This week, there is the first anniversary of one of the more weirdly compelling and statistically stupefying home games in OU football history.
The Army game.
In Oklahoma, after a 28-21 Sooners overtime triumph in Norman, the immediate reaction was not celebration. It was relief, followed by heavy criticism of an OU defense that allowed the Black Knights to flourish on conversion downs.
On third-down plays, Army was 13-of-21. On fourth down, 4-of-5. The Black Knights had nearly as many rushing yards (339) as OU had total yards (355).
All of that is crazy, but these were the most astounding lines on the final stat sheet: OU totaled only 40 offensive plays to 87 for the Black Knights, and the Sooners’ time of possession amounted to only 15 minutes, 19 seconds. OU had only three third-down plays all night.
After the Army game, this was the prevalent opinion: I have no idea what OU is defensively.
Within a few weeks, everyone knew what OU was defensively.
After a loss to Texas in the Cotton Bowl, head coach Lincoln Riley fired coordinator Mike Stoops. While it wasn’t a complete surprise, there still was shock attached to the dismissal of anyone named Stoops.
Most of the rest of the 2018 season was a nightmare for the defensive side of Riley’s program.
Today, once again, there’s no way to have a real feel for what the OU defense is or might become over the next 2½ months. However, because he has been consistently candid about OU’s personnel and execution, new coordinator Alex Grinch’s report Monday has to be uplifting for fans: “I think we’re becoming a good-to-borderline-great practice team. Again, that’s one step to this thing.”
What a sensational report, and especially since Grinch seems to be a straight shooter with the media.
This week, during an open date on the schedule, Grinch says his guys will work no differently than they would in advance of a big game. There will be a two-day window during which players may visit family and friends. Otherwise, Grinch says he’ll demand a high level of effort on the practice field.
After the bye week, OU rolls into the next chapter of the season — the Big 12 Conference schedule.
Grinch was hired to change OU’s circumstances, and he has. The September 2019 Sooners defense is much better than the November 2018 Sooners defense, but the opposition thus far has been Houston (an above-average middleweight with a nice quarterback), South Dakota (an FCS lightweight) and UCLA (a dysfunctional and surprisingly terrible heavyweight).
It will be fascinating to see these defensive Sooners when matched with a legitimate threat of a Big 12 opponent, but that won’t happen until the Oct. 12 Texas showdown.
On Sept. 28, OU hosts Texas Tech. Having sustained a shoulder injury against Arizona last weekend, Red Raiders quarterback Alan Bowman reportedly will not play for several weeks.
When this year’s league schedule was released, the Texas Tech date appeared to be the first real stress test for the OU defense. If there’s no Bowman, however, there’s no chance for a Red Raiders shocker in Norman.
At Lubbock last year, Bowman gashed the Sooners secondary with 21-of-26 passing for 227 yards. Texas Tech led at halftime, but Bowman missed the entire second half because of an injury. Kyler Murray had 460 total yards and OU escaped with a 51-46 win.
On Oct. 5, the Sooners visit Les Miles’ interesting Kansas Jayhawks. At OU last season, a three-win KU team rushed for 348 yards. OU won but gave up 40 points.
Miles’ first KU squad ultimately might be a surprise bowl participant, but if the Sooners are motivated and focused for the rematch at Lawrence, Kansas won’t finish with more than 20 points or 148 rush yards. KU will be motivated, but OU’s advantages are overwhelming.
After that, a 5-0 Sooners team clashes with Texas in Dallas. For Sooners fans, Saturday’s Oklahoma State-Texas telecast should be appointment viewing. They get a look at what could be OU’s two toughest Big 12 opponents.
After the Army game last season, the perception was that OU played poorly. The reality was much different. Option quarterback Kelvin Hopkins and the Black Knights were phenomenal.
If the Sooners defense had been truly terrible — or if linebacker Kenneth Murray hadn’t been so heroic — OU would have been beaten by 17 points.
“Definitely proud to get that win,” said Murray, who against Army recorded 28 tackles — the second-greatest total ever for a Sooner and the highest single-game total by any FBS player since 2000.
When he talked with reporters on Monday, Murray seemed happy to revisit the Army game. Has there ever been a victory that aged more beautifully than OU’s win over Army?
Until a Sept. 7 overtime loss at Michigan, Army hadn’t faltered since visiting Norman. By the end of this regular season, Army probably will be 11-1.
There wasn’t a team on OU’s 2019 nonconference schedule that rivals Army for well-coached physicality, so there remain OU unknowns as the defense approaches Big 12 play.
It just seems that everything is a little better and might get a lot better.
Since there is no game to celebrate this week, the fans can cling to Grinch’s contention that OU’s defenders have become consistently better on the practice field.
It’s a big-time indicator that OU is trending in the right direction.