The Oklahoma Sooners have had some head-scratching losses since the program returned to prominence back in 1999, and plenty of blame has gone around in each instance. For example, the inability of Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma offense to finish drives can certainly be blamed for hindering Oklahoma’s chances at avoiding an upset against the Iowa State Cyclones. Folks can also point to an overall lack of discipline resulting in a few drive-extending penalties.
But the things mentioned above, as well as a host of other issues, can be shrugged off. Mayfield is still a very viable Heisman candidate in my eyes, and anything negative he may have done Saturday doesn’t change the way I feel about him as a player or a leader. Lincoln Riley didn’t call a perfect game, but we all know what he’s capable of. And the silly penalties? They were inexcusable, but they aren’t really a cause for concern in the long term. What can’t be dismissed, however, are the performances we’ve seen all too often from Mike Stoops’ defenses.
We all remember Mike coming under fire late in the 2012 season — the first season of his second stint as OU’s defensive coordinator. Folks were obviously mad when Tavon Austin came up only eight yards short of the record for all-purpose yards in a single game. However, there was also a slight bit of understanding. Some pointed to the fact that Oklahoma’s defensive talent wasn’t up to par after a few bad defensive recruiting classes in consecutive years, which of course wasn’t Mike’s fault. Oklahoma fans cringed at the sight of its defense the next week against Oklahoma State and were forced to bow down to Johnny Manziel that January, but a lot of us bit our tongues. Mike was back in town, and we looked forward to seeing aggressive defenses in Norman once again.
It appeared to come to fruition at times in 2013, and he was receiving praise by the end of the season. However, a lot of what went down 2013 turned out to be fool’s gold (See: Trevor Knight). The Sooners came down to earth in 2014, with OU’s defense struggled once again despite returning a good deal of production from the previous year’s squad. Again, blame can be thrown all around for those 2014 losses. Most of that blame ended up being thrown in the direction co-OCs Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell, who were fired after an embarrassing loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. But despite an equal amount of public criticism for the defense’s performance that season, Mike Stoops’ job security wasn’t impacted. It was just a down year for his guys.
To Mike’s credit, the defense did fine (and often more than fine) in 2015, but the fact that they faced backup quarterbacks against Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State down the stretch can’t be ignored. Clemson then exposed a small gap in talent and a large gap in physicality between the two teams, ending OU’s championship dreams in Miami. However, those gaps existed across the board in that matchup, and Mike Stoops once again avoided becoming the primary scapegoat.
The 2016 campaign would end up being an exceptionally rough year for Mike. It began with a bad loss against Houston and was followed up by a horrible home loss to Ohio State. Mike caught plenty of flack, but he was again given a bit of leeway. OU’s lack of experience at the corner position opposite Jordan Thomas was highlighted during the Houston loss, and that sort of overshadowed anything Stoops may have done wrong schematically. After the loss to Ohio State, the defensive struggles were attributed to a simple talent gap. OU then went on to win a series of shootouts, highlighted by a 66-59 victory over Texas Tech. Stoops again received criticism, but his supporters pointed to the amount of injuries OU had suffered on defense up to that point. For the rest of regular season, OU’s defense bended but didn’t really break, and the heat died down a bit.
That brings us to 2017, which started out very well for Mike’s defense. The Sooners appeared to turn over a new leaf in Columbus, where they displayed a type of physicality and discipline we hadn’t seen in a while.
Then came the Big 12 offenses...
Oklahoma’s defense has looked utterly pathetic in its last two contests against Baylor and Iowa State. This time, Mike doesn’t have a valid excuse. A common theme of the losses during his second stint has been the lack a potent pass rush, and that’s been on full display. For whatever reason, he refuses to rush more than four guys, which has resulted in quarterbacks having clear heads and a lot of time to throw. Additionally, we’ve all noticed Stoops giving big cushions in short-yardage situations and calling for press coverage on third and long. Again, the blame doesn’t fall squarely on Mike Stoops (Jordan Thomas has been baaaaad), but there’s obviously a concerning pattern here that has been at play for far too long.
Here are OU’s rankings in total defense per game during Mike’s second stint (prior to 2017).
The Saturday games are still in progress as I type this. 2017’s group was 32nd in total defense per game prior to Saturday and now sits at 44th. Anyway, Stoops has had four bad defenses and a pair of decent defenses during his second stint. I know that facing Big 12 offenses kind of skews these numbers, but they still haven’t been up to Oklahoma’s standards.
You can make excuses for the Baylor game in 2014, when the corners gave 10 and 15-yards cushions in the second half and seemed to willing conceded first down after first down for the sake of not giving up a big play. You can make excuses for the loss to Houston by citing inexperience, or for the loss to Ohio State by citing an understandable and unsurprising talent gap. You can even make excuses for allowing 854 yards at Texas Tech. Many of the excuses are valid, but let me ask you this — are you confident that we won’t keep seeing these same issues in the games and seasons to come under this particular defensive coordinator? I know the talent is improving on that side of the ball (#SoonerSquad17 looks nice), but are you willing to accept these kinds of results whenever there’s a slight dip?
I was willing to give Mike Stoops the benefit of the doubt after 2016, but I’m done. It’s simply unacceptable for these kinds things to happen time and time again, and the man in charge of the defense has to be held accountable at some point. I refuse to believe that multiple years of defensive futility are largely the result of forces that are beyond his control.
After the game, many of us (myself included) wanted him to be ousted on the spot. I’ve since cooled down a bit. I think he’ll probably finish out the season in Norman simply because I don’t think a midseason firing would help anything, but I don’t think there’s any way that he can really repair his image in Norman. Sure, we may see good performances on defense down the road in 2017. However, we’ll always know in the backs of our minds that a performance like the one we saw Saturday is possible, and I think Lincoln Riley probably feels the same way at this point. That simply isn’t healthy.
I think this is Mike’s final season Norman. That’s not exactly a hot take. Do yourselves a favor and search #FireMikeStoops on Twitter. Are all of these tweets intelligent or level-headed. Absolutely not, but this sort of reinforces the belief that he’ll never be able to regain the trust of the fan base again. Should leaders make decisions based solely on public opinion? No, but they have no choice but to listen when the noise gets loud enough. This noise is deafening right now, and I don’t picture it quieting down at this rate.
For the record, I don’t think Mike has hung around in Norman for this long simply because of his brother. I think his defenses in 2013 and 2015 were good enough to give him a little bit of security, but that ship appears to have sailed. If Bob Stoops were still at the helm, would he be less likely to make a move in this situation? I believe so, but we’ll obviously never know.
If Mike’s time in Norman does come to an end in the not-so-distant future, he’ll certainly have some options. I think it’s fairly apparent that he can thrive in a conference like the Big Ten, where the offenses aren’t quite as wide open. His defenses are always best when he feels comfortable being aggressive, and I think that would be the case out there more often than not.
What will OU do if a change comes before the 2018 season? It’s obviously a bit too soon to tell, but It would probably involve assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill. The former ECU head coach did a very good job against pass-heavy offenses while serving as defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, a place that doesn’t typically attract top-tier defensive talent. It feels weird to speculate about a position that isn’t open, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see McNeill take on a co-DC role alongside another new and fresh face selected by Riley.
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