Oklahoma and Texas are struggling on defense again, and it has cost both programs and the Big 12 Conference.
The league’s two marquee teams started off with national title hopes. Less than a month into the season, neither are where they expected to be as they prepare to meet Saturday at the Cotton Bowl. Texas is barely ranked at No. 22 and Oklahoma is out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2016.
Oklahoma probably has no shot at the College Football Playoff after getting there the past three years, and Texas likely would be out of the running with a loss. It’s not a good look for a conference that has become known for Oklahoma’s failure to stop elite teams in big games and Texas’ tendency to underachieve.
No. 10 Oklahoma State at 3-0 is the Big 12′s only unbeaten team, featuring one of the nation’s top defenses in a bit of a twist, and currently the league’s best hope to make a run at a playoff spot.
The Sooners appeared to be moving in the right direction on defense last season before giving up 63 points in the national semifinal against LSU. This season, the Sooners were outscored 17-0 in the fourth quarter of a 38-35 loss to Kansas State and squandered a 30-23 lead in the fourth quarter of a 37-30 loss to Iowa State.
Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch gets no breather this weekend: The Longhorns, led by quarterback Sam Ehlinger, have the nation’s No. 1-ranked scoring offense with 51 points per game. Ehlinger leads the nation with 14 touchdown passes.
“Collectively now, we’ve got to play four quality quarters of football and find a way to win in the end,” Grinch said. “We’ve done the exact opposite the last two weeks, which is obviously us as coaches not doing a good enough job of getting guys to play four quarters.”
The Sooners have forced just two turnovers this season. Coach Lincoln Riley said the Sooners are leaving themselves vulnerable while trying to make big plays rather than making tackles.
“Guys have got to understand where the turnovers come from,” Riley said. “Yeah, if you come in there just full speed out of control, every now and then, you end up putting your helmet on a ball and the ball pops out. And that’s great, but I don’t know if that’s worth the number of missed tackles that you’re probably going to have there, too.”
Texas fired defensive coordinator Todd Orlando as part of coach Tom Herman’s house cleaning and staff rebuild after a 7-5 regular season finish in 2019. Herman then hired Chris Ash, an old friend who was an assistant with him first at Iowa State and again when they were part of the staff for Ohio State’s 2014 national championship. Ash was free because he’d been fired as head coach at Rutgers early in the 2019 season.
Texas allowed 56 points against Texas Tech but won in overtime thanks to two late scoring drives and an opportunistic onside kick that helped keep the defense off the field.
In last week’s 33-31 loss to unranked TCU, Texas’ tackling was much improved, but the Longhorns struggled to contain mobile quarterback Max Duggan, who burned them for several long throws and the game-winning 26-yard touchdown run.
“My biggest issue is our lack of consistency,” Ash said. “It’s the occasional lapse, or occasional big play given up during the game. Great defenses don’t do that.”
Texas’ secondary has been vulnerable to deep balls. Ash said Longhorns cornerbacks have been beaten on several long throws, even when they were in good coverage. The defensive line, a weak spot in 2019, has just two sacks this season.
Now, the Longhorns will face one of the nation’s best offenses. Oklahoma ranks second nationally in passing yards per game and eighth in total offense.
Like TCU’s Duggan, Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler is a threat to run or throw. Only he’s faster and ranks among the nation’s leading passers after three games.
It’s a lot to take on for a program that is in transition.
“We’re installing a brand new defensive system with all new coaches,” Herman said. “We knew there was going to be growing pains on that side of the ball.”