- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
For the second straight year, Oklahoma finished the season with a 10-3 record. Both seasons featured disappointments late in the season (Oklahoma State in 2011, Texas A&M in 2012) yet the Sooners were in the Big 12 championship mix heading into the final game of the regular season each season. OU saw some improvements in 2012, but they were joined by some clear steps backward. Here’s a look at how the Sooners improved, how they regressed and how they maintained in 2012.
• Passing game
Quarterback Landry Jones didn’t see his numbers significantly increase in 2012. But the senior did spread the ball around more than at any point in his career with Kenny Stills, Justin Brown, Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard each catching at least 45 passes this season. The combination of four quality targets and Jones' ability to recognize mismatches allowed the Sooners offense to be one of the most explosive in the nation. That ability to create mismatches resulted in OU converting 51.89 percent of its third-down conversion attempts, its best percentage since 2008.
• Pass defense
Thanks to the man-to-man abilities of Aaron Colvin and Demontre Hurst, the Sooners pass defense was much better in 2012. Tony Jefferson moved to free safety to allow his instincts to take over and Javon Harris improved greatly in pass coverage. But, most importantly, Mike Stoops brought an additional defensive back on the field with nickelback Gabe Lynn, limiting the times a Sooners linebacker was left in coverage with a slot receiver. As a result, OU allowed 206.5 passing yards and had more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes allowed (11). In 2011, OU allowed 241.5 passing yards per game and allowed more touchdown passes (18) than interceptions (15).
Last year’s squad was in disarray at the end of the season. Missed classes, suspensions from practice and general disregard was seeping into the halls of the Switzer Center. It showed in the blowout loss in Bedlam 2011. This season, guys such as David King, Gabe Ikard took on a leadership role and made sure the team remained focused throughout the season. The improved leadership showed in fourth quarter wins over West Virginia, TCU and Oklahoma State in the final weeks of the season.
• Special teams
The Sooners quietly had some of the best special teams units in the nation. Kicker Michael Hunnicutt was solid, punter Tress Way was among the nation’s best and their kickoff and punt return groups were superb led by Saunders, Brown and Brennan Clay. A sore spot in recent years, special teams were a clear strength in 2012.
• Overall defense
There was a general uproar after OU’s defense struggled in the final games of 2011. The end of 2012 for OU’s defense was even worse as the Sooners had no answers while Tavon Austin, Johnny Manziel and others exposed OU’s defense. Additionally, the Sooners took a step backward in several key categories including fumbles, interceptions, sacks, tackles for loss and third down conversion defense.
• Turnover margin
Creating turnovers wins games, it’s just that simple. And OU created 16 turnovers in 13 games. The Sooners lost the turnover battle seven times and won the turnover battle just three times in 2012. It’s tough to compete for championships with numbers like that. One stat speaks volumes: OU recovered three fumbles in 2012. Only one FBS team, Miami (Ohio), recovered less. In 2011, the Sooners recovered 12 fumbles in 13 games.
• Overall aggressive mentality
Last season's defense was aggressive, sometimes to a fault. This season's group was solid while limiting mental mistakes, yet much more reactive. They didn’t get much penetration or force opponents out of their comfort zone, evidenced by their 53 tackles for loss in 2012. In the five previous seasons, the Sooners averaged 100.2 tackles for loss per season. Most importantly, the Sooners just don't seem to play with any passion, intensity or even seem like they're having fun playing defense.
Stayed the same
• Running game
Even though the names changed, the Sooners running game largely stayed the same. Damien Williams and Brennan Clay carried the load in 2012. Dominique Whaley and Roy Finch toted the rock in 2011. OU averaged 4.85 yards per carry this season after averaging 4.52 in 2011. Neither season saw a 1,000-yard rusher.
• Total offense
OU’s receiving corps were revamped and the running backs changed, yet the production did not. The 2012 Sooners averaged 6.45 yards per play and 498.6 yards per game after averaging 6.33 yards per play and 512.3 yards per game in 2011. There were ups-and-downs both seasons, but most programs would love to have the offensive “problems” the Sooners supposedly experienced.
There were positives and negatives for the Sooners in 2012 as they improved in some key areas. Yet, the lasting impression of this squad has sparked concern and doubt about the general direction of the program. If they can’t continue to make improvements in key areas, maintain those improvements and address the weaknesses of the program, 2013 could be a nightmare.
For the second straight year, Oklahoma finished the season with a 10-3 record. Both seasons featured disappointments late in the season (Oklahoma State in 2011, Texas A&M in 2012) yet the Sooners were in the Big 12 championship mix heading into the final game of the regular season each season.