The Oklahoma offense and Baker Mayfield get so much attention that the defense gets discounted in many quarters. It’s easy to forget the defense was constructed under Bob Stoops, the recently retired coach who has a defensive background ― and a national championship ring.
The final score of the 2001 Orange Bowl, which gave Stoops and the Sooners the national title: 13-2.
But that was before the Big 12 exploded into an offensive showcase. The last Big 12 defense to finish even in the top 20 nationally was TCU in 2014 ― and the Horned Frogs were only 18th. This year TCU is 19th heading into the bowl season. No Big 12 defense has finished in the top 10 since 2011.
Oklahoma enters the 2017 bowl season ranked 57th nationally, yielding 384.8 yards per game, which is mid-tier in the Big 12 (fourth out of 10). So what should Georgia make of the Sooners’ not-quite-respected defense when they meet in College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1? We spoke to some stars on other teams who have faced the unit:
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett: “I’d probably say one of the main things is they’re more physical than what you think on film. And then the speed. They have some speed over there. I think those two things stood out.”
When Oklahoma won at Ohio State, 31-16, on Sept. 9, Barrett was sacked 3 times. He finished the game with 183 passing yards and was picked off once, while rushing for 66 yards. It was one of the worst games of the year for Barrett, who averages 8.3 yards per attempt but averaged only 5.2 in that game.
Barrett: “They’ve got some guys flying around the ball. And even the linebackers, they like to roam. That’s why they play that three-down front, so those guys can clog down the middle and have those linebackers roam and make plays. Speed from linebackers in the secondary, then also the girth up front.”
Ohio State is first in the Big Ten in rushing offense (249.4 yards per game and 5.8 yards per attempt) but was held to 167 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per rush by Oklahoma. The game was tied at 3 at halftime, then Oklahoma pulled away in the second half as the Buckeyes picked things up on offense, but had to settle twice for field goals in the red zone, and Barrett was picked off.
Ohio State center Billy Price: “I just remember they caused a lot of problems for us when we played them. I think their front six, front seven, is very athletic. We had some plays where we tried to get on the outside against them and some of their outside [players], 31 [Ogbonnia Okoronkwo] and their linebacker – I forget his name – could track down balls like crazy. So again, in college football at a Power 5 school you’ve got freak athletes on both sides of the ball, and their closing speed was insane.”
Oklahoma State, on the other hand, put up 52 points and 661 yards against the Sooners. That was a shootout of epic proportions, with Oklahoma answering with 62 points and 785 yards.
Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph: “They’re a physical defense, talking about Oklahoma. I think we were able to put up some points and extend some drives against them. That’s more on [Georgia] to watch the film and prepare as you always prepare.”
Rudolph passed for 448 yards and 5 touchdowns in that game. He was also sacked 3 times and picked off twice. One of the sacks was by Okoronkwo, who was named a second-team All-American by Sports Illustrated.
Asked what Georgia should do against Oklahoma, Rudolph had a specific suggestion.
Rudolph: “I’d say throw it to Jeb Blazevich. I’m good friends with Jeb. We kind of grew up in the same region; he was in Charlotte, I was in Rock Hill [S.C]. He’s an unbelievable guy and a great player, a physical player at tight end. I’m going to shout out to Jeb, throw him the ball and win the game.”
Rudolph was semi-joking, of course. Although many Georgia fans would wonder where the tight ends have been this year, Isaac Nauta’s touchdown catch in the SEC Championship Game notwithstanding.
The Big 12 and its powerful offenses lead to a dilemma: Are the defenses just not good, or do they suffer from going up against so many good offenses? The question was put to Rudolph, the quarterback on a conference rival, and Price, the center for a nonconference opponent.
Rudolph: “I think you put the offenses we have in the Big 12, the quarterbacks and receivers in any other conference, and it’s business as usual. I don’t think anyone can stop the players we have in our conference. It’s funny to hear the whole ‘Defense is weak in the Big 12.’ Week in and week out, they’re playing some explosive offenses and explosive players, and I think it would be hard for anyone to stop them in any conference, whatever team you are.”
Price: “You’ve got to match up athletes against athletes. When we went into Norman last year and came out with a victory. We had a good defensive plan going. We had a really good offensive plan going. When you [play] cross-conference games, you have to be completely well-rounded. If you think that you’re going to go in there and just take your offense and not have to have any adjustments, it’s going to be a long day.”
Statistically, Oklahoma is better defending the pass: third in the Big 12, yielding 240.6 yards per game and 7.5 yards per attempt. Oklahoma ranked sixth against the run in the Big 12, yielding 240.6 yards per game and 4.02 yards per attempt.
Price: “Playing on the offense for us, we were able to tempo those guys and push those guys. In those cases they showed vulnerability. But again, they go against the best offense in America every day in practice, so they get a case of what hurts them and how they can prevent that.”