- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla.--Disappointing. Frustrating. Ridiculous.
Oklahoma coaches and players used those words to describe the Sooners’ defensive performance against West Virginia a year ago. OU won 50-49 but the numbers its defense surrendered to the Mountaineers’ spread offense were staggering:
• 778 total yards, 9.5 yards per play
• 458 rushing yards, 9.7 yards per carry, three touchdowns
• 320 passing yards, four touchdowns
• 572 all-purpose yards from Tavon Austin, including 344 rushing yards
“It hurt, I’m not going to lie,” OU’s all-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “For us to give up those kind of numbers to a team like that. Don’t get me wrong, they are a great team and the coaches do a great job of putting them in the right situation, but as far as the defense, especially here at the University of Oklahoma, it’s not acceptable. We had to move forward from last year. This year we remember what happened last year and we will not forget it.”
The Sooners may not forget it but can they stop it from happening again?
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops hopes so. And he’s made some changes to the Sooners’ defense to help handle the explosive spread offenses in the Big 12 like WVU. Gone is the Sooners’ four-man front, replaced by a three-man look that allows OU’s defense to be faster and more versatile.
“When you get run over like that, you don’t want to be stubborn. We had to make some changes,” Stoops said. “Between that night and what happened in the bowl game (633 yards allowed in a 41-13 Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M) it convinced us we need to be more flexible, be more diverse and put pressure on the quarterback.”
Enter the 3-3-5 look the Sooners employed in the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe. Replacing a defensive lineman with a linebacker allows Mike Stoops to get creative with his blitz packages and defensive schemes with the aim of confusing opponent’s pass protection schemes and pressuring the quarterback with relative ease.
It worked to perfection at times in OU’s 34-0 victory against ULM as Sooners’ defenders rushed unblocked on multiple occasions as Warhawks quarterback Kolton Browning never seemed to get into a rhythm and managed to led his team to just 166 total yards, 2.7 yards per play and 2 of 16 third down conversion attempts.
“It’s probably worked better than we anticipated,” Stoops said of the changes. “We got our athletes on the field and they played fast and they played aggressive and really that’s what defense is about in this league. We did a good job of putting our athletes in position to succeed, better than we did a year ago. We were more of a react team a year ago, now we’re more of a attacking team.”
The simplified, aggressive approach has helped the Sooners play faster. A move from a read-and-react two-gap scheme along the defensive line to an aggressive one-gap scheme has made a noticeable difference and more disguising blitzes should serve to keep quarterbacks off balance.
“You have to create indecision in the quarterback’s mind constantly,” Stoops said of the new approach.
Colvin likes the new defensive scheme because he thinks it will make things more difficult for opposing signal callers, thus making his job, dealing with the best the Big 12 has to offer at receiver, a bit easier.
“They don’t necessarily know what we’re doing every time,” he said. “We’re trying to do a better job at disguising looks, it makes the offense somewhat unsure of what we’re going to play.”
Asked if he thought offenses knew what to expect in 2012, Colvin was surprisingly candid.
“At times I did,” the senior said. “We were kind of ‘take it how it is’ defense.”
If this defense ultimately fails it won’t be because the Sooners were sitting back, allowing offenses to attack them. This year, they plan to be the aggressor with an eye on making sure it is controlled, intelligent aggression by creating controlled chaos around the line of scrimmage.
“It is great,” Colvin said of the new defense. “It allows us to be more aggressive. It gives us more confidence in what we’re doing because we know we can mess with the quarterback’s head or the receiver’s head or whoever we’re facing. So when we can make the offense unsure of what we’re doing, it only means good things for our defense.”
OU’s stellar defensive performance in Week 1 is just one step forward. As the season progresses, expect the Sooners’ defense to continue to evolve.
“We have a lot of flexibility and that’s good,” Stoops said. “We can go a lot of different ways and we’re going to continue to change our package week to week. It’s built off a lot of the same principles but different angles, different people, different alignments. You try to change and give the offense different things to look at as the year goes on.”
The Sooners face another test, and a chance for redemption for last season’s embarrassing defensive display, when the Mountaineers visit Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
“As good as we were the other night, we were equally bad that night [in 2012 against WVU]. We’ll get a little better test this weekend, hopefully we can hold them to less than 778,” Stoops said with a chuckle.
1dDavid M. Hale
2dBrandon Chatmon and Jake Trotter