OU football: Why the defense looked different — and it was definitely different good
NORMAN — Marquez Stevenson caught the short pass, turned and headed up field.
He didn’t get far.
Kenneth Murray hit the Houston receiver and didn’t bounce off like so many Oklahoma defenders did last season. Didn’t just bring Stevenson to the ground either.
Murray knocked him off his feet.
On the night we finally got to see the new Sooner defense, it showed itself improved, too. It wasn’t perfect in a 49-31 victory over Houston. But it was definitely improved.
From the get go, you could see — this was different.
And it started with that second snap of the season. Murray's tackle was indicative of a defense that was not only more aggressive but also more under control. That might seem like a fine line for Alex Grinch — how do you crank up the fury but limit the crazy? — but the new Sooner defensive coordinator has walked the line.
The evidence was everywhere.
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The OU defense forced punts on Houston’s first four possessions of the game. Three of those possessions were three-and-outs.
That kind of thing happened rarely a year ago. The Sooners might force a couple punts in a row or get a three-and-out here or there, but four consecutive punts?
Eight times last season, OU forced only four punts in an entire game.
Listen, I understand Houston isn’t a world beater. The Cougars have a solid team. They’ll win lots of games in the American Athletic Conference with D’Eriq King running the offense and Dana Holgorsen calling the plays.
But they’d be a middle-of-the-road team, at best, in the Big 12.
There’ll be much tougher tests for this OU defense.
Still, Sunday night was a good step.
For as good as the Sooners started, their best possession of the first half may well have been the Cougars’ last one. After OU turned the ball over near midfield, Houston popped the defense in the mouth. A 5-yard pass followed by a 30-yard one.
The Sooners found themselves on their heels. With less than two minutes left in the half, they were only ahead 14 points. Even though they’d dominated both sides of the ball throughout the first half, they faced the very real possibility of going into halftime leading by only one touchdown.
But on the next three plays, the Sooners tightened up.
Ronnie Perkins and Marquise Overton combined to stop a Houston ball carrier for a 1-yard gain. Perkins was back at it on second down, stopping King after only a couple yards. On third down, the Sooners forced an incompletion with Pat Fields providing good coverage in the end zone.
The Cougars settled for a field goal.
Houston never threatened again to make a real game of it.
All told, Houston managed 408 yards, but the Cougars rolled up 187 of those in the fourth quarter when the Sooners were well in control. King was only 14 of 27 for 167 yards and had 103 yards on 15 carries.
The OU defense had three sacks and seven tackles for loss. Maybe best of all, the Sooners' missed tackles could be counted on one hand.
Now, the defense wasn’t perfect. Grinch talked earlier this week about the importance of causing turnovers, saying he’d be disappointed if his defense had less than two takeaways.
Consider him disappointed — the Sooners had none.
There were also moments when the cringe-worthy defense of yesteryear showed its ugly face. And I do mean ugly. Midway through the third quarter, Houston put together a 12-play touchdown drive that was aided by OU mistakes.
Worse, they were unforced errors.
Fields had an unnecessary pass interference, throwing his arm out at a receiver when the ball was sailing well beyond them.
Then a few plays later, Neville Gallimore was flagged for a personal foul after he hit King well after the quarterback had thrown the ball. Gallimore was held on the play, which would’ve backed up the Cougars, but after his frustration got the best of him, his penalty negated the Houston hold.
Fields drew another personal foul penalty moments later, hitting another receiver when the ball was already past them and the action was essentially over.
Those sorts of things are killers.
But on Sunday night, they didn’t cost the Sooners a victory, and when the defense got a fourth-down stop — remember what those look like? — the first person off the sideline to greet the defense was Lincoln Riley. The Sooner coach pumped his fists up and down.
Yep, things looked different with this defense.
Not perfect, but different. And better. Much better.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.