New-look Oklahoma defense out to prove itself at Notre Dame
Mike Stoops talks about Oklahoma's 2000 BCS championship defense like it played a different sport entirely. The Sooners held opponents to a stingy 278.9 yards per game that year, and it's possible that didn't even meet their defensive coordinator's lofty expectations.
"Total yardage, I think 275 a game was our goal," said Stoops. "It might have been 250, I don't even know. That seems so unrealistic now."
College offenses, and Big 12 offenses in particular, were a far simpler puzzle when Mike, working for his brother Bob, first coached in Norman from 1999-2003. The former Arizona head coach returned in 2012 to a league in which nearly every team runs a version of the up-tempo spread, in which the quarterbacks are incredibly efficient, in which the formations are endless and in which receivers can double as running backs and vice versa. Stoops' charge coming in was simply to breathe confidence into a unit that allowed too many big plays the season before.
Instead, Oklahoma regressed further, winning 10 games but giving up nearly 400 yards per game and an embarrassing 5.2 yards per rushing attempt (113th nationally). At the Sooners' low point, West Virginia racked up a staggering 778 yards of total offense, led by 344 rushing yards from receiver Tavon Austin, in a 50-49 Sooners win on Nov. 17.
Shortly after Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel got done carving up Oklahoma's defense in the Aggies' 41-13 Cotton Bowl rout last January, the Stoops brothers -- who made their names at the turn of the century on stingy and innovative defenses -- scrapped the traditional 4-3 base defense they'd employed nearly their entire careers and which helped the Sooners reach four national title games and eight BCS bowls from 2000-10.
In 2013, Oklahoma has become a 3-3-5 team -- one that so far has held opponents to nine points and 291.3 yards per game.
Numerous teams -- Stanford, Georgia and Notre Dame, among them -- have made successful switches from four- to three-man fronts in recent years, primarily to deal with today's spread offenses. With one fewer hulking lineman, a defense can add a speedier player to limit offenses on the perimeter. It also gives defenses more options on blitzes and more opportunities to cause confusion with various pre-snap movements.
"We felt as a staff it fit our players the best," said Bob Stoops. "It allowed us to have more speed on the field and a little more diversity to what defenses we're playing -- diversity in blitzing, diversity in coverage."
After opening with a 34-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe, struggling through a 16-7 win over West Virginia and rolling to a 51-20 victory over Tulsa, the No. 14 Sooners (3-0) will face their first true test of the season on Saturday at No. 22 Notre Dame (3-1). Much attention will be focused on junior quarterback Blake Bell, who will make his first career road start against a team that reached last year's BCS championship. But the game will also be the best gauge to date of a defense that appears notably improved despite losing seven starters from a year ago.
Last year in Norman, the Irish gained 404 yards in a 30-13 win. Earlier in the 2012 season, Kansas State had come to town and controlled the clock with its running game en route to a 24-19 victory over the Sooners. Numerous critics -- most notably former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer -- lamented the apparent talent dropoff from Stoops' more dominant teams along the defensive line. "We're not as good as we have been," Switzer told the Tulsa World after the K-State loss. "We don't have the Tommie Harrises or Gerald McCoys squatting down there in the middle [of the defensive line]."
His assessment proved accurate last spring when a group of five veteran defensive linemen from last year's team produced just one sixth- (Stacy McGee) and one seventh-round (David King) pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma's adherence to playing four down linemen sometimes adversely affected the Sooners' linebackers. Against a spread-passing opponent like West Virginia, standout linebacker Corey Nelson often remained on the sideline as Mike Stoops trotted out as many as seven defensive backs.
"Last year, it was a tough deal for me," said Nelson, now a senior. "It was a hard pill to swallow."
In the new scheme, however, Nelson has a team-high 20 tackles along with three tackles for loss, three pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and a sack. Fellow linebacker Frank Shannon has 19 tackles. "It allows us to be leaders and make plays out there," said Nelson. "The linebackers are like the quarterback of the defense."
But as Nelson went on to say, "The reason our defense is playing so well so far is because of our defensive line dominating the line of scrimmage."
The limited experience of Oklahoma's projected starting defensive linemen was a primary cause for uncertainty heading into the season. Furthermore, the switch to a three-man front would put significant pressure on the one interior tackle, sophomore Jordan Phillips. But the 6-foot-6, 324-pound Phillips -- one of the nation's top defensive tackle prospects in the class of 2011 -- has excelled at plugging the middle, while sophomore defensive end Charles Tapper has emerged as a big-time pass-rusher.
"We were worried [about the defensive line]," said Mike Stoops. "The nose tackle [Phillips] has really done a good job, Tapper has really become a playmaker for us. They've been really productive in the first few weeks."
Aiding in the group's development is new defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, 34, formerly of Michigan. He replaced Jackie Shipp, who had coached the position since Bob Stoops' 1999 arrival prior to a staff shakeup last offseason.
"Everybody in the country thinks we stink, and I tell them that every single day," Montgomery recently told reporters. "'We stink. We're not good enough.' If I was a player that was being told that, I'd come out and prove everybody wrong, too."
With improved play up front, Stoops is finally able to do what he wants with the secondary -- primarily, create indecision for opposing quarterbacks. The Sooners have several talented veterans -- seniors like cornerback Aaron Colvin and safety Gabe Lynn -- in a secondary that has largely underperformed over the past two years.
"Everyone is playing better," said Stoops. "The defensive line is definitely more active and making more plays. We've been better at linebacker and in the secondary, too."
The competition to this point has admittedly been soft. Oklahoma took pride in shutting out Louisiana-Monroe and star quarterback Kolton Browning in the opener, but last week Baylor nearly did the same thing. (Baylor beat the Warhawks 70-7.) Holding West Virginia to seven points marked a dramatic improvement from the teams' 2012 meeting, but these were not the Geno Smith, Austin and Stedman Bailey led Mountaineers. Maryland shut out Dana Holgorsen's reeling team last week. And Tulsa, normally a prolific offensive team, lost 34-7 to Bowling Green in Week 1 and currently sits at 1-3.
The stakes rise considerably on Saturday in South Bend. Notre Dame is undergoing its own offensive transition without several key players from 2012, but the Sooners are eager to match up with the Irish's veteran offensive line.
"Notre Dame is still the same team we saw last year, no doubt," said Nelson. "They have the same physicality, they bring the same punch that they did last year. Our main goal is being physical. That's been our main focus."
While the Irish do operate out of the spread, Bob Stoops conceded this week that Oklahoma may bring back some four-man fronts to counter Notre Dame's rushing attack. "There's a good chance," he told reporters. "But I'm not gonna give you any percentages on it."
The Stoops brothers move to the 3-3-5 was intended to slow high-octane Big 12 foes like Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State, all of which are averaging at least 487 yards per game. (The Bears are currently averaging an absurd 751.3.) All of those teams come at the back end of Sooners' 2013 schedule.
Today, unlike 2000, Oklahoma's defensive coaches do not even bother tracking total yards. "It's pretty meaningless," Mike Stoops said. "If you can hold someone to 400 [yards] you're doing OK." That would have been unheard of back in the days when I-formation and the option ruled the Big 12. Now, the Stoops brothers are just trying to adapt.
"The times have changed," said Mike Stoops. "Football's a lot different than it was 10 years ago."
So, too, is Oklahoma's defense.