Sooners looking for perfect opportunity
Fumbles playing bigger role for Sooner defense
NORMAN — OU’s defense spends plenty of time studying film in preparation for games.
Film of themselves, to figure out what went right and what went wrong in previous weeks. Film of the opponents, to illustrate how the offense figures to attack the Sooners and their tendencies.
But Thursdays, Sooners defensive coordinator Alex Grinch goes in a bit of a different direction with Thursday Takeaway Tape.
In the meeting that day, Grinch rolls highlights of all the turnovers in NFL games the previous weekend.
“One of the reasons we started doing it is what are some of the consistent things you see when it comes to takeaways?,” Grinch said Tuesday as the Sooners prepare for Saturday’s meeting with Texas. “The consistent thing is you see strain. There are some where the ball bounces your way but so much of it is your extra effort. It’s your block, but you still find a way to get a hand on the ball, on a quarterback in that way. “Strain is a big piece of that.”
It’s something Grinch has been preaching since he arrived, and though turnovers came in bunches a year ago, the vast majority of those came on interceptions.
Of the 19 turnovers the Sooners forced a year ago, only three came on fumble recoveries. The three fumble recoveries was the lowest the Sooners have recorded since hitting that same number in 2012.
This season has been a different story, with OU already forcing 12 fumbles and recovering six — already their highest number in a season since recovering 10 in 2017.
“It was definitely a point of emphasis,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “We had so many picks last year especially in the back half of the season. But the fumbles … Are we emphasizing something new? I don’t know that I would say that. Just continue to emphasize opportunities for guys to make those plays.”
Watching those Thursday highlights, safety Pat Fields said, helps reinforce what Grinch has been preaching.
“The thing that we see and we realize is that it’s not like a lot of gimmes,” Fields said. “It’s not a lot of bad throws, so you just so happen to be in good position. A lot of times, especially with fumbles, fumbles don’t happen by coincidence. You have to go and you have to strip the ball, or you have to be pursuing from behind, or you have to strain to make that play.”
Sometimes the players turn into fans while watching the clips, oohing and aahing to a big hit or an acrobatic interception.
But Grinch is there to reel them in, pointing out how the play got made and how the Sooners can apply that on Saturdays.
While interceptions are often — even when a play is made by the defender — just as much about being in the right place at the right time, forcing fumbles is often about continuing to play hard through the whistle — and from play to play even when things aren’t going the way the defense would like.
That was the case against Kansas State, when Reggie Grimes was the third defender in on the 12th play of a Wildcats drive, popping the ball free for Nik Bonitto to pick it up for a program-record 70-yard fumble return.
It can also be a difficult balance between securing the tackle and going for the strip.
“Have to look for more of those opportunities,” Grinch said. “The first guy has to secure it and then from there, strip, and fight for the football.”
“We’re learning when we can do it,” Riley said. “When ball carriers are already wrapped up and we can be physical, learning different techniques to get it out. We’ve done a good job being aware and getting on the football. Hopefully we can keep doing that.”
The Sooners haven’t done much fumble-forcing against the Longhorns in recent years. Last season’s first-quarter fumble, forced by Brian Asamoah and recovered by Isaiah Thomas, was OU’s first recovered fumble against Texas since 2016.
The Longhorns have lost just one fumble this season and fumbled just twice.
With the Sooners’ defensive line, Grinch sees a particular opportunity to force fumbles by hitting the quarterback in the backfield, and with Longhorns’ quarterback Casey Thompson not being the running threat Sam Ehlinger has been the last few years, there could be an opportunity there Saturday.
“One of those things we felt was a glaring inconsistency or lack thereof production was in the sack-caused fumble,” Grinch said of last year’s lack of forced fumbles.
“That’s one of those things where you go in both in the NFL and college football, there are opportunities there for obvious reasons. They didn’t see it coming, necessarily. He’s trying to deliver the ball. That’s something we looked at. We have one this year, that number has to go up in the takeaway count that we expect.”