Mike Stoops was extremely excited about the defense he had on his hands at the beginning of the season, but wasn't sure just how good his unit could be.
The Sooners' suffocation of Tennessee Saturday night put the country on notice that Oklahoma has one of the elite defenses in the country. That unit led the Sooners to a 34-10 win over Tennessee in front of a capacity crowd in Norman.
The final stat line may not tell the tale, but Oklahoma dominated this game with an aggressive game plan that had players flying all over the field making plays.
“It's fun, it's easy,” linebacker Dominique Alexander said, a big smile on his face. “Everybody is just flying around to the football. That's the way football is supposed to be.”
After two games where the Sooners were not challenged and the defense stuck to a primarily basic gameplan, opting instead to figure out rotations, Stoops had his guys in the Vols' faces all night. They constantly harassed quarterback Justin Worley and didn't allow Tennessee to get in positive figures running the football until late in the third quarter.
“It's hard for the offense,” linebacker Eric Striker said. “They can't get anything done when the pressure is like that. We work on that through practice and we pride ourselves on the D-line. You get disruptive, you can't do anything. It messes up routes and schemes and everything.”
The Sooners finished with five sacks and 12 tackles for loss to go along with three turnovers. It was almost hard to believe the Volunteers managed to score 10 points, as it seemed like Worley was peeling himself off the turf on every play.
“All of those sacks were pretty serendipitous because our DBs were holding down the pass coverage and the pass rush was getting there as soon as it could,” defensive end Chuka Ndulue said. “It was just a complete team effort.”
Tennessee finished the game with 313 total yards, but Oklahoma limited the Vols to just 4.1 yards per play. That figure would have been much worse if not for several big runs for Tennessee.
While the Sooners hadn't been challenged all season, Tennessee put quite the scare in the crimson faithful in the second quarter. Down 13-0, the Vols converted third plays of 11 and 12 yards to move the ball downfield before Worley found Josh Smith down the field and hit him in stride for a 40-yard touchdown.
The drive could've been a three-and-out, but on 3rd and 16, the Sooners were offsides, nullifying a drive-ending sack. On the next play, Tennessee tossed a perfect screen pass to Jalen Hurd for 30 yards.
The defense a stop on the next Vols possession and from that point on, Tennessee would barely sniff the end zone. The Sooners played as if offended by the touchdown, allowing just 47 yards on the Vols next five possessions.
The OU offense wasn't spectacular on Saturday, but it didn't have to be. The Sooners ran the ball effectively behind the power combo of Keith Ford and Samaje Perine, while Trevor Knight was once again very good. Knight threw for 308 yards and a touchdown while running for another one.
Oklahoma didn't look like an offensive juggernaut, but it started fast, jumping out to a 13-0 lead after the first quarter, and opened the second half with a touchdown to go up 27-7. That enabled the Sooners to rest comfortably in the play of their defense.
Zach Sanchez had an interception that ended one Tennessee scoring opportunity, and Julian Wilson had another that he returned 100 yards for the finishing touches four minutes into the fourth quarter, stretching the OU lead to 34-10.
“Turnovers are a big thing,” Striker said. “That can help you win. That's one of our goals on defense, have a couple turnovers. That's a goal. We pride ourselves on that. Stripping the ball out, grabbing interceptions, all that. We'll continue to play that way.”
Despite the big plays, Sanchez in particular was not completely pleased with his individual performance, citing several missed tackles before his diving interception in the back of the end zone. It was the fourth game in a row Sanchez has had an interception. Sanchez played with a shoulder injury sustained last week against Tulsa, but didn't use that as an excuse.
“I feel like even though I had a shoulder injury, I could have tackled a lot better than I did,” Sanchez said. “I think they had three big plays and on one of them I should have come up and made a tackle on the running back. It's frustrating, but it's something I have to work on. I'll get better at it and move on.”
The fact any player on the OU defense could come out of Saturday's performance in a bad mood is a testament to the relentless pursuit of perfection in the unit. As good as the defense was on Saturday, there is still room to improve.
“We want to be perfect, individually and as a group,” Sanchez said. “It's a big win for us and we'll go back and look at the film. We still have those things we need to fix and critique, especially myself.”
“We're hard on each other and we hold each other accountable. That's what I think makes the defense so good; that type of stuff is what has us heading in the right direction.”
While it's likely we learned more about how good Tennessee could be this year and in the future, we still saw just how far a dominant defense can take Oklahoma. Mike Stoops has himself another terrific unit, one that enjoys playing together and understands what it could become: a championship-level group.
“It's a very unique group; it's a very together group,” Stoops said. “They play well together. There's no real weak link in the whole group. They really embrace playing hard and no one wants to be that weak link. That's a good thing; that's the thing I like about them.”