October 29, 2012

COLUMN: Sooners losing the battle in the trenches

NORMAN, Okla. — The No. 14 Oklahoma football team had another shot at national respect Saturday night against the No. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and once again was not up to the task.

The Sooners lost 30-13, giving the team that was once viewed as unbeatable at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium its second home loss of 2012.

After OU lost to Kansas State in the third week of the season, it appeared the Sooners were on track for a mediocre season.

Oklahoma did not impress in a season-opening win over UTEP, and the Florida A&M game was relatively meaningless, given the talent disparity.

As the season has gone on, Kansas State has proven itself to be a national contender led by a Heisman-trophy candidate in quarterback Collin Klein, and suddenly that loss didn’t look so bad for OU.

Big wins over Texas Tech and Texas brought the Sooners back up into the top 10, and the game with undefeated Notre Dame was OU’s chance to bring itself back into the BCS race.

Unfortunately for the Sooners, Notre Dame followed the same formula that Kansas State followed, and exposed the Sooners’ weaknesses once again.

Last season, the OU defense struggled with giving up big plays. In losses to Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State, the Sooners’ secondary was gashed by deep passing plays time and time again.

Mike Stoops took over the defensive coordinator role this season, replacing Brent Venables. Stoops preached that his version of the defense would change its philosophy, play it safer in the secondary and avoid giving up the big play.

That strategy has worked for OU, but Stoops has been unable to hide the other deficiencies of the defense. OU is more solid in the defensive backfield, but has been shown to be extremely vulnerable up front.

The first signs were visible in week one against UTEP. Running back Nathan Jeffery exploited the Sooners defense for 182 yards and an 8.4 yard per carry average.

Kansas State took advantage of that weakness as well, with Klein controlling the game. The quarterback ran for 85 yards and one touchdown, and running back John Hubert carried the ball 23 times for 135 yards and a touchdown. Combined with an efficient passing game (13-for-21, 154 yards, no interceptions), the Wildcats were able to control time of possession and pace of play.

Notre Dame did the same thing. With dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson and a duo of running backs, the Irish ran for 221 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry.

Golson mimicked the style of Klein, throwing for 177 yards on 13-for-25 passing, and not turning the ball over once.

The Sooners struggle to stop the run, and even though their play-it-safe pass defense has prevented big plays, in both their losses their opponents took what was given and didn’t make risky throws.

On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma has been unable to sustain a balanced offense due to a lack of a running game.

In the loss to Kansas State, OU only averaged 3.4 yards per carry on the ground. And even though Dominique Whaley averaged 6.2 yards per carry with a long run of 13, he only got nine carries.

Things got worse against Notre Dame, a team that features a premier defense. The Irish defense held OU to 0.6 net yards per carry, and taking away lost yardage, the Sooners still only averaged 2.2 yards per carry; 24 carries for 53 yards.

Landry Jones is no longer the passer who is throwing for 400+ yards and 4-5 touchdowns in games. He still boasts a solid completion percentage and is throwing for respectable yardage, but he isn’t as productive as he used to be.

Jones averages less than two touchdowns per game this season, and the Sooners need a consistent running game in order to compensate for the fact that Jones is more of a game-managing quarterback than a Heisman candidate, as he once appeared to be.

The redshirt senior quarterback has played his part this season, but when the running game isn’t a factor, it limits the entire offense.

It is often said that the game of football is won in the trenches. If that is the case, it would explain why Oklahoma has lost the two games it has played against high-level opponents this year. OU’s run game doesn’t suffer from lack of running back talent, but it does lack a dominant, run-blocking offensive line.

The formula for beating the Sooners has shown itself twice already this year, and while OU may not face a team the rest of the season that can exploit it like Kansas State or Notre Dame did, the Sooners’ championship hopes have already become a casualty of their weaknesses.

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