The Norman Transcript

September 22, 2013

Flexibility on offense, improvement on defense has Sooners unbeaten

By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Record-wise, Oklahoma is right where it wants to be. It had the weekend off after getting in some extra preparation for next Saturday’s meeting with No. 22 Notre Dame.

But how much have the 14th-ranked Sooners really displayed in victories over Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa?

Well, they have displayed a willingness to run the ball that’s been absent for the last two years. OU has run 242 plays and kept it on the ground 62.4 percent of the time. Needing to run clock in the fourth quarter helped push the running stats up. But the Sooners are averaging 5.4 yards per carry as well.

Clearly, this was an offseason emphasis that has paid dividends.

And it stood up even when Blake Bell became the starting quarterback against Tulsa Sept. 14. OU may have rushed for a season-low 194 yards in that game, but it still averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

The move to Bell invigorated the passing game against Tulsa. Bell’s 413-yard, four-touchdown performance adding a missing ingredient from the first two games.

“We have the potential to do anything — run, pass, whatever,” offensive tackle Daryl Williams said. “I don’t think we’ve reached our potential yet. It’s really not surprising to me, or anybody on the offense or the team, what we did on Saturday, or last week or a couple weeks ago, with rushing and with passing.”

Defensively, it’s hard to raise any serious issues with how OU has played in the first three games. The defense has faced 41 drives and given up three touchdowns, one field goal, forced six turnovers and, perhaps most impressively, forced 22 punts.

A strong case has been made that the Sooners are a much better defensive team because — outside of 75-yard touchdown run given up against West Virginia — they’ve allowed few long plays.

“Everybody’s more engaged, more so than ever,” linebacker Corey Nelson said. “We’re all running to the ball. That’s one thing that we did not do last season or maybe even the season before that, and if we don’t run to the ball, we get punished for it so that’s one thing that has changed and I see a lot of us doing.”

But the Sooners know what they face against No. 22 Notre Dame is going to be a higher level of football.

Yes, OU has run the ball much better this season. But in its 30-13 loss to the Fighting Irish last season, it only managed 15 yards on 24 carries.

“We’ve run the ball well as an offensive line this year, but this is the game that’s gonna determine where we’re at right now as an offensive line and the running phase of our offense,” center Gabe Ikard said. “It’s going to be a really tough test. We’re excited to see where we’re at.”

Defensively, the Sooners face a nearly identical test. OU gave up 17 points — the final margin — on three successive Notre Dame scoring drives in the final nine minutes of that game.

When it mattered most, OU’s defense couldn’t get any stops.

“This will be the biggest game and the most important game of the season thus far,” Nelson said. “It’ll show what our defense is really made of.”

Through three games, the Sooners have shown the traits of a tougher team capable of winning bruising games. Becoming that kind of team has been a goal since the calendar flipped to 2013.

But the only way to prove it is to win big games against elite competition. OU hasn’t faced a team at that level this season. That will change in six days at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. Win or lose, the Sooners will know more about who they really are after the game.

John Shinn

Follow me @john_shinn

jshinn@normantranscript.com