Saturday's loss for the Sooners against Texas A&M wasn't a shock within the limits of college football itself. Oklahoma knew that they were going to be in a dogfight on Saturday and they knew it would take everything that they had to get out of College Station with a win. So, when the Sooners played the worst defensive game of the Stoops era it was only a minor shock that the Sooners came up short, 30-26. The bigger shock is how the Sooners lost the game.
"We never have just wide receivers run through our secondary like we did on Saturday," said defensive end coach and recruiting coordinator Bobby Jack Wright. "We haven't always won every battle on defense and we have let people score on us before, but never have we let wide receivers run uncovered through our secondary like we did against Texas A&M. For the most part we played pretty good defense, but in this game we let a handful of players beat us to a pulp and the way that it happened just leaves your stomach churning it makes you feel so bad."
Bob Stoops' troops have shown remarkable consistency since the Stoops coaching staff took over in 1999. Up until the Aggie game on Saturday, the Sooners had lost only seven ballgames and never had the Sooner secondary had such a meltdown. In fact, Sooner fans have been spoiled by some of the best secondary play in the history of college football.
Roy Williams certainly is regarded as one of the best safeties to play college football and the Sooners secondary effort in the National Championship game against Florida State was awesome. The Sooners have been so good in the secondary that even a tragic automobile accident to then starting cornerback Michael Thompson didn't slow them down. With Thompson gone from last year's starting lineup, Andre Woolfolk stepped in full-time on defense and became one of the best defensive backs in the nation.
Going into this season the Sooner secondary was regarded as one of the very best. if not the very best. Woolfolk and Strait are both projected as first round draft choices and Brandon Everage is one of the nation's best safeties. Both Everage and Strait were just named semi-finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award and the Sooner coaches were angry that Woolfolk didn't make that list. Eric Bassey wasn't Roy Williams at strong safety, but he is very talented and was getting better every game.
Everage was so hot that he was playing as well as any defensive back in the country. In fact, earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week just last week and the week before was named the Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week.
So, nobody, and I mean nobody saw the collapse of the secondary coming. Week after week the secondary has spoiled all of us with their outstanding play and it was something that we have grown accustomed to. There was no reason for us to believe that anything would be any different on Saturday. So when Texas A&M rookie quarterback Reggie McNeal torched the Sooners for four touchdown passes of 61, 40, 17 and 40 yards, hitting wide open receivers running freely through the Sooner secondary, it was not only a shocking sight to all of us, but to the coaches as well.
"It is one thing to give up a touchdown passes, but we were not even contesting those plays and that that shocks me," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops. "We busted on every play so badly that he (McNeal) had an easy throw to a wide open wide receiver just running straight down our secondary. On each play we lined up wrong, busted on the assignment or missed a tackle that cost us the big play."
"We didn't get a great pass rush either, but even if he has an hour to throw they shouldn't have receivers running by themselves through our secondary. I can't ever remember giving up so many big plays in my entire coaching career, based on important players for us making huge mistakes that cost us easy touchdowns. Texas A&M never had to drive the ball to earn anything against us. They got their entire yardage on a handful of big plays and on each play we either busted a major assignment or the tackle that gives them the big play. I would never have thought that would happen against our secondary."
The chilling total is that for 50 plays Texas A&M managed just 65 yards of offense. However, on the other ten Texas A&M posted an amazing 339 yards and four touchdowns against a defense that was regarded by many as the top defense in the country.
However, for weeks Sooner defensive coaches have been harping about being more consistent on defense. The poor defensive performance against Missouri and the start of the second half against Alabama never sat well with the coaches. The Sooner defense played pretty well for the most part against Colorado, but still at times the defense didn't line up right and the defense only earned five out of 12 goals for the game.
"What you look for is a consistent quality effort each and every week from your defense and if you can get that, especially if you have the talent that we have on defense, then you will have a quality defensive effort each and every week on defense," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables. "This season we have been so inconsistent on defense that it has left us vulnerable at times, which left us exposed against Missouri and now Texas A&M. That also happened at times against Alabama."
"If you don't line up right or you misread a play in our defense it can open up a big hole in our defense, or any defense for that matter and that is what happened to us on Saturday" Venables continued. "On those ten plays that A&M had the majority of their success on we had a key bust in the secondary on each play that allowed that big play to happen. If our safety wouldn't blow a coverage, or if our corner would get beat because he had turned the wrong way in his coverage, or if the safety would have provided help when the play called for it, then at the very least we would make the tackle after a completion in the secondary. As it was, give Texas A&M credit because they read our mistakes and jumped on them. They took advantage of something that has never happened to us here until now, a secondary that was beating themselves in the game."
The bottom line is that you really can't pinpoint what happen to the Sooners against the Aggies, except to say that they played terrible on ten plays. The Sooners committed errors they have not committed since Bob Stoops arrived at OU, and thus they gave up big plays like no other time during the Stoops era. You have to write it off as just one of those days.
The Oklahoma defense under Stoops has been dominant and consistent over the years. In the secondary the Sooners have been the best in the country over the last three years and just because they had a bad game they don't change their entire philosophy, and that goes for the entire defense as well.
"Hey, we had a bad game, but we are not going to blow a gasket over it," said junior linebacker Teddy Lehman Monday after practice. "I am frustrated and angry and know we should not have lost that game. We can't sit around and continue to talk about this and continue to sulk over it. We still have a great deal to play for, and because of how well we played before the loss we are still in contention for the Big 12 title and still in contention for the national title."
"We didn't play well against Texas A&M on defense, but that doesn't mean we can't pitch three shutouts the rest of the regular season."
We have talked about the secondary so much that it is easy to overlook the fact that the Sooners aren't getting the kind of pass rush the hoped at the beginning of the year.
"I don't think our pass is anywhere near where we need it to be. Period, that is just plain and simple," said Coach Wright. "We were able to come up with three sacks the other day, but there were to many times during the course of the game that we really didn't get the amount of pressure on the quarterback that we needed to get. He had too much time to stand back there and look for those wide receivers to come open. That's an area, kind of like our coverage, that we were disappointed in. We didn't get the push or pressure that we needed to have during the course of the entire game."
"There were some instances that we pressured him pretty good, and like I said, we came up with three sacks," Wright continued. "Still, there were too many times he was able to get out and run for the first down, or pick up a critical first down because we have a guy that is not in the lane he is supposed to be in. There were just times McNeal was able to just set there flat-footed and wait for somebody to come open. Overall we are disappointed in that as well."
The Sooners tried everything in their playbook in their effort to put pressure on McNeal and to cover in the secondary. The Sooners ran all their blitzes, went with the nickel and dime packages and used both man and zone coverage, and nothing seemed to work.
The coaches will work hard this week on assignment football once again. They totally believe if the players line up right and know their assignments they can play great defense. Just like they have for most of the season.
Some people are puzzled why Oklahoma chose to kickoff at the beginning of the game after Texas A&M had deferred the choice to OU after winning the coin toss. Again, we turn to Coach Wright to explain the decision.
"The wind was really coming hard and we just felt the wind would really be an advantage," said Wright. "Our whole thinking was that we would like to pin these guys down here and make them punt into this wind and get a short field for us to work with offensively. Hey, it actually worked pretty well for us. They were able to drive the ball a little on that first drive and they pinned us, but we were able to drive the ball ourselves a little bit. We got an interception two series later and got exactly what we wanted to at that point. Again, our thinking was that the wind was such a factor we were willing to give up a possession just for the opportunity to have the wind going into their face early in the ballgame. That really didn't have any effect in the ballgame."
"The one thing that everybody needs to not lose sight of is the fact that we went ahead 10-0," Wright continued. "We had the game in control. Things were going our way and we felt pretty good about everything. I wonder if we didn't relax a little bit when we got ahead and felt a little too comfortable. We got up 10-0 and we are thinking, ‘Okay, this is working just like it normally works.' And then they had a big one on us and the momentum completely changes, as will happen in a college football game. We felt like we had the momentum and everything was going our way, which it was. We come back and our offense puts together a great drive and we have to settle for a field goal, but we are still up 13-6 after they missed their extra point. So, we are still feeling pretty confident with just a little over a minute left in the half and then lightening strikes and we go into the locker room tied 13-13. What we did with the coin toss didn't have much to do with the outcome of the game. We gave them one extra possession, that we actually got back through turnovers and we felt it was worth it to get the wind early in the game."
Another factor in the Sooners loss was their lack of success in the red zone. The Sooners were only one-for-four in getting the ball in the end zone from the red zone, settling for three field goals.
"I am not going to panic because we have been very good in the red zone all year," said Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long after the game. "We have been a good red zone team and we have been running the ball well inside the red zone all season. Our improved running game has been a big help to us in the red zone. We tried to run on them early in the down sequence and they did a good job of stopping us, forcing us into passing situation. Then they covered us pretty well and we just didn't get it in. If anything we might look at our play sequence and make sure we are not predictable, but for the most part we have been pretty successful this season in the red zone doing what we did against Texas A&M."
On Monday the Sooners went to work to refine their red zone game and work a good portion of the practice on this critical aspect of their game.
"The last two weeks we had four field goals in each game and that was potentially eight scoring changes of 56 points, where we have made 6-of-8 field goals for 18 points," said Run Game Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach Kevin Wilson. "We just haven't taken advantage of all of our opportunities to get points on the board. We allowed Texas A&M to stay with us and those big plays that they hit, because it was a one play game, became big plays. We didn't put them away. We have not had a rushing touchdown the last two games. We have run the ball well between the twenties, but we have not had a rushing touchdown."
"We need to run it a little bit better," Wilson continued. "The tight zone passing is so tough, because the zones get constricted and the safeties don't have to play deep. It takes a lot of the routes out of your package. We are looking at our route passing game, but we like what we do. We just have to protect a little harder and get some run game mix in there and just need to finish. We just didn't execute and it is not necessarily that we question what we are doing. We just need to do it better."
Another sad fact out of the Texas A&M game was the fact that senior offensive guard Brad Davis suffered a broken fibula and may be out the rest of the season. He is expected to miss 6 to 8 weeks, but might make it back for the Sooners bowl game.
Davis is one of the great stories in college football, because when it looked like he would never play at a big-time college he never gave up his dream and made it pay off by starting as a senior. Early in his career Davis was buried deep on the depth chart and many times there was speculation that he should transfer to a smaller school, just so he could find some playing time.
However, last season Davis took advantage of the lack of depth in the offensive line to earn some playing time as a back-up for then offensive line coach Mark Mangino. Davis expanded his game and learned how to play center as well as offensive guard, which made him more valuable to Coach Mangino.
Then, Davis caught the break of his life when Coach Mangino took the Kansas Head Coach position and Coach Wilson was hired to take his place.
Coach Wilson immediately came to Norman saying that he wanted to transform the Sooner offensive line into a physical offensive line and that was right up Davis' alley. Davis is the most physical lineman on the Sooner squad and he already had the reputation as the best run blocker. Since Wilson wanted to improve the Sooner running back a perfect marriage was born.
Now, his Sooner playing career may be over, but Coach Wilson says that no matter what he will keep the player he affectionately calls ‘Sauce' involved with the offensive line.
"It is a shame, but at the same time Brad has a lot to be thankful for," said Coach Wilson. "Brad was on the sideline during the game telling me that he didn't want his career to end this way and I told him that, yeah he did. I told him he had no regrets that he was playing his best and having fun and other than getting hurt right now I asked him what would he change? He said nothing and I think that is how you want to end things. A lot of guys that play this game or do a lot of things in their life, wish they could do those things again. Brad's career might have been tough on him early, but he continued to work and he grew as a player."
"He has been special to us this year and we are going to keep using him," Wilson continued. "Shoot, he was in our meeting today. He got operated on yesterday morning and he was at our meeting today. He is a special guy who just brings us some toughness and excitement to everything that we do. We have talked to our group and told them that we don't need to miss that."
"As a group, I don't know if we go to one guy or maybe each of us need to lift us up, because he lifted us up each day at practice or during a game. What a special kid Brad is, who always plays hard and has fun. To me, we take so many things for granted in our life and to me Brad is such a great blessing this year because of taking advantage of what has been a special senior year."
Now the question is how do the Sooners replace Davis?
"The thought process is to keep Kelvin (Chaisson) in there at left guard," said Wilson. "He did a good job for us there against South Florida when Brad got hurt and that has been a great competition there. I think that you can see that now that some water has been over the dam that South Florida had a pretty good defensive front. He got challenged at A&M and played all but eight plays. That was a hostile environment against an excellent defensive group and he played well. So, Kelvin will play there at left guard."
"We will keep Davin (Joseph) at right guard with Mike Skinner, but we will probably look to rotate Mike at the left guard some," Wilson continued. "Instead of going 50-50 with Mike and Davin, that will increase Mike's reps and take a little bit off of Kelvin's plate. That leaves Kelvin as the starter and Mike as the starter and that looked pretty good today. We will see how that goes and that will be based on how Mike handles that position. I just don't want to mess with them young guys, by moving them around. Shoot, that one drive when we are down 30-23 we have to three sophomores and two freshman and we are going down the field. We didn't get it done with a touchdown, but it looked pretty good there. Mike is a senior and three-year starter and we will ask him to be the swing guy."
This way the Sooners continue to build for the future, while they work to win today.
"Yeah, that is exactly correct. Mike has been playing very well with Davin pushing him and I think all of you can see that Davin could be a special offensive lineman," said Wilson. "I just think it is a good idea to not mess with him. Kelvin has come in and played big in those two games and also played well against Missouri. He was my starter in the spring for a reason, because he is a pretty good football player. Let's leave him alone and let's leave Davin alone and let's see if Mike a mature player can be the swing player. It will increase the reps of all three players if it works out and we have Chris Bush if we need him and Jarrod Barclay as well. I am not that worried about it, I think we are going to be okay."
Once again the Sooner football team was very classy in defeat. Bob Stoops met the media head on and answered every question, just like all the assistant coaches and players. There was no bulletin board material from those press conferences and once again the Sooners showed just as much class when they lose as when they win.
Finally, congratulations to senior running back Quentin Griffin. ‘Q' was the best Sooner on the field on Saturday finishing with 141 yards and several amazing runs. ‘Q' is the first running back to go over the 1,000 yard mark in the Stoops era. I am sure he won't be the last, but I think we can finally agree with former OU quarterback Josh Heupel, who said recently "Sooner fans may get frustrated with ‘Q' for whatever reason, but I promise they will miss him when he is gone."
When I think of the future I am already missing ‘Q', because no matter how you slice it, he is the best running back the Sooners have.
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