The Oklahoma defense has struggled to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 14 of the Sooners‘ last 16 quarters of football.
Outside of the second half in the Cotton Bowl, opposing quarterbacks have returned to their old form against the OU defense, carving up a young and injured secondary without a care in the world.
Oklahoma’s defense is ranked 121st in the nation per Teamrankings.com, which only factors in games between FBS opponents.
And sure, there are plenty of injuries in OU’s secondary between Delarrin Turner-Yell, Woodi Washington, Jeremiah Criddell, and D.J. Graham, but the Oklahoma coaching staff has pointed to another major problem.
“That secondary gets better when you start pressuring the quarterback,” Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley said after the Kansas win on Saturday. “That secondary gets better when you handle the zone run game with an athletic quarterback better than we did. The secondary gets better where you aren’t constantly having penalties that put them in plus situations.”
The defense can’t seem to get off the field, either.
Riley has bemoaned the number of low possession games the Sooners have played this season on more than one occasion, but the lack of offensive possessions is a direct result of the OU defense allowing opposing offenses to go on long, time consuming drives.
Oklahoma’s defense has fallen to 80th in the country in third down defense, allowing opposing teams to pick up a first down 40.2 percent of the time, and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said the inability to get early stops in the run game is a direct cause of those struggles.
“The inability to get stops in the run game, that just eats away at some yardage,” Grinch said on Saturday. “Creates some situations, second-and-medium and second-and-short. Then add penalties to that. Undisciplined football in the front, and all of a sudden, you’re handing a first down away or shortening the distance with multiple downs still yet to go to convert.”
The answer to a lot of those issues should come up front, which begs the question: what has happened to Oklahoma’s defensive line?
Entering the season, the defense was supposed to be led by the talent in the trenches.
And to start the season, they looked the part.
The pass rush totaled four sacks in the season opener against Tulane, and then two weeks later got to Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez five times.
But then the wheels fell off the wagon.
Kansas State’s Skylar Thompson, who was clearly banged up and lacked his usual mobility, was sacked just once. TCU’s Max Duggan, who also entered Norman questionable, according to his coach, escaped without being sacked. Jason Bean, quarterback of a bad Kansas Jayhawks offense, was upright until the final possession of the game, when the outcome was decided.
Just like in the secondary, injuries have taken a toll.
Defensive tackle Jalen Redmond exited the lineup with an injury after West Virginia, and though he was suited up during warmups in Lawrence, he hasn’t appeared since OU’s victory over the Mountaineers. Backup defensive lineman Isaiah Coe has also missed some time behind Redmond, but the Sooners were supposed to be loaded up front.
Defensive end Isaiah Thomas, nose guard Perrion Winfrey and rush linebacker Nik Bonitto were all named to the preseason All-Big 12 Team, and they were supposed to form one of the most formidable pass rushes in the country.
Those three have combined for just 4.5 sacks over the past four games, and the defensive line as a whole is allowing opposing quarterbacks to pick apart an already struggling OU secondary.
Over the past four games, opposing quarterbacks have tossed 13 touchdown passes while throwing zero interceptions.
On Saturday, Bean completed 17-of-23 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown, an incredibly efficient day for a quarterback who has completed just 58.0 percent of his passes this year for Kansas.
The erratic play is something that the Sooners have to end if they want to remain unbeaten in November, Thomas said.
“The inconsistency is a big disappointing part because we see what we’re capable of doing when we get three-and-outs or stops when we need them,” Thomas said after the win over Kansas. “But it feels like when the game starts or if the game is a possession or two in our favor or something like that, it seems like that’s when the inconsistency started coming.
“But it feels like whenever we need a stop or whenever we need a big play, that’s when we need it the most. That’s just the mindset we cannot have if we want to be that elite team that we have the aspirations of being.”
Regardless of who is available, the Oklahoma defensive line has to be difference makers if the Sooners are going to achieve their goals this season. But outside of the second half against Texas, it’s going on an entire month since they’ve played near that level.
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