John E. Hoover: OU's run defense, not pass, is concern for now
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Saturday, September 22, 2012
9/22/12 at 4:53 AM
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Original Print Headline: OU's run defense, not pass, is concern for now
Mike Stoops was brought back to Oklahoma to fix the Sooners' pass defense.
Through two games, it's difficult to discern Stoops' level of success in that endeavor. Two overmatched opponents couldn't generate throwing success against OU, but both UTEP and Florida A&M have been statistically prolific passing the ball in their other games this season.
"We haven't gone up against the caliber of players we're going to see," Stoops said. "But I don't see it changing. Hopefully this is how they're going to play."
So maybe OU's pass defense actually is improved. It certainly should be better than the unit that fell apart in losses to Texas Tech and Baylor and was shaky at best in other games last season. The 2011 Sooners surrendered a school-record 376 yards per game. Of that, 242 came via the pass - second-worst in school history.
Say what you will about the Big 12 Conference's spread offenses and the unprecedented numbers they catalog. Defending the pass obviously remains paramount in this league. But the Sooner defense's real concern - this week, at least, and maybe Texas week - isn't pass defense.
What Mike Stoops and his troops face when No. 15 Kansas State comes to Norman for their Big 12 opener on Saturday night represents a devolution of sorts in contemporary defensive college football: getting tough, going big, standing their ground.
Kansas State runs the football. So, apparently, does Texas.
K-State quarterback Collin Klein and tailback John Hubert combine to average 169 rushing yards per game. They're an effective mix, a 1-2 punch. Klein is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and runs with a constant and powerful forward lean. Hubert is 5-foot-7, 191 pounds and prefers escape but doesn't exactly avoid contact. Against this bunch, toughness and strength is needed.
If Mike Stoops has repaired the Sooner secondary, it might not show in this game or against Texas. Although both teams have shown flashes of throwing the football well against bad teams, neither the Wildcats nor the Longhorns exactly cast fear into the hearts of OU defensive backs.
And OU's efforts defending the pass do seem improved. Other than a bust by a backup in a blowout situation, the two longest completions against the Sooners so far were 26 and 13 yards. That's progress.
But that's a future discussion, best saved for when Oklahoma tangles again with Baylor and Texas Tech and West Virginia. This week is about old-school power football.
Saturday is a good time for defensive tackle Casey Walker to return to the Oklahoma lineup. Walker's heart was no longer in the game, apparently, and he contemplated quitting - even stepped out of camp for a few weeks. But he's the most talented of OU's three senior interior linemen, so he'll make a difference. (The Sooners still aren't full strength; Stacy McGee's suspension for violation of team rules remains in effect.)
This is also a good time to reintroduce senior strong-side linebacker Joseph Ibiloye to the game. Ibiloye came to OU as a safety, but transitioned to linebacker two years ago. It wasn't the ideal career move, however. Against Big 12 spread teams, the Sooners frequently shelve their strong-side linebacker in favor of an extra defensive back. This year, Ibiloye has alternated with nickel safety Gabe Lynn. Ibiloye is a better option against teams that run the ball.
Maybe Bill Snyder, that ageless Wizard of the Plains, truly is onto something, the way Hal Mumme and Mike Leach were onto something 15 years ago. Maybe as championships continue to elude teams that operate the spread, the game will cycle back on itself and running the football will become en vogue once more.
Teams from the Southeastern Conference in large part aren't built to throw the ball. But the SEC shows year after year that offenses who play physical, not fleet, are equipped to win the game's ultimate prize. (And give credit where credit is due: SEC defenses remain the gold standard.)
Here's the troubling part for OU fans: Although the Sooners have shown signs that flaws in the pass defense may be improved, evidence also exists that the run defense this season may be problematic.
UTEP ran the ball with alarming success against the Sooners, averaging 6.6 yards per carry, then struggled mightily against the same Mississippi team that was so dominated last week by Texas.
And Florida A&M, which netted just 61 yards on the ground against Oklahoma, had runs of 14, 16 and 10 yards against OU starters. More disconcerting than that: What was supposed to be a vastly superior Sooner defense didn't hold the Rattlers to one negative running play. Not one.
Winning the wide-open Big 12 may be well within Oklahoma's reach this season.
But if Bob Stoops is ever going to find that elusive second national title, whether it's his brother calling defensive signals or Brent Venables, the Oklahoma defense will need to be great against the run as well as the pass.