Sooners defense motivated by criticism after struggling against Baylor

Reggie Smith has heard more pointed criticism about Oklahoma's defense in the past few days than he ever imagined.

The Sooners' usually stingy defense struggled in OU's 52-21 victory over Baylor this past Saturday. The criticism in the wake of that performance has left the junior cornerback eager for a chance at redemption.

"We've been hearing it since Sunday and just been getting drilled," Smith said. "It's been kind of bad -- the coaches have been all over us. We've got to step up and play better."

The Sooners' defensive woes were uncharacteristic of a team coached by Bob Stoops. And they raise some serious questions as OU prepares for the challenge of facing Texas Tech's high-powered offense Saturday night in Lubbock (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). The Red Raiders lead the nation in passing and total offense.

Tech coach Mike Leach's first appearance after his celebrated rant following his team's loss to Texas last Saturday will grab the attention of many viewers. But OU's defensive performance will determine whether the No. 4 Sooners crash the BCS National Championship Game, providing the game's biggest story line.

"It's a great challenge, and we know we had a poor performance the other night," Smith said. "It was just horrible. But we're anxious to get back on the field. I know they have Danny Amendola and Michael Crabtree and a good quarterback in Graham Harrell. But gimme a couple of days to get ready, and we'd be ready to play them."

The Sooners have a clear path to San Antonio for the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 1. They need to win either Saturday in Lubbock or Nov. 24 against Oklahoma State for their fifth Big 12 title-game berth in the past six seasons.

But before Stoops starts making plans to sip margaritas along the Riverwalk, he knows his defense must improve. Struggles against the lowly Bears last week weren't a good sign before facing two of the nation's most explosive offenses in the next two games.

"We've played 10 games, and we've played pretty good defense throughout. We're not sitting here panicking like all of sudden we can't play," Stoops said. "We settled in the second half and played better. We can communicate. It's not really that hard. And for a good part of the year, we have been. It isn't like all of a sudden we've forgotten how to.

"We've played a lot of wide-open offense through the year. And we've played most of them awfully well. Does it concern me? Are we going to go out and address those areas? Sure, absolutely.

"But do I feel that all of a sudden we can't do it? No, I don't feel that way."

Baylor, which ranked 116th in the nation in rushing before facing OU, gashed the Sooners for 123 yards on seven carries in the first-half. The Bears rolled up 307 total yards in the first half alone, beating the Sooners on a couple of deep passes on uncharacteristic busts in pass coverage. The Bears finished with 450 yards, the most allowed by OU since its loss at Oregon last season and the most yards allowed by OU in 17 meetings against the Bears.

"We just didn't communicate," Smith said. "That wasn't us. And we've heard so much about it this week that I don't think you'll see anything like that from us this week."

The Sooners bounced back for better play in the second half, including two red-zone interceptions, but they will arrive in Lubbock with some questions still dogging them.

"We just got to the point where we started playing bad football," junior safety Nic Harris said. "We did that in the first half. We weren't connecting on all cylinders -- that's what it came down to."

Coaches have been harping on their mistakes during their preparation for the Red Raiders.

"The game film was pretty bad," junior defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger said. "Even though we won the game, the defense felt like we lost it. It was our poorest performance around here in a long time."

The absence of top pass-rusher Auston English (hairline fracture of his right ankle) led to the Sooners' worst effort of the season along the defensive front. OU failed to notch a quarterback sack for the first time in 16 games.

And it will be an even bigger challenge when the Sooners face Tech, which runs a similar spread passing attack as Baylor -- only with better athletes. The presence of Harrell, who leads the nation with 4,878 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes, and Crabtree, who leads the nation in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions, will make for a long day for the Sooners' secondary without steady pressure.

English is expected to play against Tech, but OU needs consistent defensive play across the board to be able to win in Lubbock for the first time since 2003.

"It isn't aggravating to face them," Stoops said. "It's doing your job and focusing on what you can do to defend against them. We face them every year, and we've been fairly successful against them. But you have to earn it every time.

"We have our philosophy in how to play them, and we'll work on it and sharpen it. It's being able to tackle in space, having strong coverage across the board and pressuring the quarterback."

The Sooners have dominated the seven-game series with Tech since Leach took over in 2000, posting a 6-1 record in those games. OU has held Tech below its points and total-yardage averages in every game. The Red Raiders' passing total has topped their season average only once against the Sooners.

And during those seven games, the Red Raiders have averaged 17.3 points fewer than their season scoring average, 112.1 yards fewer than their average passing total and 147.3 yards fewer than their average total offense.

Those are some striking numbers that likely speak to the Sooners' traditional talent advantage over Tech. But in today's wacky offensive-crazed era, in which pinball numbers are being produced on a weekly basis, nothing is certain.

The Sooners always have tackled well in space under Stoops and coordinator Brent Venables, keeping the Red Raiders from making much yardage after the catch. And they need solid tackling from an active group of linebackers keyed by Curtis Lofton, who leads all Big 12 defenders in tackles in conference games.

"It is a big factor in the game," Stoops said. "Not only Curtis, but all those underneath cover guys. They need to be in position break things up or limit yards after the catch."

But also count on the Sooners defense's pride to factor into its performance against the Red Raiders.

"We're better than we showed last week," Smith said. "We want to show people that's not the defense we have and we can play a lot better than that."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.