, sometimes it's [just] really good teams and you didn't win a championship — but you've got to win different kinds of ways," said Venables, who's won three national titles as a defensive coordinator at Clemson and during an earlier stint at Oklahoma. "You start peeling it all the way back, and that's the game of football. Sometimes it looks really shiny at the end. The story reads really well at the end. But there's a story behind all that glory.

"In a perfect world, we'll continue to get better, we'll continue to learn, we'll continue to figure out different kinds of ways to win and not peak too soon — whatever that means."

So what, exactly, are the potential areas of concern for an Oklahoma defense that runs Venables' attack-minded system and is coordinated by Ted Roof, who followed his boss from Clemson to Norman last year? What are the fault lines for a group that has made significant strides after ranking 122nd overall and 99th in scoring during Venables' debut in 2022?

Data from Pro Football Focus suggests poor tackling should be one of the biggest trends to watch in the second half of the year. The Sooners only missed 11 combined tackles in wins over Arkansas State and Southern Methodist to begin the season, but since then the numbers have mostly trended in the wrong direction: 13 missed tackles against Tulsa, 15 missed tackles against Cincinnati, seven missed tackles against Iowa State, 18 missed tackles against Texas, 16 missed tackles against Central Florida. Oklahoma's team total of 80 missed tackles through seven games projects a final tally lower than last year's unsightly mark of 171, but it remains significantly higher than what some of the best defenses in the country have done at places like Michigan (42), Georgia (45), Ohio State (53) and Penn State (62).

Of particular concern is the high number of missed tackles from players in Oklahoma's secondary, which could help explain why the Sooners are tied for 89th nationally in passing defense at 240.4 yards per game. There are seven players on Oklahoma's roster who have missed at least four tackles this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and five of them are defensive backs: safety Billy Bowman Jr. (10 missed tackles), safety Key Lawrence (9), cornerback Gentry Williams (7), safety Reggie Pearson Jr. (7) and cornerback Kendel Dolby (4). Some of those plays have led to lengthy catch-and-run opportunities downfield. 

"You've just got to learn from the mistakes that you make," linebacker Danny Stutsman said. "And you can't make the same mistake twice. Obviously, Kansas is coming off a bye week. They're going to have a lot of plays that we haven't seen before, kind of like UCF did. We've got to be ready. We've got to stick to our rules, stick to our keys, trust our eyes and trust what we're doing."

Another trend worth monitoring is Oklahoma's penchant for second-quarter defensive lapses that, at times, have forced the Sooners to play from behind on the scoreboard. Venables' defense ranks 33rd nationally in first-quarter passing yardage allowed with just 324 yards all season. But that ranking plummets to 122nd nationally in the second quarter, with 635 yards and five touchdowns surrendered. 

A week ago, the Sooners forced Central Florida into four consecutive three-and-outs to begin the game before inexplicably buckling. The Knights produced points on all three possessions in the second quarter courtesy of two touchdowns and a field goal that propelled them to leads of 10-7 and 17-14 that frustrated Oklahoma's defensive staff.

"For a lot of those plays, we played really well," Roof said after the game. "But the inconsistency is what drives you bananas. But at the same time, guys found a way to win when we made too many mistakes. And our guys did that. And they fought hard. They showed a lot of toughness and a lot of guts, and I'm proud of that."

One of those second-quarter drives against Central Florida highlighted another potential area of concern for Roof and Venables: penalties. Linebacker Jaren Kanak drew a backbreaking unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting following a critical third-and-goal stop at the Oklahoma 1-yard line. The penalty gave the Knights a fresh set of downs within two feet of the end zone, and quarterback John Rhys Plumlee quickly barreled in for a score.

Kanak's lapse in judgment was emblematic of the Sooners' overarching struggle with discipline on both sides of the ball, something Venables harped on in his postgame news conference over the weekend. Oklahoma ranks tied for 71st nationally and tied for 12th in the Big 12 with 45 total penalties this season: 24 on offense, 17 on defense, four on special teams. The Sooners' average of 54 penalty yards per game ranks 81st nationally and 11th in the conference.

Only three of nine national champions in the College Football Playoff era have averaged more penalty yards per game than this year's Oklahoma team. 

"This game will punish you for the lack of poise and discipline," Venables said after beating Central Florida. "I challenged the team to start the week on the back-half of the season to ... have people describe this team — something that you can identify the DNA of Team 129 — and strive for people calling you disciplined. And we were exactly opposite of that today. Fortunate to win."

We'll find out soon enough if these are blips on the radar or legitimate cracks in Oklahoma's foundation. 

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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