Originally Published: December 26, 2017 6:02 a.m.
NORMAN, Okla. — Each year, Oklahoma’s defense has major lapses that make their fans grumble about coordinator Mike Stoops.
Almost every time, Stoops bounces back.
Stoops has been a popular figure to blame for the team’s few failures during his second stint at Oklahoma, which began in 2012. For much of his run, the offense has been a consistent strength while the defense has been shaky on occasion. Last season, the Sooners beat Texas Tech 66-59 despite giving up 854 yards. This season, after the Sooners held on to beat Oklahoma State 62-52, some wondered whether Stoops’ defense would cost the team a shot at a championship of any kind.
Well, look at the Sooners now. The Big 12 champions will face Georgia in a playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 and the defense has been key in getting this far.
Second-team All-America linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo helped the unit respond with a solid finish to the regular season. Oklahoma held TCU to 20 points in a critical showdown, Kansas to three points, West Virginia to 10 points in the first half of a 59-31 win and TCU to 17 points in a Big 12 title game victory .
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said he appreciates what Stoops has accomplished in the face of criticism.
“He’s a true professional,” Riley said. “That whole staff, they’ve done a great job. We had some young guys at some really, really key positions throughout this year. That side was certainly, especially early on, really hit hard with injuries. A lot of different lineups and a lot of different guys playing. They’ve had some challenges, but they’ve continued to coach their tails off.”
Stoops said he hears the critics but keeps the comments in perspective.
“You’re never as good as people think you are, and you’re never as bad as people think you are, I can tell you that’s as honest as it can be,” Stoops said, days after the regular-season win over TCU. “Whether I say it, somebody else says it, whether I want to explain something or not, it doesn’t matter, you know what I mean?”
Stoops said he understands that he doesn’t control how the story is told. He reminds players to focus on what they can control instead.
“You got all the ink, you got all the ink, you got all the ink,” he said, pointing to reporters. “You can write whatever you want. The narrative is what it is. All we worry about is how we’re going to approach the next game, and that’s what we do. So there’s good, there’s bad, but like I said, we know we’re not that far away. We’re just going to keep pushing ourselves to get better.”
Okoronkwo leads the team with eight sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss and is second with 71 tackles. Linebacker Emmanuel Beal leads the team with 89 tackles. Linebacker D.J. Ward ranks second on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss. Cornerback Parnell Motley leads the Sooners with nine pass breakups, and he’s tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
“They are a good defense,” Georgia center Lamont Gaillard said. “They are fast. They run to the ball. Their effort is very good. We have to respect them even if they don’t show it statistic wise but they are a good defense.”
Georgia averages 35 points per game. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel have combined for more than 2,100 yards rushing, key elements for a team that ranks 10th nationally in yards rushing per game. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has thrown 21 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.
“Very physical,” Okoronkwo said. “They’re very physical. They’re going to try to out-will you and challenge us. The challenge is just not getting enough bodies on bodies in the game. They always find a way to get an extra guy unblocked.”
Riley said his defense set the tone at times during the second half of the season. He is excited about what the unit has become.
“They are playing really good football right now and they are rapidly getting better,” Riley said. “Maybe one of the good things about having some time here is giving us time to grow and get better on that side of the ball, like we’re doing right now.”