Last year, as the Oklahoma University offense made its assault on the national record books, the team’s defense was afforded a good bit of breathing room, the security that comes with knowing that perfection is not always required when your offensive teammates were regularly putting up 60-plus points.
But with the Sooners’ offense struggling to find its way through the first six games this season — which will happen when you lose a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Sam Bradford and All-America tight end in Jermaine Gresham — the defense has been looked upon to keep the team afloat.
And up to this point, it has done its best to do so.
Entering today’s 2:30 p.m. matchup with No. 24 Kansas University, the Sooners have emerged as arguably the nation’s top defensive unit, ranking third nationally in scoring defense and eighth in total defense despite suffering through an early-season schedule that has included games against three teams currently ranked in the top 16.
“It’s a very good defensive unit, there’s no question about it,” Kansas University coach Mark Mangino said. “It’s the same aggressive style that OU always plays on defense.”
And nowhere is this more apparent than on the Oklahoma defensive line.
While the defensive fronts of most teams across the country are filled with nondescript oafs, the Sooners’ line is a collection of household names, guys who have traditionally found their way onto various all-league and All-America teams.
Gerald McCoy, the defensive tackle from Oklahoma City, will in all likelihood be a top-10 NFL Draft pick this spring, for instance. Auston English, a defensive end, was last year’s preseason Big 12 defensive player of the year before suffering a mid-season knee injury that kept him out of three games. And fellow end and All-Big 12 selection Jeremy Beal, after leading OU in sacks and tackles for loss last season, is ninth in the nation in sacks this year.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Sooners rank fifth nationally in rush defense, allowing just 68.3 yards per game, and are fourth in sacks — rankings that should catch the attention of a Kansas offensive line that is coming off its worst showing of the season in last week’s loss to Colorado.
“Our coaches definitely take a lot of pride in playing great defense here, so I think the pressure’s been there all along to hold ourselves to a certain standard,” English said. “And that standard hasn’t changed. We still want to play dominating defense and control the game.”
So far this season, things have not gone as expected for the Sooners. The nation’s third-ranked team in the preseason, OU stumbled out of the gates when Bradford went down because of a shoulder injury in the team’s season-opening loss to BYU. Bradford returned in week five, but re-injured the shoulder against Texas the following week, and by the time the dust had settled, a preseason national title contender was sitting at 3-3.
If nothing else, however, players take solace in the fact that, despite last week’s 16-13 loss to third-ranked UT, a fourth straight Big 12 title is still very much a possibility.
“Right now, it’s obviously disappointing losing three games, but we’ve just got to get ready for the next one and put everything we can into it, and when it’s done, go on to the next one, and keep this thing going,” English said. “So far, we haven’t won two games in a row this year, so it’ll be something to look forward to, to get on track and get a rhythm going.”