Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Does defense lead the Sooners?
By David Ubben
Oklahoma boasts a Heisman trophy candidate at quarterback in Landry Jones. Last weekend, its top receiver, Ryan Broyles, became the NCAA career leader in receptions.
Running back Dominique Whaley has been one of the best stories in college football, but while others focused on his status as a former walk-on, he quietly racked up more rushing yards than all but one player in the Big 12, despite playing in a platoon backfield.
Frank Alexander has emerged as a top contender for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
The Sooners rank fourth nationally in total offense, and its biggest names live on the offensive side of the ball, but is it possible the Sooners' best side of the ball is defense?
"Our expectation is to play hard-nosed football and be the defense that we know we can be," safety Tony Jefferson said. "We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, especially on the defensive side of the ball."
The Sooners have stymed offenses in all six games this season. Tulsa was held 15 points under its scoring average. For Florida State, 22 points below its 35-point average. Even Missouri -- Oklahoma's worst defensive performance -- scored five points fewer than its average.
The Sooners held Texas and Kansas both to 17 points, nearly two touchdowns below their average.
"There’s always some spots here or there through six games you’d like to have done better, but I feel we’re playing pretty well," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
The Sooners gave up a whopping 6 yards in the second half against Kansas last week, keeping the Jayhawks' much-improved offense from recording a first down until the game's final minutes.
Oklahoma leads the Big 12 in total defense and ranks 22nd nationally with just over 317 yards given up each game. It ranks 11th by allowing fewer than 16 points a game.
That's even more impressive considering the Sooners have already faced offensive juggernauts. Ball State and Texas are the Sooners' only opponents this year outside the top 45 in total offense. The Cardinals scored six points.
If numbers don't do it for you, consider talent.
Frank Alexander has emerged as one of the Big 12's best defensive players, wrecking offenses up front while the Big 12's reigning freshman of the year, Tony Jefferson, states his case in the secondary.
He's flanked by arguably the two best corners in the Big 12 this season, Demontre Hurst and Jamell Fleming.
Oh yeah, and Oklahoma has done it all with its leader and the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Travis Lewis, on the mend from a broken bone in his foot.
Like the Sooners' multi-faceted offense, the defense can do it all.
"We’re not the kind of defense that runs one particular style. We have different types of defenses," Jefferson said. "If you’re an offensive team, you don’t know what we’re going to run or what we’re going to be in."
Jefferson, with the ability to play a traditional safety spot, nickel back or outside linebacker, might be the most versatile Sooner defender. The Sooners' base 4-3 defense can randomly become a three-man front. Defensive end Ronnell Lewis projects as an NFL outside linebacker, and can rush off the end or drop into coverage.
The Sooners can put four defensive ends on the field and use their speed and athleticism to further enhance a pass rush that's already managed 24 sacks this season, third-most nationally.
Oklahoma's 15 forced turnovers are more than anyone in the Big 12, save Oklahoma State.
"We’ve created a lot of pressure on quarterbacks and a lot of turnovers and gotten a lot of lost yardage plays," Stoops said of his defense, which leads the Big 12 with 48 tackles for loss, too. "That’s some of the things we’ve done the best."
Don't lose sight of the impact going up against one of the nation's best offenses every day has had. But maybe it works the other way, too?
Either way, put the two together (and Oklahoma does every Saturday), and the Sooners look like an ever-improving national title contender.
"I feel like we’ve done well, but I feel like we have a lot more to prove," Jefferson said. "We’ve still got a long way to go. We’re reaching the point in the season where there’s no more slacking off. Teams will take advantage of that. We know what we’ve got to do."