Under Grinch, the Sooner defense has come further than you think

OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch is shown on the sidelines during the OU Spring Game last April at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

NORMAN — Until Lincoln Riley writes his book or Mike Stoops stuns us with a heavy introspective one of his own, we may never really understand how everything went wrong defensively for Oklahoma.

Similarly, until Riley or Alex Grinch pen their memoir, we may never fully understand what Grinch has that Stoops didn’t have or lost along the way.

All we can know is it’s been a whole new world on the side of the ball that doesn’t have the ball and it has been almost immediate since Grinch arrived.

This season, it’s a matter of OU going from being a real good defense to a really, really good defense or, maybe, just a real good defense from start to finish, one that won’t give up 31 second-half points to Kansas State, 24 second-half points to Iowa State and 14 fourth-quarter points to Texas right out of the conference chute.

Aside from that trio of tussles, Grinch’s defense was terrific last season, allowing a third-best-in-the-conference 350.6 yards-from-scrimmage per game and a third-best-in-the-conference 21.7 points per game, despite allowing a collective 1,237 and 120 in weeks two, three and four.

“The progression has been great,” Riley said this past week at Big 12 Media Days. “We were much improved in year one, we took a big step in year two and our plan is to take another big step here.”

“Great,” as Riley said, hardly covers the whiplash of the turnaround.

In 2018, when Stoops exited following the Texas game and Ruffin McNeill entered, OU finished the season ninth in the 10-team conference in yards allowed from scrimmage (453.8 per game), 10th in passing yards allowed (294) and ninth in points allowed (33.3).

Somehow, that same team was in the middle of the pack, in the Big 12 (fourth) and nationally (57th), with a third-down stoppage rate of 38 percent. Yet the defenses that preceded that season, though marginally better, were even worse at getting off the field, allowing opposing offenses a third-down conversion rate of 42.6 percent in 2017 and 40.4 percent in 2016.

Sometimes, you’ll hear it mentioned that OU, under Stoops, actually played very good defense the year before that, in 2015, when it led the Big 12 in total defense (364.5 yards per game), passing defense (202.8) and scoring defense (22). Yet even then, the Sooners’ third-down defense was a lackluster 38.3 percent, fourth in the conference and 47th in the nation.

Last season, it was 27.9 percent, fourth in the nation. The season before that, Grinch’s first season, it was 31.6 percent, 13th in the nation.

Let’s repeat one number.

In 2018, the Sooners allowed an average 453.8 yards from scrimmage.

In 2019, under Grinch, it was 356.4. A year ago, under Grinch, it was 350.6 and the last seven games of the season, opponents averaged 17.1 points and 15.3 if you kick out the 28 Texas Tech scored in a game OU led 42-7 in the second quarter.

It’s night and day.

It’s night and day, and the turnovers began to come last season, too.

Grinch spent his first season apologizing for the turnovers his unit wasn’t getting, even while it gave up almost 100 fewer yards per game. That season, OU nabbed 11, seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries. A year ago, that figure was up 42 percent, to 19, 16 picks and three fumble recoveries.

“I look at OU and their success on defense and commitment to defense,” Baylor coach Dave Aranda said Thursday, asked about the conference shaking its tag as a league that can’t defend.

Heck, it was against Baylor, under Stoops, the Sooner defense was booed for the first time in its own stadium in 2014.

How times have changed.

It’s sort of funny.

Everybody’s watched OU’s defense improve, and may well expect Riley’s right about it taking another step this season.

The leap fewer make so readily is what that will look like from the wide angle.

The questions always seems to be, can the Sooners finally not get driven off the field in the playoff?

If the defense keeps coming and the offense only stays the same, the answer is yes. The Sooners just can’t be dropping early games in the conference as they did a year ago.

“Alex quickly separated himself for us during [the hiring] process because of what we believed this could be,” Riley said on Wednesday, referencing the first week of 2019, when Grinch was hired, “and our visions were so much in line that it was almost scary.”

Scary for Riley then.

Scary for opponents now.

That’s how far the Sooner defense has come.

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