Tahlequah Daily Press

September 2, 2013

Oklahoma's defense has strong start to season

By MURRAY EVANS
Associated Press

— NORMAN — In the season opener, Oklahoma's defense showed vast improvement over the group that finished last year.

It's just one game, but it was an impressive performance by No. 16 Oklahoma in a 34-0 romp over Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday night.

"It feels amazing," senior linebacker Corey Nelson said.

"Especially after that loss in the Cotton Bowl, to come out here and get a shutout in the season opener is an amazing feeling. We have to keep that chip on our shoulder, remain hungry and always be humble in everything that we're doing."

At the end of last season, Oklahoma gave up 778 yards and 49 points to West Virginia and 490 yards and 48 points to Oklahoma State before the Cotton Bowl, when Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel helped the Aggies roll up 633 yards in a 41-13 win.

Manziel had 229 yards rushing and two touchdowns and 287 yards passing and two more scores.

Contrast those outings with the effort against Louisiana-Monroe. Oklahoma allowed the Warhawks — a team that beat Arkansas and threw scares into Auburn and Baylor last season — only 166 yards of offense and nine first downs.

Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning, the Sun Belt Conference's preseason offensive player of the year, threw for 128 yards and rushed for only 3 yards on four carries.

The Warhawks' leading rusher, Jyruss Washington, gained 9 yards on three carries.

Oklahoma had its first shutout since beating Iowa State 52-0 on Oct. 16, 2010. It was the Sooners' first shutout in a season opener since winning 37-0 at Tulsa in 2002.

The defensive performance also gave time for the Sooners freshman quarterback Trevor Knight to shake off early struggles and take control of the offense.

Knight had 103 yards rushing and threw three touchdown passes.

With West Virginia visiting Norman on Saturday for the Big 12 conference opener, Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said his unit's improvement came at an opportune time.

"It worked for one day, and if we can do that 11 straight times, then I would be happy," Stoops said. "It's about the window. We certainly got embarrassed last year against West Virginia. I am glad we got off to a good start. It gives us confidence. We will be challenged by a much more diverse offense in West Virginia.

"But I just liked the way we covered. I thought our secondary was excellent all day. I thought our pressure was excellent all day.

"And our ability to stop the run. I mean, that's really a perfect day in a defensive coach's mind if you can be successful on that. In every phase we wanted to improve, we improved."

For much of the game, the Sooners used a three-man front. That disguised Oklahoma's lack of experience on the defensive line. Entering the game, no one in the rotation had started a major college game.

Jordan Phillips started at nose tackle for the Sooners, while Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper played at defensive end.

While the Sooners constantly pressured Browning, they sacked him only once.

Still, the Oklahoma line figures to be bolstered against West Virginia by the return of tackle Chuka Ndulue, who served a one-game suspension Saturday after an offseason arrest.

"We didn't complete a lot of sacks, so we have a lot of work this week coming up, working on making plays on the quarterback," Tapper said. "We should make a lot more plays with Chuka coming back."

The Sooners linebackers were criticized after the poor finish to the 2012 season.

Nelson said during preseason practice that the success or failure of this year's group would depend on how well he and other linebackers played.

They exceled against Louisiana-Monroe. Nelson led the Sooners with eight tackles and sacked Browning. Another linebacker, Frank Shannon, finished second on the team in tackles with seven.

"Defensively, it was one of the better games that we have had in a long, long time, where all of the assignments and communication were as clean as any we have had," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.

"They give you a lot to work on with all of their formations, personnel groupings and empty sets. I thought our guys really did a great job of handling all of that."