NORMAN, Okla. — As Chuba Hubbard rumbled through a trio of Sooners defenders into the end zone for yet another Oklahoma State touchdown, the boos came cascading down from the Owen Field bleachers. Boos, presumably, directed at the Oklahoma defense.
If OU fans feel this way about their own team’s defense, imagine what the College Football Playoff selection committee has to be thinking.
Once again on Saturday, Bedlam delivered another high-scoring thriller, which was finally decided by OSU’s failed two-point conversion try. With the 48-47 victory, the Sooners kept their Big 12 title and playoff dreams alive. But such a dismal defensive performance, woeful even by OU’s rapidly declining standards, raised two questions for the Sooners: With this porous of a defense, can OU win at No. 8 West Virginia in two weeks, then defeat the Mountaineers again (or No. 13 Iowa State or No. 18 Texas) in the Big 12 championship?
And even then, would a one-loss conference champ, owning unarguably the worst defense of any legitimate contender of the playoff era, still be worthy of a playoff bid?
“It’s a window-dressing thing to get in this playoff,” Sooners interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill conceded. “I know that’s a part of it now — being a complete team.”
Of which OU is anything but. That was on full display in Bedlam.
The not-even-bowl-eligible-yet Cowboys generated 39 first downs, which is the most any team has put up on an FBS defense this season. OSU produced an astounding 20 first downs on first-and-10 alone. All told, the Cowboys finished with 640 yards of offense and averaged a whopping 7.4 yards per play.
All the more distressing for the Sooners, OSU didn’t even have arguably its best offensive playmaker in running back Justice Hill, who barely saw the field because of a rib injury. Coach Mike Gundy admitted afterward to the Tulsa World that the Cowboys had to trash roughly 15-20 percent of their playbook after Hill went out in the first quarter.
And yet, that didn’t slow them down.
OSU wide receivers Tylan Wallace and Tyron Johnson repeatedly destroyed OU’s hapless defensive backs on an array of routes. And quarterback Taylor Cornelius threw for 501 yards, the most the Sooners have ever allowed in Bedlam, even though he underthrew wide-open receivers on multiple occasions.
Both OU coach Lincoln Riley and McNeill still championed the Sooners’ ability to get “critical stops” late in the game, and to some degree that was true.
Midway through the fourth quarter, defensive tackle Neville Gallimore forced a Hubbard fumble that linebacker Kenneth Murray recovered, which led to the OU touchdown drive that proved to be the game winner.
Yet on the ensuing possession, Cornelius came back to find Wallace between three OU defenders for a 24-yard touchdown on fourth-and-12, setting up the failed game-deciding two-point try.
“Critical stops, if that’s a category,” McNeill said, making the case for where his defense has succeeded. “Maybe somebody should look that up, critical stops. Stopping two-point plays is pretty big, I think.”
Thing is, Wallace was wide-open on the conversion attempt. And had Cornelius not badly underthrown the rollout pass, OSU would’ve taken the lead, putting the onus back on Kyler Murray and the OU offense yet again to deliver.
“We had a shot at it,” Gundy said. “Just didn’t make a good throw.”
Gundy’s explanation underscored why this was so glaringly different from OU’s wild, high-scoring victories over Texas Tech in 2016 and OSU last season. That Tech quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, might be the current NFL MVP favorite. And that OSU quarterback, Mason Rudolph, is the school’s all-time leading passer. It was one thing for those two to light up the Sooners. It was quite another for Cornelius, a former walk-on who has been up and down this season, to do it. Not that he’s alone. Just last week, the Red Raiders put up 46 on the Sooners, even after losing starting quarterback Alan Bowman to a recurring lung injury at halftime.
“We can’t give up 50 points and be a playoff defense, be a playoff team,” linebacker Curtis Bolton said. “We’ve got to get better. We’re still trying to figure that out.”
Figuring that out in mid-November seems insurmountable at this point.
Riley already fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. And yet, the numbers suggest that the defense has been even more dreadful since.
In six games with Stoops as coordinator, OU posted a defensive efficiency rating of 46.7. In four games under McNeill, that has plummeted to 41.9; among Power 5 teams, only North Carolina, Baylor, Rutgers, Ole Miss, Louisville, Illinois and Oregon State have a lower defensive efficiency rating than that.
“It’s tough, it’s tough on the players,” McNeill said. “It bothers you, it hurts you. But you’ve got to move on. Forget it and drive on.
“You’ve just got to win by one.”
Whether by one or more, the Sooners do keep winning, which is what ultimately trumps all to the selection committee. And for all its defensive failings, OU continues to boast a defensible case for playoff inclusion, thanks to its offense.
Behind Murray, who remains on pace to shatter Baker Mayfield’s FBS passing efficiency record from last year, the Sooners feature the top attack in college football. For the third consecutive game, they finished with at least 300 yards passing and rushing, which is tied for the second-longest FBS streak of the past 15 seasons.
The Sooners also are the only team in the nation to win two conference games when giving up more than 45 points — and they’ve done it the past two weeks. The rest of the country is 2-86 when surrendering more than 45 points in a conference game, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
That is why the case is just as defensible to exclude the Sooners from the playoff, where “eye test” is paramount and “four best teams” is the prevailing determining factor.
In the majority of advanced metrics, which the selection committee examines extensively, the Sooners sit near the bottom of the FBS defensively.
Specifically, the OU defense ranks 96th in yards per passing attempt, 79th in yards per reception after contact, 119th in interceptions per passing attempt, 101st in adjusted completion percentage, 70th on disrupted dropbacks (sacks/interceptions/tipped, batted and defended passes), 101st on points per drive, 121st in third-down conversion rate on rushes, 85th on third downs, 109th on fourth downs, next to last on defensive fumble recoveries (that recovery Saturday was the defense’s first of the season) and absolutely dead last in red zone efficiency.
In other words, if their offense doesn’t score seven touchdowns, the Sooners are capable of losing. That was true last month against Texas, which knocked off OU 48-45. And it was true in last year’s playoff game against Georgia, which scored at will after halftime on the way to a 54-48 overtime victory.
“That’s the standard — go score every time you get the ball,” Murray said when asked about the pressure his offense faces seemingly weekly. “Is it impossible to do? No. But it’s pretty damn hard to do.”
That’s the way OU has to win, at least against good opponents, never mind the great ones.
Should the Sooners keep on winning, the selection committee will have to decide if that’s enough. And whether a team worthy of consideration on only one side of the ball is really worthy at all.