Q&A with Merv Johnson

Oklahoma's director of football operations talks about the Sooners' win over Bolwing Green.

Sooner fans got their first glimpse of the 2004 edition of ‘Big Red' football on September 4 against Bowling Green. Oklahoma beat a pretty solid Falcon team 40 – 24, and we sat down with Merv Johnson, Director of Football Operations at Oklahoma, a few days later to discuss the game and what it might mean for the season.

OUINSIDER: Merv, you told us a few months ago that this one was going to be much tougher than what most fans expected. Why did you think that?

JOHNSON: Bowling Green returned a lot of experience, 18 – 19 starters from a team that went 11 and 3 a year ago when they beat Purdue, Northwestern and stayed within a touchdown of Ohio State, losing late 14 – 7 in Columbus. Over the past few years they're 6 – 1 vs Big Ten and Big 12 teams, so it was pretty easy to see that this was no cup cake game.

Their receiving corps was rated as the third best in the nation, right behind Michigan and our own, The only question anyone had was the loss of their outstanding quarterback. But just as we predicted a few months ago, Omar Jacobs came in here and gave a pretty good account of him self. Of all the quarterbacks I saw this weekend, only Jason White was better.

OUINSIDER: How did you grade the offensive line's first outing?

JOHNSON: They did a nice job. There were some huge holes and the line walled off the front seven for most of the game. I have a tremendous respect for the Bowling Green secondary, They had some great plays that kept them in the game. They kind of took the approach to protect with their secondary and that pretty well limited the opportunities for them to blitz. But overall I think the line did an outstanding job.

OUINSIDER: After the interception and touchdown, the Falcons were only behind by thirteen. The Sooners then went on one of the longest scoring drives I've seen on Owen Field in a while.

JOHNSON: Yes, that was a great job. How long did we hold the ball in the fourth quarter, thirteen minutes? It's one thing to dominate when things are totally going your way. But when you get in a real fist fight and respond with dominance through execution play after play, now that means something. By that I'm talking about a drive going 12, 13, 15 plays or more. One mistake can end it, and that's why they are so rare. It's responding to pressure and it speaks volumes about teamwork, coaching and execution.

OUINSIDER: How about the play at quarterback?

JOHNSON: We really witnessed a pretty remarkable performance on the part of both quarterbacks. Jason White is the best in the country, I guarantee you that. But I didn't see another one this weekend any better than Omar Jacobs. And I don't mean just how he threw, but how he handled the game and his team in his first start. It was pretty amazing.

OUINSIDER: Jason was 21 of 31 for 238 yards and three touchdowns. At this point in his career, it may be too easy to take him for granted. We hear a lot of critical comments when he makes a mistake, and very little mentioned when he does everything well.

JOHNSON: Right. He threw to eight or nine different receivers and threw with that incredible accuracy that perhaps we do take for granted. But I was most impressed with how comfortable he looked Saturday. Not rattled, waiting on his routes, playing within himself. His confident demeanor is very impressive and it carries over to his team mates, (and the other team), pretty quickly.

OUINSIDER: Speaking of the receiving corps, their downfield blocking was almost as impressive as the ability to haul in passes.

JOHNSON: They obviously take pride in it. Travis Wilson has become an excellent blocker, Will Peoples, Brandon Jones, they all did well. I think that's one more reason why the Bowling Green secondary impressed me. Here they were, getting blocked all over the field, yet they were able to recover and still make some good tackles. I promise you, we'll see some teams this year that won't do that nearly as well.

OUINSIDER: There were plans to give three backs the majority of the snaps, but in the end, for whatever reason, Jones and Peterson got the bulk (48) of the carries. What did you think about their play?

JOHNSON: They're different types of backs that compliment each other, and our team, very well. Kejuan had a really nice game. Adrian looked tentative early, but when he got mentally comfortable I think we saw a different player. As the game progressed he seemed to settle down and gain confidence. In the end he emerged as a far better player than he was at the start of the game. It's almost as if we saw the transformation from high school to college player in front of us over a two hour span.

OUINSIDER: The fact that they are different, and will eventually settle into roles and patterns, will these tendencies become somewhat predicable and tend to ‘tip' our opponent off later in the year?

JOHNSON: Yes, probably. But good luck. You still have Jason and those receivers to deal with, and that's enough to make you stay pretty honest, particularly if we mix up the play calling a bit.

OUINSIDER: Looked like J.D. Runnells was back to his old self. What was that, like ten pancakes?

JOHNSON: J.D. is a very good, unselfish football player who takes pride in details and perfection. Of course it doesn't hurt that he can literally knock someone senseless. But I also noticed that our tight ends played pretty well. Their assignments and J.D.'s are somewhat similar, until J.D. lines up in front of the tailback. But those two picked up and handled all the motion calls and walled off pretty well on sweeps.

OUINSIDER: There was some concern about the Sooners pass rush, can you give us your assessment?

JOHNSON: Their system was designed to eliminate a lot of risk in the passing game, and it's predicated on getting the ball away before a pass rush can penetrate. They move the pocket, throw very quickly, ‘dink' and ‘dunk' you to death. Very similar to what we were doing several years ago. Many times we were only rushing three and dropping eight. While that pretty well eliminates a pass rush, it also takes away the offense.

A better way to look at it would be yards vs completions. When you study that you can really measure if your defense had a productive or just an average day. Those stats say we were effective, so the pass rush is really a non issue. The worst thing I can say about our defensive play was perhaps a couple of penalties. Other than that it was solid. There was one mistake down on the goal line, but other than that, if I'm Brent, I'm pretty pleased.

OUINSIDER: A couple of defenders really stood out Saturday. Let me mention Rufus Alexander and Brandon Shelby as two that appeared to look very good.

JOHNSON: Rufus showed more of what we saw just before he was injured a little over a year ago. He was more physical, made some abrupt stops, and looked very confident and sure of himself. I'd say he's back.

Brandon Shelby is always a real menace out there. Jacobs was pointing to him every time he showed ‘blitz.' And when you get inside the quarterbacks head like that you've already done part of your job before the ball is ever snapped.

OUINSIDER: What would you say about our play at defensive end?

JOHNSON: It was effective and disruptive, particularly because of Cody, although Jackson gave a good account as well. They both created a lot of problems for the offense. Those guys are really effective, partly because they don't allow the offense to get them out of position. Birdine and Thibodeaux also played well, and got in a lot faster than I thought they would. Some of that may well be due to the heat, but neither one disappointed when they did go in.

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