The last three weeks, the script has flipped on the Oklahoma football team.
Suddenly, the offense has found life for the No. 3-ranked Sooners, spurred on by better offensive line play, a more consistent running game and a quarterback change.
But while the offense has gotten rolling in Norman, and injury plagued defense has taken steps back from their early-season form.
Oklahoma has been out-gained in total yards in two of their last three games, and a once dominant-looking defensive front has failed to generate consistent pressure.
And it’s not like the OU defense is getting torched by a bunch of Heisman Trophy candidates, either.
Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson was hampered entering their contest in Manhattan, and though injuries all but took away the quarterback run game for the Wildcats, Thompson was still able to exploit the OU secondary for 320 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Casey Thompson had a career day in the Cotton Bowl, throwing for 388 yards and five touchdowns just one week before he threw for 179 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions against a stout Oklahoma State defense.
Then on Saturday night, TCU’s Max Duggan, who was also questionable for the game against Oklahoma with a foot injury, threw for 346 yards and four touchdowns in a losing effort.
“Sometimes the stats don’t tell the story and sometimes they do,” OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said during a press conference on Tuesday of his unit’s performance against TCU. “I think in this case the very much did. You look at explosive plays through the air and I was very disappointed in those. It’s very difficult to play good defense when one play goes for 75 yards. How on earth could we let that happen.
“There’s reasons. In the end, someone makes a play. It doesn’t mean it has to be a touchdown.”
One of the reasons why the Sooners have struggled defensively of late is the injury bug.
By the end of last week’s game against the Horned Frogs, the OU defense was missing five guys who have started a game at some point this season in defensive backs Delarrin Turner-Yell, Woodi Washington, D.J. Graham and Jeremiah Criddell, as well as defensive tackle Jalen Redmond.
The injuries are mounting, sure, but the coaching staff spent the offseason talking up the depth that has been developed on the defensive side of the ball and how the defensive coaches were confident enough in the depth to deploy heavy rotation at almost every position across the defense.
In the end, the defense has played well below the standard Grinch has set.
Currently, the Sooners rank 123rd in the nation in passing yards allowed per game against FBS opponents out of a total of 130 teams.
But the fault doesn’t lie at the feet of any one position group defensively.
On Tuesday, head coach Lincoln Riley said the secondary needs help, and pointed to the defensive line to play more consistently.
Wednesday, nose guard Perrion Winfrey said the work starts on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s.
“We’ve just got to practice better,” Winfrey said during a Zoom press conference. “We just got to continue to ignore the outside noise and focus on us and continue to encourage each other and bring each other up and know that when it’s on, it’s on. And nobody can stop us.
“And if we continue to work at it that it will eventually stay on and not turn off.”
Even with the mounting injuries, Winfrey said the defense can’t be worried about who is in or out of the lineup week to week, they just have to produce when they’re on the field.
“Grinch always prides ourselves on the next man up mentality, so I wouldn’t say it’s affected us,” Winfrey said. “I would just say that the next man up has to go in and produce.”
This upcoming Saturday will provide an opportunity for the Sooners to get back on track defensively.
The Kansas Jayhawk offense won’t pose any major threats, but Oklahoma can use it as an opportunity to get back to the basics and make sure everyone along the defensive side of the ball is locked in for every play.
“We’re not focusing on our keys as well as we were in the beginning,” said Winfrey, “but we are getting that all aligned and we’re going to get back to what we were doing.”
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