Discover more from Oklahoma Columnist, by Clay Horning
Just like that, Sooners going where Riley, Grinch could never take them defensively
That and four more smart takeaways from OU's 33-3 victory over Kent State
If it all comes crashing down because the biggest reason coach Brent Venables’ Sooners appeared so defensively dominant two games into the season was the opponents, UTEP and Kent State, so be it.
You never know.
Don’t count chickens before they hatch and all that.
Yet Oklahoma’s defense appears to be for real, giving up 16 points Week 1 and only three Week 2. And more importantly, stiffening over and over against the Golden Flashes when it had to, the Sooner offense opening with a pair of three-and-outs and not netting a point until its fifth possession, motivated by halftime’s deadline.
So be it, because it’s too tempting to take a look at what OU’s previous braintrust, head coach Lincoln Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, is doing at their new place, because here’s a bit of the great Bill Plaschke’s Los Angeles Times Sunday column from Southern Cal’s 41-28 victory at Stanford, appearing under the headline “It’s a fact: The Trojans are back and might be the nation’s best team.”
They took a quick 14-0 lead, blew it out to a 35-14 halftime lead, led 41-14 after three quarters, and then held on to a victory that didn’t feel nearly as close as the final score indicated. They gained 505 yards, had four takeaways despite allowing 441 yards, committed no turnovers, and won here for the first time in eight years.
But for the turnovers Grinch’s Sooner defenses could never quite get, it’s all so familiar.
The big early lead.
The yards allowed.
Getting outscored after the half.
Really getting outscored in the fourth quarter.
Three years of those patterns here and the fans, though perhaps not rooting for Riley to bolt, sure wanted answers.
Why did Riley’s Sooners always let teams back into games? Why did his offenses quit scoring after the half? Why did Grinch want to measure his defense on turnovers rather than shutting opponents down?
Imagine if the Cardinal had not turned the ball over against the Trojans. Heck, imagine if Rice hadn’t thrown a trio of pick sixes, fueling Southern Cal’s opening day rout.
It’s testament to what Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof have done so quickly at the program Riley and Grinch departed.
We remember so well how Mike Stoops had to go.
We remember so well how Grinch said all the right things when he arrived, how he talked so fast, owned his unit’s mistakes so entirely, was his own worst critic, which made him sound bound to succeed even though his worst Sooner defense was his last, allowing 25.8 points and 391.5 yards per outing, ranking 60th and 76th nationally … nor did his best Sooner defense crack the top 25, allowing 21.6 points (28th) and 350.8 yards (29th) in 2020.
Enter Venables and Roof and, BANG, it turns on a dime.
Kelvin Sampson used to say, “You achieve what you emphasize,” and maybe it’s just that simple.
“In the first half, I don’t think we tackled very well at all,” said Venables. “That goes without saying that we played really sloppy and lost leverage on the ball entirely too much.”
Yet, before he left the mic, he had a number for everybody’s notebook.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “that’s the fewest points that we’ve allowed against an FBS opponent since 2017.”
You achieve what you emphasize.
The old crew liked to talk about all the things they expected to happen defensively. The new staff, though it’s just two games, against UTEP and Kent State, its defense is doing those things.
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Four more Week 2 takeaways
• If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times, get the ball to Marvin Mims and Drake Stoops
Mims finally had the kind of day we used to get from Ryan Broyles and CeeDee Lamb, catching seven passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns and, though he lost a yard carrying the ball, he brought a punt back 41, pushing his all-purpose yardage beyond 200.
And after Dillon Gabriel opened the second half by hitting Mims for 7 yards and throwing to him again and getting a pass interference call, he then turned to Drake Stoops, hitting him for 6 and, after an Eric Gray rush for 8, hit him for 9 more. Three plays later, OU was in the end zone.
Mims is a star, and nothing but good things happen when Stoops gets involved. Though there’s nothing wrong with Theo Wease, Brayden Willis, Jalil Farooq or Tawee Walker, Mims and Stoops can’t get enough touches.
• Marcus a major threat
The Sooners have found their best running back and it’s Marcus Major. He ought to be starting in front of Gray and he sure as heck should be getting more carries than Jovantae Barnes, though neither of those things occurred Saturday.
Barnes averaged 2.3 over his nine carries and finished with 21 yards. Gray, whose day included a 46-yard dash, carried 10 times, averaging 7.1 to finish with 71. Major, though his longest tote was only 16, still averaged more per carry (7.6) than Gray.
Additionally, he ran physically like Rhamondre Stevenson and Kennedy Brooks before him, and was subtly deceptive, making would-be tacklers miss with the smallest of feints, also like Stevenson and Brooks.
Maybe he’s not a great practice player, explaining the depth chart and the carries. Also, maybe Venables and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby should go with their best guy at Nebraska.
• Hello, Danny
Given Venables’ predilection for great defense, one question entering the season was who might lead the way, or, beyond that, who might make all the tackles, like Curtis Lofton in 2007 (157), Travis Lewis ’08 (144) or going way back, Daryl Hunt, who made 177 in ’76, 159 in ’77 and 157 in ’78.
Well, say hello to Danny Stutsman, who made nine opening day against UTEP and 12 against Kent State, nine of them solos, one a sack and three others for loss.
The temptation is to follow the ball. Now, if you think a run’s coming, you can watch Stutsman, fairly certain he’ll find the ball.
• What’s up with Dillon?
Gabriel completed 21 of 28 throws for 296 yards, three TDs and no picks, but his first quarter was abysmal: 2 of 5, 9 yards, two first downs and his second quarter was no better until halftime approached.
He hasn’t thrown any terrible interceptions, a la Landry Jones, yet he keeps getting himself trapped in three-and-outs, a la Trevor Knight.
It’s now reasonable to wonder the capabilities of Davis Beville, his backup, because OU cannot afford any more first halves in which its offense is so anemic.
It’s nice that Gabriel offered glimpses of a high ceiling, but it’s concerning he’s also shown us his floor, which is not high at all.
“He’s an assassin,” Venables said. “It’s not his first rodeo.”
Nor, I presume, is that the first time the Sooner head coach has gone out of his way to protect a player who’s struggled a bit too often against lackluster opponents.