Stop if you’ve heard this before: Oklahoma owns one of the nation’s most potent offenses. That isn’t news to anyone who has followed college football the past two decades. What is noteworthy is that the No. 5 Sooners now boast — on paper — one of the Big 12’s best defenses.
Thanks to the influence of first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, Oklahoma is fielding one of its best units in years.
Chris Klieman said he coudn’t speak on the past. But what he sees now is a unit that plays “really, really fast.” It will be the latest test for a K-State offense still trying to find its footing; after opening the season with back-to-back outings of 500-plus yards — the first time in school history the Wildcats did that in their first two games — they have failed to surpass the 400-yard mark each of the past four contests.
Quarterbacks coach Collin Klein has filled Klieman in on what’s changed with the Sooners. From what Klein has seen, and relayed to Klieman, is that Oklahoma’s defense has simplified things under Grinch, allowing them to read and react more often.
“They get off blocks,” said Klieman, who is in his first season as K-State’s head coach. “You’re just not sustaining blocks on those guys, which is the sign of a great defense. I think they’re a really good tackling team, which is another sign, because in this game of college football right now, it’s all about plays in space. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing. You see people get the ball in space against them, and there are no yards after contact. Well, that’s the sign of an exceptional team that understands where they fit within the defense and that is really efficient about being able to tackle people.”
Skylar Thompson saw those same things during film review. The Sooners, he said, “play hard and fast.” He didn’t mean that as a shot at previous Oklahoma defenses.
It’s just different.
“You can just tell there’s a swagger across the board on defense that they play with,” said Thompson, K-State’s starting quarterback. “You put that on top of having great players who know their role on the team and play well together, and it makes them good.”
That Oklahoma enters Saturday leading the nation in numerous offensive categories make K-State’s time with the ball all the more important. That’s why the Wildcats are placing even more emphasis on winning time of possession than they usually do — a callback to those first two games, when they held the ball for more than 41 minutes against both Nicholls and Bowling Green.
“Two things need to happen from our standpoint,” offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said. “We need to score points, because they’re going to figure out how to score some points. But we (also) then need to keep the ball away from their offense. So if that means getting some eight-, 10-, 12-play drives, that would be phenomenal. But then we need to finish those drives.”
Messingham didn’t dispute the assertion that facing the Sooners’ explosive attack — it averages 50.4 points per game, which leads the FBS — it would be easy to get caught up in the moment.
To feel the need to go point-for-point with OU.
But Messingham said it’s important for K-State to stay within itself and stick to its fundamental philosophies offensively.
“Obviously if they’re scoring a ton, then you have to try to go out and put some more points on the board,” he said. “From a team concept, our biggest deal is to score when we get an opportunity and keep the ball away from the other guys. That’s what our mindset needs to be. I don’t want to put ourselves in a bunch of third-and-longs because we’re trying to throw the football or run play-action passes that put us in bad situations.”
One way Oklahoma’s defense puts opponents into tenuous spots is by getting to the quarterback; the Sooners’ 22 sacks this season ranks second in the Big 12, trailing only Baylor’s 25. From what Messingham has seen on film, Oklahoma has a “very, very talented” group of defensive linemen.
“They have quick twitch. They slant and angle a bunch,” Messingham said. “So it goes back to us really being good at communicating, us being on the same page. That’s one thing I do feel like our offensive line does a good job with, and that’s talking and communicating and being on the same page. Now, with that being said, you also have to be physical. We have to move the line of scrimmage a little bit.”
And the talent doesn’t drop off when one moves away from the defensive line. Linebacker Kenneth Murray, a preseason All-American selection, is the heart and soul of the defense. After leading the Sooners in tackles last year with 155, he’s followed that up with team-best 51 tackles through seven games this fall.
Consider Messingham impressed.
“(He has) explosiveness, ability to go sideline to sideline, show up on any given play, whether it be a run or a pass,” Messingham said. “He’s as good as there is out there. Obviously, he’s a guy that you have to know where he’s at and make sure you’re ready to take care of him or try to do the best to slow him down.”
Thompson was equally full of praise for Murray — as well as those playing behind him.
"Murray is the real deal as well,” Thompson said. “In their secondary, they have guys all across the board who are really talented and really good football players. So that, in general, just makes them really good.”