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  • Oklahoma's defense has come a long way in a year, culminating in the Sooners' revenge win at Ohio State. DC Mike Stoops reveals what's changed, plus more notes from Week 2.
By Bruce Feldman
September 12, 2017

Lincoln Riley’s first road trip as a head coach couldn’t have gone much better. His Sooners, led by star quarterback Baker Mayfield, produced a dominant performance at No. 2 Ohio State, winning 31–16 in a game that wasn’t even that close. Mayfield carved up the Buckeyes' defense before he literally planted an Oklahoma flag right in the heart of the Horseshoe. Perhaps the biggest revelation, however, in a jaw-dropping night in Columbus was how well the Sooners’ D played against Urban Meyer’s offense on the way to the Buckeyes’ worst home loss since 1999.

One third of Ohio State’s 69 plays went for zero or negative yards or resulted in an interception. Senior QB J.T. Barrett averaged only around five yards per pass attempt. This all served as quite a jolt to the narrative that no one in the Big 12 plays defense. Last year, the Buckeyes drilled Oklahoma 45–24 in Norman. It was one of four times the Sooners surrendered at least 40 points in 2016.

Coordinator Mike Stoops’s defense has come a long way in a year. The low point came last October in Lubbock, when the Sooners barely survived Texas Tech in a 66–59 shootout that set the record for most total yards in an FBS game that didn’t go into overtime. Stoops cringes at the very mention of that night. “What a nightmare,” Stoops said Sunday. “Wow. You don’t even think it’s possible [to give up so many big plays].”

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Stoops credits then Red Raiders QB Patrick Mahomes for playing out of his mind that night but adds that his defense wasn’t playing hard. It’s different now, though. “We’re more violent to the football; we’re more passionate to the football, and it’s made up for a lot of our mistakes. When you play hard, you may give up an eight-yard run, but last year that run might’ve gone for 30.”

Ask Stoops about what he did differently this time around against the Buckeyes and he’ll tell you that the Sooners played more odd fronts, with a defender lined up directly over the center, leading to either three or five down linemen. That gave Oklahoma a better chance to defend Ohio State’s run game, which gashed his defense for 291 yards on the ground last year. Stoops says the Sooners’ third-down plan was better this year, using some different blitz patterns. “[Our defensive] game plan last year stunk,” he says. “They got us out of sorts last year with some formations.”

The biggest change, though, is in demeanor. "We’re just better,” Stoops says. “We’ve got just better character. Our will to win is stronger. The leadership is better. They’ve grown up. I just think our focus is better. The concentration is better. Obviously, we didn’t coach ’em very well either. A lot of that falls on me and our coaches. It’s never just one thing.”

It helps that this year’s defense starts seven seniors. Stoops has leaders in defensive backs Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas, and the evolution of end Obo Okoronkwo is the unit in microcosm. The 6'1", 240-pound senior from Houston always had exceptional quickness, and late last season he emerged as a pass-rushing terror as the Sooners’ defense started to blossom. Against Ohio State, he had 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, adding to two TFLs and a sack in the season opener against UTEP.

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“He has such a great first step and he takes some chances that aren’t always right, but with a playmaker like that, you can’t take the bad without the good,” Stoops says. “He’s learned how to be calculated in his ability to make plays. Now, he has experience and understands what’s coming.”

Stoops says Okoronkwo has grown as a person—and as a leader—from the time he arrived in Oklahoma as much as any player the coach has had since he’s been in Norman. “We really lean on him.”

“It’s crazy how we’ve grown,” Okoronkwo said before the start of this season about his relationship with his coach. “We used to be at each other’s throats. We talk all the time. He calls me just to see how I’m doing. My understanding of the game has grown so much just because of his patience with me.

“I’ve come a long way. It was [because] both Coach Stoops [Bob and Mike] had a lot of patience with me. I was a late bloomer.”

That patience is paying off for a group that is has allowed the second-fewest plays of 20-plus yards per game in the country (1.00).

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Week 2 Notes

• Clemson’s defense flexed its muscle last weekend, notching 14 tackles for loss and 11 sacks against Auburn. Brent Venables’s unit has only allowed five plays of 10-plus yards this season. That’s half as many as the next fewest by any FBS team that has played two games. That makes this weekend’s showdown against Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville that much more compelling. If Jackson lights this Tigers defense up again, his odds of becoming only the second player to repeat as Heisman winner will increase significantly.

• I had a chance to spend a few days around Oregon last weekend for the Ducks’ game with Nebraska. The vibe around the football program seems to have changed dramatically under coach Willie Taggart, with so much more energy and enthusiasm, and the Ducks are 2–0 after beating the Huskers. This is an intriguing team because it’s so young. It starts 12 sophomores and freshmen, including three O-linemen and stud QB Justin Herbert. Things are going very well on the recruiting trail, too.

The 6'6", 227-pound Herbert is a good story. He leads a deep crop of gifted Pac-12 QBs in completion percentage (78%); QB rating (199) and yards per attempt (12.0). Credit former coach Mark Helfrich for bringing him in. Herbert was a three-sport star who told me he didn’t go to camps or combines, which left him under the recruiting radar. His only other FBS offer was from Hawaii.

Taggart thinks Herbert will become a first-round pick—he loves his accuracy, athleticism and intelligence. Herbert is still developing as a leader and has worked hard on his composure because he is such a perfectionist, going hard on himself after interceptions during spring practice.

Those things, though, can be nurtured. His talent is pretty special, and he’s a good fit for the Gulf Coast Offense that Taggart brought from South Florida, which has some similarities to the Ducks’ old system but with different terminology.

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Another reason for optimism is defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s young linemen. Freshmen Austin Faoliu and Jordon Scott can become real forces to build around. Leavitt loves the 6'0", 330-pound Scott’s strength and smarts and thinks he’ll become an even bigger factor as he gets into better shape and can play more snaps. Leavitt says the 6'3", 289-pound Faoliu can be really special. “He’s got a serious demeanor about his craft and has really strong hands.” He also may be the toughest guy on the defensive unit. Keeping Faoliu in the signing class through the coaching transition was a big get for Taggart’s staff—USC made a late push to keep him, and he grew up just down the street from the Coliseum.

• Coolest video of the Week: Oregon and Nike partnered up for something truly awesome. Three pediatric cancer survivors—Joe MacDonald, Sophia Malinoski and Ethan Frank—collaborated with three Ducks players to design Oregon’s new “Stomp Out Cancer” uniforms that include inspiring graphics and slogans. Along with the uniforms, they helped design T-shirts, hats and other gear that are available for sale, with 100% of the profits benefiting the pediatric cancer fund at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. After the Ducks’ victory, Taggart presented each of the kids with game balls.

I spoke with the father of one of the survivors, Joe MacDonald, who told me the day before the game on Saturday, his son played in his own high school football game wearing the Nike cleats he helped design and had a 70-yard touchdown. And it all came on the fourth anniversary of his cancer going into remission.

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• San Diego State has another star running back. Last year it was Donnel Pumphrey and now it’s Rashaad Penny, who ran all over Arizona State to give the Aztecs their first win against a Pac-12 opponent in 42 years. The 5'11", 220-pound Penny scored three touchdowns (a 95-yard run, a 33-yard scoring reception and 99-yard kickoff return) and rushed for a career-best 216 yards. In all, he accounted for 353 all-purpose yards. He came into the season as a two-time Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year, with five kick returns for touchdowns. That 2014 class of running backs in the state of California was pretty strong. Also in that class: Royce Freeman, Joe Mixon and Arizona’s Nick Wilson.

• Stat of the Week: When Frank Wilson led UTSA to a win at Baylor last weekend, it marked the third time Wilson’s UTSA teams have been at least a 17-point underdog and won the game outright.

• Another stat to keep in mind this week: Tom Herman is 6–0 as a head coach when he faces a Top 25 team. Not 6–0 against the spread—outright. His Texas team goes to No. 4 USC Saturday. As a first-time head coach with Houston, Herman won his first game against a ranked opponent by one point, a 35–34 win over No. 25 Memphis in November 2015. Since then, his teams have won by 21 (against No. 16 Navy), by 11 (against No. 20 Temple), by 14 (against No. 9 Florida State), by 10 (against No. 3 Oklahoma) and by 26 (against No. 3 Louisville), an average margin of 14 points.

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