What’s behind OU defense’s lack of INTs?
NORMAN — On the first play of the second quarter Sept. 25 against West Virginia, Alex Grinch’s defensive call worked out perfectly.
Isaiah Thomas, starting out on the outside, stunted behind Nik Bonitto toward the middle of the line.
The Sooners’ do-everything defensive lineman was soon right in the face of Mountaineers quarterback Jarret Doege, who had to quickly fling the ball downfield blindly to avoid the sack.
OU safety Delarrin Turner-Yell was the only player with a chance to make a play on the ball, and hauled it in for an interception.
To that point, it was the perfect example of what the Sooners’ defense had done regularly for much of the last year — use pressure up front to help create turnover chances on throws and finish them in the secondary.
But in the nearly 15 quarters since, heading into Saturday’s game at Kansas (11 a.m., ESPN), OU has kept its string of games forcing a turnover alive but has yet to record another interception.
Grinch spent plenty of time during
his first season and a half talking about the lack of turnovers, particularly the lack of interceptions.
“I don’t want to go down this road and say we’re back to being that unit that can’t get ’em,” Grinch said. “It’s not a can’t. We just haven’t.”
There are plenty of reasons why, as illustrated by Grinch’s three-pronged approach to creating interception chances and finishing them — getting a push that starts up front, looking to the correct area to recognize when there’s a chance to make a play, and finally being competitive at the point of the catch.
“At times, we do all those things,” Grinch said. “Then other instances, where all you have to do is catch the ones they throw you. So we’ve had some of those that we haven’t secured. So certainly disappointed that way and our inability to do each and every one of those things at any level of consistency.”
After 16 of the Sooners’ 19 takeaways last season came through interceptions, so far this season only three of 11 have been created through that route.
“Coverage wise we’re not quite where we were at some points last year right now,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “A couple guys that are playing on Sundays are pretty good players and they’re not here anymore, then we have a few guys sitting over on the sideline with us that are in sweats instead of football pads that having been here the last several weeks — it’s a factor.”
Tre Norwood had five interceptions last season while Tre Brown had three. The Sooners have spent significant time this season without cornerback Woodi Washington and safety Delarrin TurnerYell, who combined for three interceptions a year ago.
Grinch points to several of Norwood’s interceptions last season as examples of what he wants his defenders to do.
“Got a pick on the hash mark, 10 yards deep against Baylor when he was what we call the widened guy, or numbers guy. One of the coaching points is to deepen, where he got the interception,” Grinch said.
“Is he widened? Is he deepened? In the Big 12 game against Iowa State, it’s a slight post technique, working RPO game. Against Texas Tech last year, twice we’re rewarded with tipped balls, but he’s playing his technique.
“It’s just interesting when guys are where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there, there’s a consistent pattern in that.”
Early in the season, Riley emphasized that the offense wasn’t far off. It took a quarterback change ultimately, but the Sooners’ offense is rolling along pretty well right now.
Riley is saying similar things about the secondary and if that group is better, interceptions figure to follow.
“These young guys are learning it quickly,” Riley said. “They’re going to get better. They’re going to make a lot of plays here. I remember when Tre Brown played here as a freshman, Parnell Motley, and all they did. It just takes time.
There’s several of these guys that are primed to take off in the second half.”
They also need help up front, as Thomas’ pressure against West Virginia illustrates. While the defensive line has been the Sooners’ best group overall, they haven’t found consistency in their ability to bring pressure. They particularly struggled with that in last week’s 52-31 win over TCU.
“It kind of all fits together,” Riley said. “Can we play better and do we need to play better in the secondary? We do. Is that also affected by the other two levels of the defense? Absolutely it is. So kind of like any question related to that, everybody needs to be a little bit better because when we’re playing good, we’re playing good. When we’re not playing good, we’re just kind of agonizingly close. We’ve just got to get past playing close.”