OU football: Sooners' secondary much improved — but Cyclones present a major challenge in Big 12 championship
ARLINGTON, Texas — Pat Fields dropped to his knees as his hands went to his head in disbelief.
The OU safety had just dropped a potential interception of Iowa State’s Brock Purdy in the first quarter of the Oct. 3 game.
Fields’ exasperation — both in that moment and in the postgame press conference — was emblematic of the kind of night the Sooners’ secondary had in a 37-30 Cyclones win that night in Ames.
OU gets another shot at Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship Game at 11 a.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium.
This time, the Sooners figure to be better-equipped for success in the secondary.
A week after the first meeting appeared to be a breakthrough for the Sooners.
Though some of the same issues were present in the quadruple-overtime win over Texas, namely finishing off games and tackling in those late situations, things started taking a turn for the better.
First, the Sooners added depth on the back end.
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Freshman D.J. Graham made his collegiate debut against the Longhorns and his role has steadily grown since. Redshirt freshmen Woodi Washington and Jeremiah Criddell had played early in the season but their share of playing time rose significantly beginning in the Red River Showdown. Tre Norwood’s playing time has expanded.
“When you go back to that game, it was basically a one-deep situation for us,” Sooners’ defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said of the secondary. “Now we feel more comfortable putting more individuals in the game. But ultimately the challenge is still there.”
The Sooners struggled with tackling all over the field against the Cyclones, but the problems in that department were most apparent on the back end, helping Iowa State star Breece Hall to put up 139 rushing yards.
They’ve been better in that department as well.
“Trusting our technique and letting it rip,” Norwood said of the key to being better tacklers lately. “Tackling, that’s all a mindset. That’s all a mentality.”
Along with the buying in by the defense into Grinch’s “Speed D” system, which is built on allowing players to play without overthinking things, has come the fruits of Grinch’s primary focus since his arrival.
Fields’ dropped interception against the Cyclones was one of two he had in that game, continuing a troubling trend.
In Grinch’s first 17 games with the Sooners, his defense managed to force just 13 turnovers.
Now, OU is finishing off the chances that had been coming, but hadn’t been finished during the early part of Grinch’s tenure. In the last six games, the Sooners have forced 11 turnovers — nine by interception.
Then there are the penalties.
Against Iowa State, the OU secondary was flagged six times for 63 yards plus another pass-interference call that negated a Cyclones’ penalty.
Three of those seven total flags — pass interference and defensive holding calls — came while the Sooners were defending big Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar. All of those flags came near the end zone, turning potential stops into field goals and potential field goals into touchdowns.
“There really isn’t an alternative,” Fields said after that game. “You’re guarding guys who are 6-6, 6-5. If we’re not that physical, it’s probably going to be a catch.”
While the Sooners don’t have any defensive backs with the size to match Kolar, but they are a bigger secondary overall, and the movement of 6-foot-2 Robert Barnes back to safety could give OU an additional way to combat Kolar.
But while the first game was close and the problems in the secondary were apparent, and plenty of progress has been made in all of those areas since, the Cyclones still present plenty of challenges.
“I couldn’t be more impressed with Kolar. I couldn’t be more impressed with their ability to use matchups, their ability to make plays and obviously they have a quarterback that has the ability to extend plays and probably is unique when you look at their sack totals on the year,” Grinch said.
“Whoever is on the field is going to have a major challenge. To suggest that with more bodies the degree of difficulty goes down, that would be inaccurate. With that, though, rep counts can change but we’ll certainly put more guys on the field over 60 minutes of a ballgame that we were several months ago.”