Baker Mayfield's heroics in the Horseshoe and precocious head coach Lincoln Riley received most of the ink following Oklahoma's impressive win over Ohio State last Saturday. The far bigger surprise of the evening, however, was the showing by coordinator Mike Stoops' much-maligned Sooner defense.
A year earlier, the Buckeyes bullied OU with a punishing ground game. They also hit on big passing plays downfield as they cruised to a blowout win in Norman.
OSU found much tougher sledding in the 2017 matchup, generating just 5.1 yards per offensive play, down from 6.5 a year earlier.
The performance of Oklahoma’s D against Ohio State validated some of the cautious optimism about that side of the ball before the season started. What are the keys to the turnaround?
1. Right cornerback
A year ago, OSU racked up 83 of its 152 passing yards and scored three TDs by picking on OU's beleaguered tandem of Parrish Cobb and Michiah Quick at right cornerback. It was a running theme through the first half of the season, as opponents such as Houston and TCU went after the position repeatedly. True freshman Jordan Parker took over in the fifth game of the season versus Texas and immediately upgraded the spot, which had a big hand in solidifying the defense the rest of the way.
This year, Parnell Motley wrestled the job away from Parker in the offseason, and the lanky redshirt freshman has played stellar ball through two games. Against OSU, he picked off a J.T. Barrett throw on a diving interception in the second half that helped seal the victory for the Sooners.
Motley and Jordan Thomas, OU’s senior star cover man, will face more difficult challenges as the Sooners begin to face the precision passing games of the Big 12. So far, though, they look like the best pair of corners in the conference.
2. A deeper defensive line
While offseason analysis of OU’s defense zeroed in on a supposed shift to 4-3 base scheme, the Sooners came out against the Buckeyes in the three-man front that they have deployed for the majority of Stoops’ second stint as defensive coordinator. Although it’s fair to question how OU’s individual players on the defensive line fit into an odd-man look, it’s tough to argue with the results against OSU. Notably, the Buckeyes’ yards per carry average fell from 6.1 in their 2016 meeting to 4.9.
The emergence of Marquise Overton has helped key the surge up front. The 6-foot-1, 295-pound nose tackle is rotating with senior Matt Romar after missing most of the 2016 campaign with an injury, and he has more than held his own. Meanwhile, Neville Gallimore has continued to grow as a 4-technique defensive end who can stuff the run and even chase down ball carriers on runs and screens outside.
When former four-star lineman Amani Bledsoe joins the rotation in a couple weeks, the unit could emerge as the strength of the D.
3. A pleasant freshman surprise
Early enrollee Kenneth Murray drew rave reviews from OU’s coaching staff during spring football, and the freshman’s strong start carried over to preseason practices. An injury to redshirt freshman Jon-Michael Terry opened the door for Murray to take over as starting middle linebacker. The young Texan slammed it shut and has proved himself as a capable replacement for Jordan Evans, the squad’s leading tackler in 2016 who’s now impressing as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Murray came off as slightly tentative in the Sooners’ season-opening win against UTEP, but he quickly found his groove in week two. He notched five tackles and a quarterback hurry versus the Buckeyes and looked solid in coverage.
For now, the anxiety about Evans’ departure has subsided thanks to Murray’s play in his first two games as a Sooner.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.