NORMAN — The big book of OU football history is replete with significant anniversaries that center on landmark victories, high-profile losses and significant individual achievement.
On Tuesday, there is an anniversary of a different sort.
It’s the first anniversary of Lincoln Riley’s infamous yet necessary firing of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. The dismissal became official two days after the Sooners were beaten 48-45 by Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
The stress of defensive dysfunction surely had a sickening effect on the fiery Stoops, whose coaching had been a huge factor in OU’s national-title-game dominance of favored Florida State in the January 2001 Orange Bowl.
Stoops now is at Alabama, working as an analyst for Nick Saban and positioning himself for what should be another coordinator gig.
Meanwhile, at 11 a.m. this Saturday, the sixth-ranked, unbeaten Sooners collide with No. 11 Texas.
For the first time since 1998, Oklahoma enters a Red River Showdown without the involvement of a coaching Stoops. Bob retired in 2017, after 18 seasons as the head man. Mike was a Sooner staff member in 1999-2003 and 2012-18.
A year ago, after OU gave up 501 yards in the loss to Texas, Sooner fans clamored for a change. Riley responded to the situation — not to the fans — with his decision to dismiss Mike Stoops.
Ultimately, three months later, Riley enticed Ohio State co-coordinator Alex Grinch to shoulder the challenge of fixing the OU defense.
Statistically, there’s a night-and-day difference.
In advance of the 2018 OU-Texas game, the Sooners were 90th nationally in total defense, 95th in pass defense and 99th in third-down defense. Opponents had been 42.4% successful on third down.
By midseason, OU opponents had scored points on each of their 21 red-zone penetrations. On 18 of those penetrations, there was a touchdown.
In advance of Saturday’s game, the Sooners are 46th in total defense, 37th in pass defense and fifth in third-down defense. Opponents have converted on only 24.6% of their third-down plays — but consider the credentials of the opponents.
Houston, UCLA, Texas Tech and Kansas have a combined record of 8-14. OU’s FCS schedule-filler was South Dakota. After losing in Norman Sept. 7, the Coyotes were beaten 53-52 at home. By Houston Baptist.
It’s currently impossible to know whether the Grinch defense is a little better or a lot better than the Stoops defense. Texas pushed a possibly great LSU team before losing 45-38. Over the weekend, Texas won impressively and comfortably at West Virginia, and now Sam Ehlinger and the Longhorns provide for the Sooners their first real challenge of the season.
“They’re playing really, really hard. They’re flying to the football,” Texas coach Tom Herman said of the OU defense. “No. 90 (Neville Gallimore) is a havoc-wreaker, if you will. Obviously, Kenneth Murray deserves all of the accolades that he gets. I think you just see them playing so hard and flying to the football.
“Really aggressive. Not terribly complex. Some of the things they do with their line movements, and twists and stunts, are going to be difficult for our offensive line and quarterback. (OU defenders) are in the right place at the right time, and they’re getting there with their hair on fire and really physical.”
OU’s pursuit, tackling and coverage do seem better, but, again, the schedule has been soft.
Grinch’s Saturday mission is to navigate his players through four quarters without catastrophic breakdowns.
The 2018 OU-Texas game was defined by a terrible third quarter for the Sooners. During that period, the Longhorns rolled for 182 total yards and were 5-of-7 on third- and fourth-down conversions. Texas extended its lead from 24-17 to 45-24.
“I’ve answered 5,000 questions about that game before, and I don’t have any new answers on it,” Riley said on Monday. “I’m excited about where we’ve headed as a program. I’m excited about the way we’re playing defensively and the progress we’ve made.”
This week, it’s undeniably obvious that the OU defense has improved in every sense. It’s impossible to know whether it’s enough to conquer the capable, confident Longhorns.
Oct. 12 is awfully late for any team to face its first legitimate test.