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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Defensive lapses less concerning than in years past

There weren’t as many red flags for OU’s defense versus Iowa State this year.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Last week’s matchup with the Iowa State Cyclones had to conjure up all kinds of bad memories for fans of the Oklahoma Sooners. Once again, a backup quarterback threw for a boatload of yards against OU’s defense as Cyclones slipped through the arms of would-be Sooner tacklers.

This wasn’t a replay of ISU’s upset win from 2017, though. That goes for more than just the fact that the Sooners came away with a victory.

The Cyclones’ offensive output last season confirmed that the cracks in OU’s defense were building. The issues that surfaced in this year’s contest don’t seem so dire.

Sooners self-destructing

In 2017, ISU did most of its damage by just allowing the Sooners to screw up. The Cyclones murdered OU’s linebackers and defensive backs primarily with short catch-and-run routes – including screens and swing passes – that took advantage of lousy technique and players who were out of position on the back end.

A good example:

On this play the ‘Clones line three receivers in a bunch formation to the boundary on their right. OU has cornerback Parnell Motley lined up across from the bunch and JACK linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo kinda playing the mushy curl-flat zone. Safety Will Johnson is in the middle of the field.

Motley is essentially covering three players by himself. Meanwhile, four coverage players for OU – safety Chanse Sylvie, cornerback Jordan Thomas, SAM linebacker Caleb Kelly and MIKE linebacker Kenneth Murray – line up to the field side of the formation. There is one potential receiving threat on that side.

Quarterback Kyle Kempt throws a quick screen to wideout Trever Ryen. ISU’s blockers on the perimeter have a clear numbers advantage, and they occupy Motley and Obo, who is pursuing the play from behind. Ryen scampers 25 yards before a Sooner lays a hand on him.

Speaking of not getting a hand on a guy…

Butler did it

In the 2017 game, five Cyclones had at least 40 yards receiving and three caught touchdown passes, indicative of the broad-based devastation of OU’s defense. Last week, it was one player who did most of the damage: Lanky ISU receiver Hakeem Butler accounted for 174 of the Cyclones’ 360 receiving yards and scored both of their touchdowns through the air.

ISU isolated Butler in one-on-one situations, allowing QB Zeb Noland to hit the 6-6, 225 pound wideout on stop routes and back shoulder throws to utilize his size advantage over the likes of Motley (6-0, 177 pounds), cornerback Tre Norwood (6-0, 179 pounds) and nickelback Justin Broiles (5-10, 181 pounds).

Although bogus tackling did exacerbate the problems that Butler was causing in the secondary, the truth is that No. 18 is going to be a tough matchup for DBs all season. Maybe defensive coordinator Mike Stoops could have played more bracket coverage on Butler, but I couldn’t find much fault in how the players assigned to him covered him. Similarly, ISU generally left six or seven players in to block in passing situations, mitigating OU’s pass rush and the effect of the Sooners’ blitzes.

Plays like that tell you that sometimes problems don’t have solutions.

Looking ahead

Keep in mind that this was ISU’s second game of the season. It’s possible that coach Matt Campbell opted for this offensive game plan based on what he saw out of his team in the first game against Iowa. The Cyclones’ future opponents now have the opportunity to tailor their defenses to better contain Butler using this blueprint, a luxury the Sooners didn’t have in this case. (The ‘Clones also could be forced to make a tough call at QB.)

Given OU’s struggles in handling Butler, Stoops should count on more teams with big receivers trying to use any size discrepancy to their favor. Notably, Texas has a fair number of them in its receiving corps.

All in all, though, take it as a positive that the warning lights for OU’s defense aren’t flashing nearly as bright after playing ISU this season.