Sooners defense has changed a lot since last year’s shootout
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If West Virginia's football team is at all intimidated by having to go into Norman, Okla., Saturday night and play No. 16 Oklahoma, perhaps it would settle the Mountaineers down to simply watch the tape of last year's game between the teams in Morgantown.
After all, the Sooners went into that one ranked even higher (by three spots) and in many ways more settled. They had an offense that was led by a four-year starter at quarterback, a tackle who would go in the top four picks in the NFL draft and two receivers good enough to be picked in that same draft. OU's defense wasn't lights out, by any means, but it seemed competent.
And all the then-reeling Mountaineers did was put up 49 points on the Sooners at Mountaineer Field and come within a whisker of winning, losing by a point.
So, if nothing else, there is clear evidence just sitting there in the video room attesting to what West Virginia is capable of doing against Oklahoma, right? Just put it up on the screen.
"We haven't watched that tape,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said Tuesday. "We won't watch that tape.''
Of course, there's good reason for that.
Aside from the fact that West Virginia scored nearly half a hundred in that game with a dramatically different cast of characters, there was also the element of surprise. That was the game that Holgorsen moved Tavon Austin into the backfield and took advantage of an Oklahoma defensive scheme heavily weighted toward rushing the passer and defending the throws that Geno Smith did manage to get off. It left the middle of the field open for a runner of Austin's shiftiness to run wild if he got past that pass rush.
And he did, gaining a school-record 344 rushing yards. Oklahoma never adjusted.
Holgorsen referred to it Tuesday as "a perfect storm.'' And in addition to the fact that Austin is no longer around, the Sooners have addressed the flaw in their scheme - essentially a one-linebacker alignment - that allowed it to happen.
"Yeah,'' Holgorsen said when asked if he thought Oklahoma had corrected the defensive oversight. "I would imagine immediately.''
Indeed, since that game and a couple of others after that in which the Sooner defense was torched - Oklahoma State scored 48 a week later, Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M hung 41 in the Cotton Bowl and those three teams combined for 1,901 yards - Oklahoma has made some changes. The most significant is a shift toward more of a 3-3-5 alignment. At times last year the Sooners would play a four-man line and seven defensive backs, leaving that huge gap in the middle.
It's just a small sampling, of course, but so far, so good. In Oklahoma's opener last week against Louisiana-Monroe - the same team that beat Arkansas and lost by a combined eight points to Auburn and Baylor in recent years - the Sooners pitched their first shutout since 2010 and held the Warhawks to 166 yards.
Mike Stoops, OU's defensive coordinator and brother of head coach Bob Stoops, knows his defense won't always be as good as it was against ULM, but he also hopes it will never be as bad as it was against WVU.
"It was disappointing and frustrating. It happens. It happens to everybody,'' Stoops said of last year's game in Morgantown, in which the Sooners gave up a school-record 778 yards. "Football is a very humbling game, and as good as we were the other night [against ULM], we were equally as bad that night.
"You're usually somewhere in between. We weren't that bad and we're not always going to be as good as we were the other night. You want to be somewhere in between.''
Stoops isn't shy about where to place the blame for what happened in Morgantown.
"I didn't put players in good enough positions as a coach to make plays, and that's frustrating,'' he said. "It was a long, difficult night. But between that night and what happened in the bowl game, it obviously convinced us that we need to adjust our defense and be more flexible and diverse."
The West Virginia offense Oklahoma will face this week, of course, is far different from last year's version. The Mountaineers, sans virtually all of their playmakers from last season, struggled to score enough to beat William & Mary 24-17. They are working in a new quarterback and almost all new skill-position players.
Stoops can see all of that, but he still won't underestimate the Mountaineers.
"I think this is a different team, but I don't think you can judge much by the William & Mary game,'' Stoops said. "They were very vanilla. They have a lot more offense than they showed in that game, so it's a tough preparation.
"They worked us pretty good a year ago. They run the ball and they have some pretty good backs. They moved Tavon Austin back there. They have a pretty solid running game and they throw the ball. He's always throwing the ball. They throw a lot of good screens, and they're going to try to attempt [to negate] some of our aggressive play, and that's where we're going to have to be smart and be able to counter it. That's really what plans are all about. They're going to try to take away what we do well, and we're going to take away what they do well. That's what football is all about."
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.