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Struggling Sooners' defense aims for turnaround against Tech

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

When told that Texas Tech's 323-pound-per-man offensive line is the biggest in college football, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy didn't seem overly worried or concerned.

The challenge of checking the mammoth Red Raider offensive front prompted a matter-of-fact response brimming with confidence from McCoy.

"They've got a big line, so what?" McCoy said. "We've got to go out and play. We're not worried about their size. They are good, but we're not intimidated by that."

Later, McCoy threw out some free-association terms of what he feels that would best describe the Oklahoma defense, including descriptions such as tough, brutal, hard and strong.

Another adjective could have been thrown out as well, although McCoy probably would never do it. How about "unSoonerlike?"

Perhaps their struggles are understandable because of the overall offensive nature in the Big 12. But the Sooners are struggling through their worst statistical season with Bob Stoops in charge.

Earlier this season, the Sooners were blistered for 111 points during a three-game period that included games against Texas, Kansas and Kansas State. That total was the most since 1997.

Those struggles have been obvious when comparing this season's statistics with those of previous seasons in Stoops' tenure. The Sooners are allowing more yards (345.60, 55th nationally) and more points (23.6 points per game, 57th nationally) than any of Stoops' previous nine teams.

It's worth noting that Oklahoma ranked among the top 16 teams in an eight-season stretch in total defense and in the top 19 teams in scoring defense in all seasons but one since Stoops arrived in 1999. Now the Sooners are barely middle-of-the-pack in the national rankings.

"We're embarrassed for ourselves," Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram two weeks ago. "We're not used to having 35 put on us. That's just not us."

Injuries have played a part. The Sooners lost their rudder when middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds went out with a season-ending knee injury in the Texas game. His loss in that game turned the course of the contest and allowed the Longhorns to charge back for a 45-35 victory that remains Oklahoma's only blemish this season.

Pre-season Big 12 defensive player of the year Auston English had his appendix removed before training camp started and struggled to regain his shape earlier in the season. Later, English sustained a sprained knee that will likely keep him out until Oklahoma's bowl game.

Defensive end Alan Davis also is hobbling with a sprained knee and won't play against the Red Raiders. It will mean the Sooners will likely go with a three-man rotation of Jeremy Beal, Frank Alexander and the relatively inexperienced Price Macon to provide outside pressure. Converted linebacker J.R. Bryant could also be used in plays off the edge to harass Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell.

"It's going to be the guys we have," Stoops said. "We don't get to go out and claim people through free agency."

They don't. But the Sooners clearly will be hampered as they try to contain a sizzling Tech offense that leads the nation in passing, is second nationally in total offense and third in points scored.

"Obviously it's not a perfect set of circumstances," defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters about the move of Bryant to the defensive front to add depth. "But it puts another athlete, puts additional speed on the field.

"[Bryant] is going to get out there and line up, we'll see. You like his skill-set. He's learning another position and there is technique involved. You try not to over-coach him and turn him loose."

Despite their uncharacteristic struggles on some areas of defense, the Sooners have been strong in other areas. The Sooners rank first in turnover margin, 21st in turnovers generated, third in sacks and ninth in tackles for losses. It appears that this Sooner team is willing to give up yardage in exchange for a momentum-changing play.

But that recipe might be problematic against a Texas Tech team that leads the nation in fewest sacks allowed per pass attempt and ranks 20th in turnovers produced.

It will mean the Sooners' new philosophy will receive its biggest test of the season from the Red Raiders.

"It's not the traditional defense we've played around here," McCoy said. "But I think we've fixed those problems and we'll be ready."

The Sooners' season may be depending on it.