NORMAN, Okla. -- Mike Stoops was fuming.
His Oklahoma defense had just given up 424 yards to Baylor in the Sooners’ 42-35 victory in Norman a year ago.
“It was a tough night defensively, in a lot of areas,” OU’s defensive coordinator said at the time.
Roughly a year later, his tune has changed.
“I kind of laugh at it now,” Stoops said. “I came in here and I didn’t feel very good about. It’s funny, I thought we did a decent job a year ago, we were worried about giving up 450 yards and everybody said how bad we played.”
In a lot of ways, the Sooners defense had a strong showing that night. Their run defense was horrible, allowing 252 yards on 51 carries, but their pass defense was superb, limiting BU to 172 passing yards while holding Nick Florence to a 36.4 completion percentage. The Sooners allowed BU to gain just 5.05 yards per play on that night, more than a full yard less than any other defense and almost a full two yards less than Baylor’s 6.94 yards per play average in 2012.
“f you can hold them to numbers like that, you have a great chance to win,” Stoops said. “And that’s what we were able to do a year ago.”
It could serve as a blueprint for how OU hopes to slow the Bears this season.
Everyone talks about the speed Baylor’s offense brings to the table. And there’s no doubt, most defenses have spent a lot of time reading the names Goodley and Reese on the back of the jersey instead of the Baylor on the front as receivers Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese have proven their abilities to stretch defenses while averaging 23.5 and 25 yards per reception, respectively.
But the genius of Baylor’s offense is its use of space to take advantage of that speed. Their wide splits, with receivers lining up outside the numbers, create one-on-one situations that match up their speed with defenders ill-equipped to handle it. The isolation created by the formation limits the ability to provide help. In other words, against BU, a weak link can break the entire chain.
“That, to me, is what is stressful about it,” Stoops said. “They create so much room on the football field, which most people don’t do. It’s hard to get underneath help because the splits are so wide, so everything is isolated.”
Worst yet, it makes it difficult for defenses to disquise their blitzes and create confusion and chaos for the offense, which has been one of the staples of OU’s defense this season.
“That’s the whole concept of what they do,” Stoops said. “They spread you so they know what’s coming. It takes forever to come [blitz] from width, you try to disguise and time things up but they are very good at understanding where you’re coming from because of their splits.”
OU’s answer last season was to challenge the Baylor receivers with a lot of man-to-man coverage and force them to make competitive plays when the ball was in the air. Their game of “our man against your man, let’s see who is best” paid off with the Bears’ season-low 172 yards and a Sooners’ win. There’s no reason to expect the Sooners to change that approach, particularly since their secondary is better in pass coverage this season than last year’s group.
“As a defense, we challenged a lot of plays,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “Last year they were kind of like they are this year, just explosive plays coming out of nowhere. I feel like we limited that last year and I know as a secondary we did a lot of good things in that game.”
Lache Seastrunk and the rest of the Bears’ rushing attack could provide a game-changing element. BU rushed for 252 yards but it was on 51 carries, an average of 4.95 yards per carry, and Florence’s 24-yard run was the longest run of the game. Those are numbers the Sooners could probably live with. A yards per carry average that pierces five yards by a wide margin or several long runs would make OU’s chances of giving up big numbers on the ground but still winning much more difficult.
“Their ability to run the football is really what makes it all go,” Stoops said. “The run-pass conflict they give you is consistent, it’s repetitive and it’s good.”
If all this makes it sound like Baylor’s offense is impossible to stop, that’s because it has been. The Bears will enter the showdown with the Sooners ranked No. 1 nationally in points (63.9), yards (718.4), yards per play (9.06), passing yards (417.29) and yards per pass attempt (13.28).
“You can’t stop them from doing anything, you just have to try to challenge them,” Colvin said. “That’s what we’ll try to do as a defense, try to make every play a challenging play.”
The bottom line is pretty simple. The Sooners can’t worry about numbers against Baylor.
“This isn’t about yards,” Stoops said. “It’s going to be about stops, turnovers and not giving up huge plays consistently throughout the game.”