Im­prov­ing Ok­la­homa de­fense faces CFP chal­lenge in UGA

The Standard Journal - - NATIONAL SPORTS - By Cliff Brunt As­so­ci­ated Press Sports Writer AP Sports Writer Charles Odum con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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.”

File, Sue Ogrocki / AP

Ok­la­homa de­fender Og­bon­nia Oko­ronkwo (31) sacks Ok­la­homa State QB Ma­son Ru­dolph. The Soon­ers will face UGA in the Rose Bowl.

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