PASADENA, Calif. — Among Oklahoma’s defensive issues last season was its struggle getting off the field and returning the ball to its efficient offense.
At the brink of successful defensive possessions, the Sooners broke. They ranked 118th nationally in third-down defense.
It’s a small sample size, but OU has been more successful through three games this season. UCLA converted 3 of 13 third downs Saturday.
OU coach Lincoln Riley wondered afterward about the ones his team didn’t stop. UCLA managed to move the chains on one third-and-6 and one third-and-10, but nothing longer.
“Third downs were good,” he said. “I think a couple of the longs that we gave up, the ones we gave up are some of the ones you sit there and say there's no way we should. I know we'll be happy about the numbers but there are a couple we'll certainly wanna have back.”
For now, he’ll likely take the result.
OU (3-0) emerged from its non-conference slate unbeaten and ranked No. 5 nationally. It would have to allow about eight third-down conversions per the next 11 games to plummet to last year’s mark. Regression is the Sooners’ worst-case scenario — in 2018 they allowed 96 conversions, lowest in the Big 12, and opponents converted 46.7 percent of the time.
They’ve forced more punts by being stingier on first and second down. UCLA faced an average of about 10.5 yards to gain on its third downs. Three of OU’s four sacks came before third down, setting up an average of 20 yards to go or more on ensuing plays.
The Sooners’ defensive line produced its biggest negative plays in recent memory, notching at least four sacks for the first time in 12 games. It started with Jalen Redmond dropping UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson for a 15-yard loss in the second quarter.
Isaiah Thomas brought down the UCLA QB for minus-10 yards later in the period. Nik Bonitto’s sack for a loss of 18 set the Bruins up for another punt — one of five total for the night.
Increased pressure is arriving from new full-time additions, like Redmond and junior-college transfer LaRon Stokes on the defensive interior. They have pushed each other for the starting tackle spot.
“When [Redmond’s] on, he opens up a lot of things for me,” defensive end Ronnie Perkins said. “Him and Nev [Gallimore] on the inside, they’re definitely a problem and going to get a lot of attention, which can open up a lot of one-on-ones for me. Helps me make a lot of plays, too.”
Blitzing linebackers, which have been more frequent defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s scheme, have helped keep opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable too. Bonitto and Brian Asamoah’s sacks came from that position.
“I’m excited about that,” Grinch said of the increased disruption. “I think for the guys in the front it becomes the standard. If I didn’t get a sack what did you do? So the expectation level is not just being disruptive, because we have been in the past, but to get them on the ground four times and a couple of others where if you’re that much more aggressive in coverage, or that much more defendable in coverage then he’s got to hold onto the football that much more.
“I certainly think there’s more to be had. I think overall pressure was good. We saw more spread than maybe we anticipated going into the game based on video study this week. That’s a tremendous offensive coaching staff. I know they certainly found some of our weaknesses and looked to exploit it.”
OU has a week off before beginning Big 12 play on Sept. 28 against Texas Tech, which will provide the defense its toughest test thus far. Perhaps it bodes well for the Sooners that their third-down defense against Red Raiders a year ago (3 of 13) was among their best performances all season.
There were times last year’s team became deflated after big plays by the opposing offense. That’s occurring less frequently now, Riley believes.
“There were a couple times when you were like, man, we've got ‘em in great situation, they convert and air kinda gets let out of the whole deal,” Riley said. “You've gotta get back up and go play the next one. Our guys have done a good job cultivating that mentality. We were been able to to do that a little bit more tonight than we have in the first few games. We're gonna have to keep doing it more and even better going forward.”
OU’s defensive rankings nationally
heading into its first off week
• Total defense: 58th
• 3rd down defense: 11th
• 4th down defense: 85th
• 1st down defense: t-104th
• Interceptions earned: t-9th
• Passing yards allowed: 64th
• Red-zone defense: t-86th
• Turnover margin: 31st