NORMAN — Oklahoma entered this season dead set on improving the woeful defensive numbers that had become thorn in the program’s side.
Most of those figures have risen, some considerably. The Sooners are a top-30 team in total defense this week compared to last year’s finish at 114th.
OU should feel fortunate occupying that spot based on a glaring number that hasn’t improved. Of the 29 other teams currently ranked above them in total defense, though some have struggled in the takeaway department, none have done so quite like the Sooners.
OU is tied for 124th with six turnovers gained.
“It’s pretty amazing the quality of defense we’ve played in the first seven with the number of times that we’ve turned people over,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “If we can get to the level we want to be in the turnovers and combine those two things, then you can have a pretty special group.”
The Sooners aren’t the only ones confounded by this department. Iowa (No. 6) and Georgia (No. 10) each boast top-10 defenses. The Hawkeyes are 94th in takeaways with 10 total, and the Bulldogs are tied for 104th with nine.
Air Force (9 takeaways) and Western Kentucky (7) are ranked as low or lower, despite having good defensive seasons otherwise.
It’s more polarizing at OU for two reasons. First, turnover margin contributed heavily to the Oct. 26 loss at Kansas State. Second, Alex Grinch created a mantra out of takeaways when he took OU’s defensive coordinator position, but it hasn’t become a fabric of his first defense in Norman.
Grinch and linebacker Kenneth Murray both declined to say what specifically the Sooners have done differently over the past week or so of practice to increase the likelihood OU forces its first turnover in four games.
But something has changed.
“Definitely a different way [of practicing it],” Murray said. “A different sense of urgency in regards to the turnovers and definitely implementing a couple of different things in practice that coach Grinch is harping on and implementing for us. So, I'm excited to see what that's going to get us this Saturday.”
Grinch frequently makes analogies to other sports. OU is taking the ball away from its offense in practice, he and players say. But like scoring a basketball it’s all about results.
“You can make shots in practice, but you’ve got to make them in games,” Grinch said. “That’s something that continues to elude us and believe me, the emphasis is there. Believe me, nobody cares. It’s in the results. We’ve got to find a way to get better. Every play in practice is an opportunity to get a takeaway. Every play is a takeaway drill.
“What you don’t want to do is all of a sudden imply that they’re easy to come across.”
Georgia, for instance, has forced just one turnover since Oct. 5.
OU would take one however it can, especially if it means the difference between winning and losing with Iowa State and Baylor on tap the next two weeks.
But Grinch wants a takeaway in its purest form, not a ball that bounces into someone’s arms by chance or an unlikely strike of luck. He wants the Sooners to rip a ball away or take it from the air the way they’ve been coached.
“It’s a percentage of time you can get a takeaway. That’s why we use the term takeaway. We need to take the ball away from the offense,” Grinch said.
Defensive end Ronnie Perkins, who has forced one fumble in eight games, believes it’s only a matter of time. He’s choosing to not stress over it.
“I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed at all. It will come. Some things you just can’t force,” Perkins said. “You can’t just try to go for the ball all the time. Sometimes you just have to make that tackle and get the ball carrier down. So, I definitely feel like it will come. It will definitely transition over from practice. We just haven’t seen it these last few weeks.”
Grinch wishes there were an easy answer.
“Believe me it’s not for lack of want-to. These guys are trying to do everything they can to help us win football games and play the brand of football we can be proud of at Oklahoma,” he said. “The next layer to this thing is we need playmakers on the defense. When we’ve made plays, we’ve had success. One play we haven’t made is the takeaway count. We say takeaways equal victory, and it was a cute sound byte until it truly does. Hopefully the audience we have in meeting room … You can’t punch holes in that thing anymore. The progress needs to be made.”
Iowa State at OU
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Place: Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium
Records: AP No. 9/Coaches No. 8 OU (7-1, 4-1 Big 12); ISU (5-3, 3-2)
Line: OU (-14.5)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7