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In retrospect, the shootout was as predictable as it was spectacular – which is why Oklahoma’s immediate reaction was probably as inevitable as it was shocking. After a 48-45 loss to Texas, Lincoln Riley explained a defensive debacle like this:
“We didn’t tackle well. … I didn’t think we covered great,” the Sooners’ second-year coach said Saturday afternoon. “We had a few too many guys just getting beat to the ball in a couple of situations and the glaring thing was the third-and-longs that we gave up.”
He could have kept going, kind of like Texas’ offense did. But the glaring truth is there’s no defense for Oklahoma’s continuing deficiency.
As a result, Mike Stoops is no longer the Sooners’ defensive coordinator.
The midseason timing was less than ideal. But the Sooners’ poor performance against a previously pedestrian Texas offense was the final straw. Firing Stoops now might have been the only move for a program that is threatening – again – to waste a tremendous opportunity.
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Last year, the Sooners’ hopes for a national championship were derailed by the defense. And yet if they had somehow squeaked by Georgia in overtime in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl, they might have won the title, anyway, with that devastating offense. Here they are again, same explosive potential with Kyler Murray as they had with Baker Mayfield. They do it a little differently – see Murray’s 67-yard bolt for a fourth-quarter touchdown against Texas – but astounding as it seems, halfway through the season the Sooners are at least as potent.
But almost every week, Oklahoma’s defense puts unnecessary stress on the exquisite machine built by Riley. At least once every season, an implosion leaves the Sooners in a smoking heap on the shoulder, watching other Playoff contenders whiz by. Finally, after Saturday, the move was inevitable. Only the timing was in doubt.
“I’m extremely disappointed in my ability to get this team to play at a higher level,” Stoops said after the loss. “It takes everybody pulling the same way. Certainly I take a lot of that responsibility, that’s for sure.”
If the coordinator’s last name had been Smith or maybe Brown, someone else might already have had that responsibility. It was a tricky deal, given the currency of the Stoops name in Norman – and with Bob Stoops, though retired, still a very prominent presence around the program (Riley had more than one difficult conversation Sunday).
And let’s be clear: There’s no certainty the change will make a quick difference; this isn’t so much about schemes or play calls as personnel. As fast and talented as the Sooners are on the offensive side of the ball, their defensive recruiting has not come close to keeping up.
It’s also worth recalling that, not so long ago, Oklahoma fans were certain Brent Venables was the source of all their defensive woes, and the return of Mike Stoops, the architect of dominant defenses in the 2000s, would be the cure. Since leaving for Clemson, Venables has done fairly well, while Oklahoma’s defense remained porous.
Stoops is a good, smart coach. There were good, important performances (see Ohio State, 2017, as one example). But there were too many meltdowns. It has not worked the second time around.
The Red River, uh, shootout was only the latest data point, and the most glaring evidence that something had to change. And sorry, but it could not simply be written off to the wacky offensive world of Big 12 football.
A week before shredding Oklahoma, the Longhorns scored 10 offensive points against woeful Kansas State. Yet Texas treated Oklahoma’s defense like your average FCS opponent: 501 total yards, an average of 6.7 yards per play. With a combination of power running and adequate passing, Sam Ehlinger suddenly resembled Tim Tebow. Texas’ big receivers sometimes made Oklahoma’s defensive backs look like that viral video of adult mascots knocking over pee-wee players in a charity game. And it was all so predictable.
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Halfway through the season, the Oklahoma offense is as powerful as ever. But while there was talk of defensive improvement during the offseason, in 21 red zone chances, opponents had scored 21 times (18 touchdowns, three field goals). Every. Single. Time.
Oklahoma ranks 96th nationally in total defense, surrendering 421.2 yards a game. The Sooners are sandwiched in that ranking between Pittsburgh and Kansas State – which is why after Saturday, they’re no longer grouped in Playoff projections with Alabama and Ohio State.
Murray made two critical errors Saturday, an interception and a fumble that led to 10 Texas points – and at least as important, swung momentum toward the ‘Horns. Afterward, the junior quarterback took the blame.
“If I don’t turn the ball over, we’d have a better shot to win that game,” he said. “… We’re better than that. I know we’re better than that.”
He’s right, of course, but here’s the thing: Murray was terrific Saturday. He should not have to be perfect.
Even when the Sooners completed their comeback with 2:38 left – their third touchdown in less than six minutes, a suddenly 45-all tie sending an electric jolt into an already supercharged atmosphere at the Cotton Bowl – anyone who’d been watching the game or frankly, paying attention to Oklahoma over the last few years, also knew this:
The Sooners scored too soon.
Sure enough, Texas moved the ball – there was an iffy pass interference call, but it’s hard to give much credit to the Sooners’ secondary considering the rest of their play – into position for a field goal to win. Was anyone really surprised?
It’s hard to predict what happens next. Making a midseason staff change is a dicey proposition; there’s no guarantee of improvement. But it had to happen sometime, because this much seems certain:
Oklahoma’s defense keeps stopping the Sooners short of their goal.