There is little illusion that the Sooners opening game this Saturday against the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes is going to be a defensive battle. Both teams come into the game with dynamic offenses capable of putting up points in bunches. With the news of Damaris Johnson's suspension however, the Tulsa offense appears to be considerably less threatening but we're here to talk about their defense so let's move on.
Often times in a game like this, see OU @ OSU circa 2010, it's about the defense that can make just enough stops to give their explosive offense the edge they need to come out ahead. Unfortunately for Tulsa fans, this is not that defense. At least not against on Oklahoma offense, that despite likely to be missing Kenny Stills, will be one of the most explosive in the entire country. Tulsa does have some talent returning, primarily at linebacker and in the secondary which lead the country in INTs last year. New defensive coordinator, Brent "That" Guy is installing a more traditional 4-3 scheme after Tulsa spent a majority of last year in a 3-3-5 defensive formation. The biggest concern with the switch is the perceived weakness of the Tulsa defense which is their front four. Switching from a three to four man front may seem simple, I mean it's just one more guy, but it actually involves a very different technique and style of play from the d-linemen. Additionally, defensive tackle play is key (as OU fans are well aware) and TU looks to be pretty thin at DT heading into the opener.
- OU run game vs. the TU front seven
If things play out as many Sooner fans expect, this figures to be a game where OU can work off some of the rust from the offseason with respect to their run game. If OU can get up early, Sooner fans might actually have a chance to see the plethora of options they have at RB this year. OU has struggled in recent years to line up and force their will on their opponent in the run game, so establishing the ability to do that early (even against an overmatched Tulsa d-line) would help to build some confidence heading into the bye week and FSU game. However, make no mistake the front seven OU will face on Saturday will be nothing close to what FSU will be bringing, but that's a conversation for another time.
As mentioned above, much like some believe OU to be, Tulsa is pretty thin at DT. Juniors Derrick Jackson and Daeshon Bufford are expected to be the starters, but at 282 lbs and 272 lbs respectively both are fairly undersized and mainly saw time as reserves last year. So given the strength of the Tulsa secondary, which we'll get into a little later, expect this area of the TU defense to be a focal point of the OU game plan.
Senior Tyrunn Walker and junior Cory Dorris are the two starters at DE with Walker being the better pass rusher of the two. It will be interesting to see how the OU tackles hold up throughout the game, especially on the right side of the OU line. Donald Stephenson figures to be fine given how well he played last year, but the inexperience of Daryl Williams and Tyrus Thompson on the right side will definitely be in the spotlight surely something Tulsa will try and take advantage of on Saturday.
Senior Curnelius Arnick is the seasoned veteran of the Tulsa linebacker unit and runs the show from his MLB spot. Arnick is no slouch, he lead Tulsa in tackles last year with 115 and also grabbed four INTs. He figures to be plenty busy on Saturday with everything the Sooners will throw at him, but he's a talented and experienced player who is likely to be in the right place and the right time more often than not. Junior DeAundre Brown plays a very similar role to that of Tony Jefferson, meaning a hybrid LB/safety position. Brown is a former starter, but was forced to sit last year due to academics. Rounding out the trio is sophomore Shawn Jackson who was second on the team in tackles last year and lead the team in sacks.
So Tulsa will have a talented group of LBs on the field Saturday and they'll need them. I'd expect OU to try and establish the run early and often, both to control the clock and keep the TU offense off the field as well as to set up some play action which I expect Coach Heupel to feature in the OU offense throughout 2011. I think the Sooners o-line will be able to handle the front four of Tulsa, the key in the run game will be picking up their talented LBs and keeping them out of the backfield. If OU can handle one-on-one match-ups with the front four, leaving extra blockers to get downfield and take out those LBs then I think it will be a long day for TU and a successful day for the Sooner run game. However, if Tulsa is able to disrupt the OU run game things do not bode well for the Sooners and their following game against FSU. OU needs to prove it can dictate the run game on offense against a team that while talented in spots, is clearly outmatched and should be a team that the Sooners offensive line handle fairly easily.
- OU pass game vs. TU secondary
Tulsa returns three starters from a secondary that lead the country in INTs last year, which I'd imagine is a stat that would surprise most people. Again, they expect to have their hands full with all the weapons OU possesses at WR but this really looks like a case of strength vs. strength. The OU pass game figures to be the stronger aspect of OU offense while Tulsa returns an experienced and talented secondary, so this will be one of the more exciting match-ups to watch on Saturday.
Senior John Flanders and junior Lowell Rose are expected to start at the CB spots while Junior Dexter McCoil sophomore Marco Nelson will man the two safety spots. McCoil is big (6'4") for a safety and figures to play a role in the run game if OU is able to exploit Tulsa up the middle. Nelson was a freshman All-American and a very good player for Tulsa last year, but he is coming off shoulder surgery this spring. Flanders and Rose are both pretty good cover guys, so it will be interesting to see how the OU WRs other than Ryan Broyles fair against the duo. Will they be able to get open on a consistent basis minus their 2nd best option in the suspended Kenny Stills?
The pressure will be on guys like Trey Franks, Dejuan Miler, Jaz Reynolds, Kameel Jackson, and the other OU wideouts to get open on a regular basis like we know Broyles and Stills can do. However, the pressure will also be on Landry Jones to avoid turning the ball over against a secondary with a reputation for taking the ball away. Sooner fans are painfully familiar with Landry's propensity to throw the big INT, or even worse pick six, and how plays like that can keep a team in a game they normally wouldn't have any business being in. So it will be a good test not only for some of OU's secondary receivers, but Landry as well to see if he's improved on his ability to take care of the football.
Final Verdict -Given the advantage OU should have from a talent perspective alone, it would be very disappointing if, for lack of a better phrase, they don't have their way with this Tulsa defense. At home, in the opener, in what is sure to be an emotional game for several reasons, if the Sooners can get rolling early things could snowball for the Tulsa defense (and not in a good way). I don't think it's unreasonable to expect OU to score in the high 40s or low to mid 50s. Which you would hope and expect to be more than enough for the Sooners to win, and win comfortably.
You'll be able to read our the OU defense stacks up against the powerful Tulsa defense a little later in the week, so keep an eye out for that.