Run game, defense define OU's season

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
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Oklahoma excelled in several aspects on its way to a 10-win season. The Sooners’ running game was on point, their third down defense was stellar and they showed the ability to limit big plays. Yet, there are still areas of improvement looking forward to 2014.

Here are five stats that defined OU's season, what they mean and how OU can improve or maintain those trends in 2014.

[+] EnlargeBrennan Clay
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsThanks to an offensive line that opened hole after hole, Brennan Clay and the OU running backs averaged 5.35 yards per carry.
Yards per carry

OU averaged 5.35 yards per carry this season, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 16 among FBS teams.

What it means: The first year of Bill Bedenbaugh was a success. OU’s offensive line did a terrific job of creating running lanes for whoever was in the backfield. True enough the Sooners had three quality veterans at running back but Brennan Clay (5.78), Damien Williams (4.78) and Roy Finch (5.88) each averaged at least 4.5 yards on at least 59 carries this season thanks to the big uglies up front.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It’s going to be tough as the Sooners lose Clay, Finch, Williams and center Gabe Ikard. But the Sooners have some solid young backs, including Keith Ford, who had 20 carries for 119 yards and one touchdown but dealt with fumble troubles as a true freshman. With the young talent in place and poised to replace the departed seniors, there’s no reason to believe the Sooners can’t match this year’s production in 2014.

Third down conversion defense

OU allowed opponents to convert just. 32.5 percent of their third down attempts, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.

What it means: The Sooners defense was among the best in the nation on third down. OU’s coaching staff focuses on third down plays and it’s clear they had the defense ready to step up in those key moments. In fact, eight of OU’s 14 interceptions came on third down, including all three interceptions by Julian Wilson.

How OU can maintain in 2014: Well, Mike Stoops returns, so that’s half the battle. OU should be even better on third down in 2014. Most of its key contributors return but replacing All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin won’t be easy. The Sooners defense was littered with youngsters this season and still ranked among the nation’s best. So expect even better in 2014.

Percentage of opponent drives without a first down or touchdown

The Sooners held opponents without a first down or touchdown on 40.8 percent of their drives, ranking second in the Big 12 and No. 13 among FBS teams.

What it means: OU did a terrific job of getting off the field and stopping offenses before they could gain momentum. While the Sooners offense was leaning on the running game and controlling the ball, OU’s defense came onto the field fresh and with a purpose to get off the field quickly. That combination made it hard for opposing offenses to find their rhythm against OU.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It won’t be easy because the Sooners offense should have better balance, resulting in more plays and opportunities for opponents as OU turns to the pass more often. Yet, OU’s defense should be talented enough to come close to matching that percentage.

Opponent rushes of 10 yards or more

OU allowed 46 runs of 10 yards or more to opponents, leading the Big 12 and tying Stanford and Utah for 16th among FBS teams.

What it means: One key reason the Sooners won five games by single digits was the defense’s ability to keep OU in games while the offense was struggling, particularly in the first quarter. If opponents were making big plays in the running game that wouldn’t have been possible. It also points to the increased quickness, speed and athleticism of OU’s 3-4 approach this season.

How OU can maintain in 2014: It will take a combination of good coaching and on-field leadership. And since the Sooners return several key players, including linebackers Frank Shannon and Dominique Alexander, they should be able to match that number.

Passing yards in the first quarter

OU averaged 32.75 passing yards in the first quarter, ranking last in the Big 12 and No. 112 among FBS teams.

What it means: The Sooners’ inability to pass (186.67 passing yards per game) made things difficult for OU’s offense. And their struggles to pass in the first quarter often impacted games by forcing the Sooners to lean on the running game simply because they didn’t have a lot of confidence in their passing game. Fortunately for OU, its running game was one of the conference’s best.

How OU can improve in 2014: Find stability at the quarterback position. Blake Bell played well at times, struggled at other times. Trevor Knight flashed big-time ability and displayed his inexperience as well. No matter who emerges as the No. 1 guy for 2014, he’ll have to consistently play well to help OU’s offense regain the balance that helped make it one of the nation’s best in previous years.

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