NORMAN, Okla. -- The Sooners' maiden trip to Morgantown two years ago resulted in the lowest point in the history of the Oklahoma defense.
The Sooners somehow prevailed in a 50-49 shootout. But West Virginia running back Tavon Austin turned the defensive culture that Jerry Tubbs and Lee Roy Selmon and Brian Bosworth built over six decades into a punch line.
The Sooners looked slow chasing around Austin, who set a Big 12 record with 572 all-purpose yards, including 344 rushing.
The Sooners looked discombobulated, with each defensive bust leading to another play bigger than the one before it.
And, perhaps most troubling at the time, Oklahoma looked as if it had no defensive identity, an unforgivable transgression for a program with so much tradition on defense. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was so disgusted despite the win that he declined to glance at the box score sheet after it was handed to him during a postgame interview.
But as they prepare for a return to Morgantown this week, the Sooners are none of the things they were two years ago.
They are fast. They are focused. In Stoops' new 3-4 scheme -- whose impetus traces back to the West Virginia debacle -- Oklahoma has fashioned a new identity centered on its ability to harass opposing quarterbacks with defenders from many angles.
"Both Bob and Mike Stoops have done a great job revamping [the defense]," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said Monday. "They're everywhere right now."
Just ask Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley, who was sacked five times Saturday while facing the most recent Oklahoma onslaught.
"We're totally different, in every aspect," said a succinct Bob Stoops, when asked Monday for the contrast between this defense and the 2012 one. "Simplest way I can put it."
This West Virginia offense, however, isn't all that different from the one that torched the Sooners for 778 total yards -- the most an Oklahoma defense had ever surrendered since the school began recording statistics.
The Mountaineers no longer possess a versatile talent like Austin, who probably still haunts Mike Stoops' nightmares. But West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett is second in the nation in passing QBR and trails only Ole Miss' Bo Wallace by a tenth of a point for the nation's top completion percentage. Trickett also has two of the most lethal wideouts in the Big 12 at his disposal in Mario Alford and Kevin White, who is second in the country with 460 receiving yards.
"We're going to have to play a lot better than the last time we went there," Mike Stoops said. "That was a bad night for all of us. Bad game plan, bad execution, bad everything."
Plenty of good, however, came out of so much bad for the Sooners.
The defensive collapse in Morgantown spearheaded the biggest coaching shakeup of the Stoops era, which included the aggressive pursuit and hire of Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. Since, Montgomery has whipped Oklahoma's front into one of the most disruptive and deepest in the country. Under Montgomery, end Charles Tapper and tackle Jordan Phillips have developed into All-Big 12-caliber performers. And outside linebacker Eric Striker has emerged into arguably the most ferocious pass-rusher at his position in the country -- even drawing comparisons in "destructiveness" from Bob Stoops on Monday to former Oklahoma 2001 All-American Roy Williams.
But the front isn't where the reconstruction effort stopped.
The Sooners have also assembled a sure-tackling, ball-hawking defensive backfield, which has matched the swagger of the Oklahoma defensive line. Saturday in the first quarter, Quentin Hayes blindsided Worley off a safety blitz to force and recover a fumble. Cornerbacks Zack Sanchez, who how has an interception in five of his last six games, and Julian Wilson both picked off Worley in the end zone. Wilson returned his interception 100 yards for an exclamation point touchdown.
“The secondary is playing great right now,” said Wilson, who had to play middle linebacker at the West Virginia game two seasons ago because they had no better option. "But we still have room to improve."
That's a scary thought. Since last bowl season the Sooners have now produced the third-most sacks and third-most interceptions in college football. And that combination of an overwhelming front and an opportunistic secondary has given this Oklahoma defense the potential to become one of the school's all-time.
"They've got their guys, defensively, playing as good as they have," Holgorsen said, "since I've watched tape on them going back to the 2000 season."
Holgorsen has his guys playing well, too. And a game that appeared to be a cakewalk for the Sooners in the preseason now looks to be one of the toughest games on their schedule.
Just like its last visit to Morgantown, the Oklahoma defense will be severely tested. But this time -- thanks to the foundation forged out of that West Virginia trip two years ago -- the Sooners will be equipped for it.
Nonconference play is over and we’ve learned a lot about the Sooners, good and bad. Here are three positives and three negatives for the Sooners as OU turns to Big 12 play against West Virginia with its visit to Morgantown, West Virginia, on Saturday.
Trevor Knight has continued to improve: Through three games, Knight has already surpassed his 2013 passing yardage total. The sophomore’s 860 yards has surpassed his 819 passing yards in eight games a year ago. His 286.7 passing yards per game average is a clear sign of his improvement during his second season in crimson and cream. More importantly, his pass yardage total has increased every week during the 2014 season and he’s been much more consistent after an up-and-down debut season.
The Sooners' defensive changes have made the unit even better: Linebacker Eric Striker spent the spring working at nickelback, defensive end Geneo Grissom moved to linebacker and Julian Wilson moved from nickelback to cornerback. All three moves have paid off for OU’s defense and helped the Sooners get their best 11 defenders on the field more often. Striker can make plays all over the field yet remains a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles. Grissom looks comfortable in coverage yet still rushes like a defensive end and Wilson brings terrific size to the perimeter while solidifying the void created by the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.
The running game will be able to carry the load again: Even with the progress of Knight, OU’s offense remains built upon its offensive line and running backs. The Sooners' offensive front has consistently won in the trenches while OU is able to deploy fresh legs at defenses, with Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine each averaging at least 5.5 yards per carry. Much like a year ago, the Sooners may not end up with a 1,000-yard rusher but could easily average 200 rushing yards per game in 2014.
Third-down offense: If OU expects to win a national championship, its third-down offense must get better. The Sooners have converted 38.5 percent on their third-down conversion attempts, sixth in the Big 12 and tied for 83rd among FBS teams. It’s a clear sign Knight still has room to grow as the sophomore is 13-of-26 on third down. As OU enters Big 12 play, there will be times when a critical third-down conversion is needed so this is high on the priority list.
Another big-play receiver: Sterling Shepard has been everything expected as OU’s No. 1 receiver. The junior is averaging 5.7 receptions for 111.7 yards per game as the main man in OU’s passing game. But a consistent No. 2 target has yet to emerge. Durron Neal has been solid with 15 receptions for 183 yards and could end up being a terrific complement to Shepard. And converted quarterback Blake Bell should become a bigger part of the offense as the season progresses. Yet what will the Sooners do, and who will Knight turn to, when defenses take Shepard away during Big 12 play?
Punt returns: The Sooners rank dead last in punt returns at 4.1 yards per return. After seeing Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders change games with their punt return skills during the past two seasons, OU is counting on Shepard to impact games on punt returns. He has five returns for 35 yards (7 yards per return) through three games. Shepard was a stellar punt returner in high school and has proven his big-play ability with his run-after-catch skills on offense, so it could simply be a matter of time before he makes an bigger impact on punt returns.
Oklahoma will make its first Big 12 road trip of the season without leading rusher Keith Ford.
Ford will miss the Sooners game against West Virginia and could be out for two-to-three weeks with an ankle injury, coach Bob Stoops announced on Monday. Stoops said sophomore Alex Ross to likely start against the Mountaineers.
"You need a bunch of running backs when you go through a long year," Stoops said.
Ford, a sophomore, is the Sooners' most complete running back. Ford has 34 carries for 194 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns this season. He’s also proven to be a valuable asset in the passing game with six receptions for 100 yards and one touchdown along with his solid pass blocking skills.
"Keith has great hands and is really explosive out there in space," Stoops said. "He has played really well."
Yet losing Ford is not a crippling loss for the Sooners' offense, which has featured the trio of Ford, Ross and true freshman running back Samaje Perine during the first three games. Ford is averaging 11.3 carries and 64.7 yards per game. Perine is averaging 10.7 carries for 59 yards per game (5.5 yards per carry). Ross is averaging seven carries for 44 yards per game (6.3 yards per carry).
Despite Ford's injury, the Sooners' running back-by-committee approach remains intact and OU will continue to build its offensive success around the running game with Ross and Perine as a main contributors.
Ross has already shown his big-play ability with a 82-yard touchdown gallop against Tulsa and a 80-yard kick return against Louisiana Tech. Sliding him into the starting lineup won’t limit anything the Sooners try to do against WVU.
"Alex is a big, strong, powerful, fast guy," Stoops said last week. "So hopefully he’ll just continue to play the way he has."
Perine should be able to continue his trend of entering games midway through the first or second half and punishing defenses with his physical running style while helping the Sooners put the game away. Perine's team-high 108 rushing yards after contact reinforce OU's plan to wear down defenses with the 5-foot-11, 243-pound big back.
"He’s a really bright young guy that is playing really well and he knows what he’s doing," Stoops said of Perine. "We love him. He’s an excellent runner. Even when there isn't much there he finds a way to make something happen with his power."
The loss of Ford gives Ross and Perine the chance to prove they can handle an even bigger role in OU's offense as much as anything else. The duo has each shown the ability to be impact running backs but Ford’s injury means even more carries to show they could handle the burden of being the No. 1 guy if that opportunity arises in the future.
Total commits: 12
ESPN 300 commits: 3
The latest: Blake Lynch is making the Bears look awfully smart for accepting his early commitment in 2013. The Gilmer, Texas, four-star athlete wowed this weekend against Tatum with 93 rushing yards, 115 receiving yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning score. He played quarterback as a junior but has transitioned into a true offensive weapon since transferring to Gilmer.
Total commits: 10
ESPN 300 commits: 0
The latest: No commitments came in this weekend, but it'll be interesting to see how Iowa State's last-second win over Iowa impacts their in-state recruiting battles going forward. For example, could that win and some positive momentum help ISU's chances with 2016 linemen John Raridon and Jake Heinrich? No doubt Paul Rhoads and his coaches will be talking about that game for the next year while recruiting.
Total commits: 13
ESPN 300 commits: 0
The latest: KU has not landed a new commitment in almost a month and a half, and a blowout loss to Duke isn't going to help its efforts on the trail much either. One commit whose season is off to a nice start: three-star RB Taylor Martin has racked up 323 rushing yards and seven TDs this year at Fort Worth (Texas) Dunbar.
Total commits: 10
ESPN 300 commits: 0
The latest: A Thursday night game, no matter how gigantic the opponent, isn't necessarily ideal for bringing in a bunch of official visitors. K-State is reportedly expecting to have three-star RB Alex Barnes and junior college DT Deonte Reynolds in the house when Auburn comes to the The Little Apple. Both are taking midweek official visits, and they're critical targets for the Wildcats on what should be a pressure-packed week.
Total commits: 13
ESPN 300 commits: 6
The latest: The Sooners hosted their biggest official visit weekend of the season and secured two pledges Saturday, from ESPN 300 safety Will Sunderland Jr. and junior college lineman Jamal Danley. The long-awaited pregame commitment from Sunderland was huge, but so was getting ESPN 300 studs Keisean Lucier-South, Kendall Sheffield, Ricky DeBerry and Neville Gallimore and four-stars Kahlil Haughton and Anthony McKee on campus.
Total commits: 12
ESPN 300 commits: 3
The latest: The Pokes added to a promising offensive line class last week with 6-foot-7 offensive tackle Deya Mhiesen, a junior college lineman who can enroll in January. Mhiesen took an official visit to Baylor's season opener, then attended OSU's 40-23 win over Missouri State and decided to pull the trigger. He'll have three years of eligibility at OSU.
Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 0
The latest: The Horned Frogs had several commits in the stands Saturday for their 30-7 beatdown of Minnesota, including WR Jarrison Stewart and DT Joseph Broadnax, along with Baylor commit CB Ke'Shawn Somerville, DE Andrew Fitzgerald and several more intriguing recruits in the 2016 class.
Total commits: 15
ESPN 300 commits: 7
The latest: Texas hosted some big-time recruits at AT&T Stadium for its 20-17 loss to UCLA, including top ESPN 300 targets Malik Jefferson and Ryan Newsome, ESPN Junior 300 WR Reggie Hemphill and commits DeShon Elliott, Charles Omenihu and Connor Williams. Two attendees who could end up in this class: three-star center Tyler Moore and Purdue three-star cornerback commit Isaac Warren.
Total commits: 9
ESPN 300 commits: 3
The latest: The Red Raiders were not able to get Tyron Johnson, the nation's No. 2 receiver prospect, in town this weekend for his official visit due to a scheduling conflict, but he's expected to make it out to Lubbock on Oct. 11 when Tech hosts West Virginia. Tech did have ESPN 300 QB signee Jarrett Stidham, four-star commit OG Conner Dyer and three-star DE Jalen Bates in attendance.
Total commits: 17
ESPN 300 commits: 2
The latest: With Oklahoma coming to town this weekend, expect a lot of talent on the West Virginia sideline before Saturday's big game. Among those reportedly expected to attend on official visits are ESPN 300 CB Jordan Whitehead and four-star ATH Tim Irvin.
Here's what changed after Week 3: Oklahoma State and Iowa State both moved up nine spots after solid wins, while Oklahoma and Baylor maintained their top-10 status. The Sooners beat a Tennessee team that had been ranked 34th in FPI, but went from No. 5 to No. 6 when Alabama jumped up from sixth to No. 3.
Kansas State is still back at No. 40 but has a big opportunity to change that Thursday when it hosts Auburn. The Tigers hold onto the No. 1 spot in FPI for the second week in a row.
According to FPI data, Oklahoma is now seen as having an 18 percent chance of going undefeated, while Baylor's odds of winning out are currently 10 percent. Here's how they and the rest of their Big 12 competition stack up entering Week 4:
Ford, a sophomore, has a slight fracture in a non-weight-bearing bone in his right leg, according to coach Bob Stoops. The injury came late in Oklahoma's 34-10 win over Tennessee on Saturday. ESPN.com initially reported Ford would be out two to three weeks, but Stoops left room for an earlier return by Ford.
"That'll be a week-to-week," Stoops said Monday. "That could be two weeks, three weeks, it's always a little bit hard to tell, depending on how it heals, so we'll just have to wait and see how that goes. For sure, he won't be able to play this week."
Ford led the Sooners with 194 yards rushing through three games and was one of the team's top receivers with 100 yards on six catches. Against Tennessee, he ran for 56 yards and a touchdown and caught a 23-yard touchdown pass. He leads the Big 12 in scoring with 36 points, and in touchdowns, with six.
Oklahoma entered the season down a running back. The Sooners suspended highly touted incoming freshman Joe Mixon for the season after he was charged with misdemeanor assault. Stoops said adjustments come with the territory.
"It happens that way," he said. "I remember back in '99, Quentin Griffin, we had to pull out of a redshirt in the fifth or sixth game to play. Definitely, you need a bunch of running backs when you go through a long year."
We're only three weeks into the season but plenty of things have changed. Preseason expectations are out the window and some dreams of breakout seasons have been shattered while other preconceived notions have been re-affirmed.
Here's a review of nonconference play in the Big 12:
Biggest disappointment: Texas Tech. Wait, where are the Longhorns? Did you really expect more from Texas? More players have been kicked off the team (eight) than offensive touchdowns scored by Charlie Strong's team (seven). The Red Raiders are another story, however. Tech has never really looked outstanding at any point this season as penalties, turnovers and defensive struggles turning the Red Raiders' Big 12 title dreams into an early nightmare. Saturday's loss to Arkansas -- which included 438 rushing yards by the Razorbacks -- has Kliff Kingsbury looking for answers. Before the season Tech looked like a team that could catapult itself into the top 3 in the Big 12. Now it looks like a squad facing a fight to go bowling.
Big (offensive) man on campus: West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett. Raise your hand if you had Trickett as the first Big 12 quarterback to eclipse 1,000 yards in 2014. He's been outstanding for the Mountaineers while leading the Big 12 in passing yards (1,224) and completion percentage (75.4). He's in the top 3 among FBS quarterbacks in both categories. He's the main reason WVU is emerging as the Big 12's surprise team after three games.
Fab freshman: Baylor receiver KD Cannon. The ESPN 300 receiver has no idea what it feels like to go into the halftime locker room without a touchdown catch. Cannon has made an amazing impact with an FBS-high 471 receiving yards in his first three games as a college receiver. The true freshman has 14 receptions, an average of 33.6 yards per catch, and five touchdowns. All-Big 12 receiver Antwan Goodley's biggest competition for the conference's most explosive receiver could be sitting alongside him in the receivers' room.
Newcomer to know: Oklahoma State athlete Tyreek Hill. The junior college transfer burst upon the scene with 278 all-purpose yards against Florida State as he buzzed around the turf in Arlington, Texas, while giving Seminoles defenders fits throughout the loss. His production has dropped significantly in OSU's last two games (24 touches for 154 yards) but it's clear the Cowboys are trying to save their top playmaker for their toughest games.
Best performance: It was the only Big 12 Conference game in the first three weeks but Kansas State doesn't escape Iowa State's upset bid without quarterback Jake Waters. Trailing 28-26 with 3:01 left, the senior led the Wildcats on a seven-play, 80-yard march to win the game. Waters accounted for 74 of KSU's 80 yards on the drive including an 8-yard touchdown run. KSU won 32-28.
Worst performance: Kansas laid an egg in its 41-3 loss to Duke last weekend. The Jayhawks opened the season with plenty of hope for a new and improved offense but, after gaining 457 yards in their season opener, KU took a clear step backward with 297 yards including 97 through the air against Duke. To make matters worse, the Jayhawks allowed Blue Devil freshman running back Shaun Wilson to rush for 245 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries. Back to the drawing board.
Dream dashed: It was disappointing to see Iowa State receiver Quenton Bundrage lost for the season with an ACL injury just minutes into the Cyclones' first game. The junior spent the offseason working on becoming more consistent and had the talent to be one of the Big 12's top receivers in 2014. Now he has to wait until next season with an eye on becoming the Big 12 comeback player of the year when he returns to the field in 2015.
Best stat: TCU has held opponents without a first down or touchdown on 60 percent of its drives. In two games, the Horned Frogs have defended 30 total drives and 18 of those drives have ended without a first down including seven of Minnesota's 15 drives last weekend. Gary Patterson's defense is one reason the Horned Frogs cannot be overlooked when Big 12 play reaches high gear next month.
Best quote: "I haven't talked to [kicker] Josh Lambert since he got on campus, and we are going to keep it that way. I know his name and who he is but other than that I'm doing the hands-off approach." -- West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen after Lambert's game-winning kick to beat Maryland 40-37 last weekend.
Team of the week: West Virginia. The Mountaineers paid regional rival Maryland back for last year’s 37-0 beating with a dramatic 40-37 victory on a game-winning field goal as time expired. Truthfully, the Terrapins were fortunate just to be in the game. West Virginia jumped to a 28-6 lead and could have routed the Terrapins had it not self-destructed several times on Maryland’s side of the field. Still, the Mountaineers once again moved the ball at will. Clint Trickett was dishing out dimes. Mario Alford and Kevin White were producing plays. And a certain field-goal kicker, who I’ll get to later, came through in the clutch.
Disappointment of the week: Texas Tech. Something I was thinking about over the weekend: Had it not been for the sparkling win over Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl, what would the perception of the Red Raiders be right now? Outside that Arizona State win, Tech hasn’t played a clean game since losing 38-30 at Oklahoma on Oct. 26 of last year. Meanwhile, Arkansas ran right at the Tech defense Saturday, and there was nothing the Red Raiders could do. The offense behind Davis Webb hasn’t been crisp enough to overcome all the deficiencies defensively. Given how difficult the back end of the schedule is again, the concern level in Lubbock should be high.
Big (offensive) men on campus: Trickett and White. If the season ended today, the three All-Big 12 receivers would be K.D. Cannon, Sterling Shepard and White, who is now second in the country (behind Cannon) in receiving. And if the season ended today, the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year would be Trickett, who threw for 511 yards and four touchdowns in the win over Maryland. The Trickett-to-White pass-catching combo has been nothing short of awesome so far this season.
Big (defensive) man on campus: Paul Dawson. TCU’s senior linebacker led the purple crushing of the Minnesota offense in a 30-7 win over the Gophers. Dawson finished with 15 tackles, including four for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. Overall, the Horned Frogs forced five turnovers and limited Minnesota to just 268 yards of offense.
Play of the week (other than the Lambert and Netten field goals): Late in the second quarter with the game knotted at 3-3, Texas elected to go for it facing fourth-and-8 at the UCLA 38-yard line. And in the biggest play of his young career, quarterback Tyrone Swoopes rolled out and delivered a 33-yard strike to John Harris. Three plays later, Swoopes hit M.J. McFarland for a touchdown to give Texas a 10-3 lead and all the momentum heading into halftime.
Stat of the week: Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight has two 300-yard passing games in his career, and both have come against SEC opponents. Knight threw for 348 yards in last season's Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, and he passed for 308 yards in Oklahoma’s 34-10 win Saturday over Tennessee.
Quote of the week: “I haven't talked to Josh Lambert since he got on campus, and we are going to keep it that way. I know his name and who he is, but other than that, I'm taking the hands-off approach.” -- West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, when asked what he said to Lambert before the game-winning kick. Holgorsen added he likes only special-teams coach Joe DeForest talking to his kicker.
Texas showed some fight, Oklahoma and Baylor cruised, and West Virginia continued to impress. Thursday night's matchup with Auburn looms large for Kansas State while a bye week comes at the perfect time for Texas Tech.
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma
Cotton Bowl: Baylor
Valero Alamo Bowl: Kansas State
Russell Athletic Bowl: West Virginia
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Oklahoma State
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: TCU
Cactus Bowl: Texas
Seven of the 10 conference teams played against Power 5 opponents, and Oklahoma, TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State all walked away as winners. Additionally, Oklahoma State beat a UTSA team that is earning its stripes with each week.
Oklahoma’s game against Tennessee may have been the most anticipated throughout the conference. The Sooners hosted a large group of recruits and ultimately landed two big-time commits in ESPN 300 DB Will Sunderland Jr. and highly touted junior college OT Jamal Danley.
Shane Buechele was in Norman and took to Twitter to show his love for the environment.
TCU scored a win against Minnesota, and three-star DT Joseph Broadnax was one of the athletes in attendance. Broadnax also is being courted by Baylor, North Texas and several other schools, but he's been a solid Horned Frogs commit since February. Malik Jefferson, who not only took time to take pictures with multiple fans ...
The game was sick last night! Great atmosphere and they got the W!?? #BoomerSooner— Shane Buechele (@BGShaneBuechele) September 14, 2014
Texas didn't get the win, but it still has the support of two important commits on the defensive side in ESPN 300 DB DeShon Elliott and three-star DE Charles Omenihu both were in attendance letting fans know their commitments are strong.
Front row no nosebleeds ???? ???? pic.twitter.com/Q5ltN6WrMZ— Malik Jefferson 4?6? (@Official_MalikJ) September 14, 2014
College Football Minute: Sept. 16
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
Final West Virginia 40 Maryland 37 Final Kansas 3 Duke 41 Final Arkansas 49 Texas Tech 28 Final Iowa State 20 Iowa 17 Final Minnesota 7 TCU 30 Final UTSA 13 Oklahoma State 43 Final Tennessee 10 4 Oklahoma 34 Final 12 UCLA 20 Texas 17