DALLAS — Lincoln Riley answered quickly. Without hesitation, the Oklahoma head coach fired comments to a reporter who, like so many in the postgame news conference, inquired about his program’s defense. How the heck, he was asked, can you have confidence in a much-maligned unit that just allowed more points to Texas than any of the previous 112 OU teams had in this storied series? “Because of people in that locker room, on that football team,” Riley answered. “I have confidence in every person in that room.”
Now we know, maybe, that excludes at least one person: Mike Stoops. Stoops is out as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator, according to multiple reports. This split isn’t so surprising, despite the connection between the two men: Mike is, of course, the brother of Bob Stoops, the man who stepped aside last year to pave the way for Riley, then 33, to become the youngest head coach in the FBS. (Kent State’s Sean Lewis has since assumed the title.) Mike Stoops coordinated OU’s defenses for the previous six and a half seasons, and for the last few years he had been targeted by those wearing crimson and cream for the problems in Norman.
His defense slammed into rock bottom in a 48–45 loss to Texas on Saturday. The Longhorns gashed his unit for 501 yards and 27 first downs, scoring on their first five drives and converting key third and fourth downs to roll up that jaw-dropping points record in this rivalry. So fed up with Stoops, a fan walking the State Fair outside of the Cotton Bowl flashed to reporters a shirt he had airbrushed after the game to say, “Fire Mike Stoops.”
Stoops’s 2018 unit sits 96th nationally in yards allowed a game (421.2) and 79th in scoring, giving up 27.3 points an outing. In recent weeks, Iowa State had thrown for 360 yards, Army had rushed for 339 yards and Baylor had finished with 493 total yards. This all came after Georgia had scored 24 consecutive points in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1, taking advantage of Stoops’s defense in mounting a Rose Bowl comeback that ended Oklahoma’s season.
The defense’s struggles have been so well documented for so long that cornerback Parnell Motley told The Athletic on Saturday, “We just keep talking about it and talking about it. I get tired of that s---. … We got to go prove it. It’s crazy. We keep talking about it and not doing it.”
Riley and three players heard 14 questions asked to them in a postgame news conference Saturday that lasted 15 minutes. Nearly half of them (six) were directed at a defense that has, for the most part, steadily declined since Stoops’s second season in 2013. New defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill, whom Riley served under as offensive coordinator at East Carolina from ’10 to ’14, has a mess on his hands. Texas exposed the weaknesses at every level of OU’s defense: poor cornerback play against Texas’s mismatch-seeking receivers (6'6" Collin Johnson and 6'4" Lil’Jordan Humphrey combined for 15 catches and 214 yards); shoddy quarterback containment (Sam Ehlinger ran for 72 yards and was sacked just once on about 40 dropbacks); and a run defense that allowed true freshman Keaontay Ingram to have a career day, averaging 6.6 yards a tote.
“We didn’t tackle well,” Riley said afterward. “Missed too many big tackles in the open field. Didn’t think we covered great. Had a few too many guys beat in one-on-one situations. The glaring deal was the third and longs.” Texas converted eight of 16 third and fourth downs, many of those on the simplest of plays: the slant. Johnson revealed after the game that pregame scouting helped Texas expose Oklahoma’s cornerbacks. “Most disappointed is we didn’t defend the slants and inside routes,” Riley said. “Didn’t give them the big ones but at the same time, the yards after the catch and inside slants hurt us.”
If you listened closely to one of Riley’s answers Saturday, you heard a subtle criticism of his defensive coordinator’s schematics. While the coach said he “liked the plan” Stoops had entering the game, he suggested in-game adjustments were not made. “Any game like this, there are going to have to be adjustments, on all three sides of the ball,” he said. “Texas offensively and defensively did some things we hadn’t seen. We did some things they hadn’t seen. It was a constant back and forth, but certainly we didn’t get enough stops.”
Now one can only wonder about the domino effect that took place after the 2011 season. Arizona fired Stoops as its head coach. Stoops rejoined his brother at Oklahoma to share the defensive coordinator job with Brent Venables. Venables then left the Sooners for the same gig at Clemson. What if Arizona never fired Mike? What if Bob didn’t hire his brother? What if Venables stayed? The trajectories of two perennial playoff contenders surely could have been altered.
But enough with the what-if game. The reality is that this group of Sooners will have a new DC, even though the players took the blame themselves for Saturday. “Got to go in and go to work. Get in the lab,” linebacker Kenneth Murray said. “Coaches put in the game plan for us. Up to us to execute."
They’ll experiment in the so-called lab without a Stoops on the staff for the first time in nearly two decades.