By WENDELL BARNHOUSE, TMG Special Contributor
Oklahoma’s first dynasty built by Bud Wilkinson invented a defense that quickly became a preferred scheme. The Sooners’ 5-2 alignment was state of the art in the 1950s. OU also became known for the Oklahoma drill – the testosterone-fueled, bull-in-the-ring, one-on-one concussion-fest.
The Sooners’ last national championship was a defensive masterpiece in 2000 as they shut down Heisman-winning quarterback Chris Weinke and Florida State, which led the nation in total offense and third in scoring offense.
Now, OU has a defense softer than a grade-school flag football team.
Going into his third season as the Sooners’ coach, Lincoln Riley made the most significant hire of his career when he named Alex Grinch as OU’s defensive coordinator. His main job is to make Oklahoma’s defense respectable instead of laughable.
Since the spring and during the summer, the Oklahoma defense has marched to a three-digit cadence – 129. The defenders were constantly reminded of that number, with several off-season drills requiring 129 reps.
Why that number? Simply put, it’s simpler and catchier than “one-hundred-and-twenty-ninth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards allowed.” Although, alternately, it could have been “we were last in pass defense.”
“I really don’t deal in potential,” Grinch said after the Sooners’ first preseason practice. “The expectation here is to have an elite defense. The country’s not going to care that we’re installing new. The expectation at Oklahoma is to compete and win championships and in order to do so we feel like you have to have an elite defense to do that. So that’s what we’re striving toward.”
Those strides will need to be long and fast. The Sooners have reached the College Football Playoff semifinals each of the last two seasons and both times been roasted and toasted by SEC offenses. Georgia in 2017 and Alabama in 2018 combined to score 99 points with 1,055 yards of total offense. Never mind that the loss to the Bulldogs came in double overtime and that OU scored 82 points on 1,002 yards of offense in those two games. Scoreboard, dudes.
“It’s a results business,” said Grinch, the nephew of former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. “It’s very, very easy as a coach, you can walk off the practice field every single day feeling great. You can tell yourself the right story — ‘We’re getting better. We’re doing better.’ Oh, by the way, everybody else in the country’s getting better.”
No. 4 Oklahoma and the Grinch-coordinated defense will be tested in the season opener. The Sooners take on Houston, which was seventh in total offense in 2018.
Senior quarterback D’Eriq King returns as the trigger man for an attack that was seventh in total offense in FBS last season. Bleacher Report ranks D’Eriq King and Marquez Stevenson as the fourth-best offensive combo in FBS.
The opener will also be the debut for new UH coach Dana Holgorsen. In his seven seasons at West Virginia, the Mountaineers lost every game but averaged 33 points per game vs. OU.
The last three seasons, Oklahoma has finished first, first and second in FBS total offense and first, third and third in scoring offense. Over the same period, in six defensive categories – opponents’ third-down conversions, sacks, rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed, total yards allowed and points allowed – the Sooners have finished in the bottom half of FBS 14 out of 18.
"If we want to be honest, you can look at all the tape and see things we do that weren't great defense," linebacker Kenneth Murray, the preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year, said at big 12 media days. "Those are things we have to eliminate, those are things we have to change, those are the things we have to improve upon to be the defense we say we want to be."
From 2015-17, Grinch was Mike Leach’s defensive coordinator at Washington State. Defensive units coupled with pass-happy, no-huddle, high-scoring offenses typically get worn out. Instead of clock-eating drives, an offense that often scores in 60 to 90 seconds forces its defense to defend more possessions and more plays.
Before Grinch arrived in Pullman, the Cougars ranked 99th in total defense and 127th in pass defense. In 2017, his final season, Washington State was 16th in total defense and ninth in passing defense. Grinch spent last season at Ohio State and the Buckeyes were 86th in passing defense. That’s a bit concerning as the Big Ten Conference is not known for high-octane passing attacks.
The challenge for Oklahoma’s secondary increased with news that junior Tre Norwood is out for the season with a lower body injury suffered during the first week of preseason practice. He had started the last 19 games, seeing significant action at nickel back. In most defenses against the types of offensive deployed in the Big 12, nickel back is a defensive back/linebacker combo. Those who play the position effectively are rare and invaluable.
Sophomore Boo Radley-Hiles, a hyped recruit who had a roller coaster rookie season, could be a candidate to step in for Norwood. He and his teammates in the secondary are aware that many believe they can’t cover statues.
“We love it,” he told The Athletic of the criticism. “All eyes are on us and we know that, but we’re doing something right if they’re looking at us. We’re about to change that culture. The narrative is going to change. We’re going to get after it and fight through.”
Another number, this of the double-digit variety, speaks of the OU defense’s ineptitude. The Sooners forced 11 turnovers – eleven – the fewest recorded in program history. Part of the new coordinator’s mantra could be paraphrasing Dr. Seuss – How the Grinch Steals Footballs.
“The sole purpose of the defense to be on the football field is get the ball back to the offense,” Grinch said at his introductory news conference. “And for whatever reason, in other sports, no one seems to be confused that way. In basketball, if you’re defending the other guy, you want to take the ball away from him. Defensively, you want to contain yards. Obviously, you want to limit points. But the purpose behind every play in football is for the defense to get the ball back to the offense.
“And, oh, by the way, the ball doesn’t have any working knowledge of who it’s supposed to be thrown to. It doesn’t know the quarterback is supposed to throw to a receiver. It doesn’t know it’s supposed to stay in the running back’s arm. So, if the ball doesn’t know, how on earth do we know? So that gives us every opportunity on every snap of football to get the ball back.”
While Dr. Seuss never wrote a sequel, Sooner fans are hoping this season’s working title is “The Grinch Who Brought Defense.”