Defense overlooked during surge, Stoops says

Tuesday, October 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Oklahoma's rise to No. 1 has made quarterback Josh Heupel a Heisman Trophy contender and focused attention on an entertaining offense that ranks second the nation in scoring.

Lost in the hubbub is a young, undersized defense that has more than held its own all season.

``They have been lost in all this,'' coach Bob Stoops said. ``If you look at how the defense has played in Big 12 games, it's been fantastic.''

In a tougher-than-expected, 34-16 victory over Kansas in late September, Oklahoma came up with seven turnovers and six sacks. In the second half, the Jayhawks managed just 93 total yards and zero points.

One week later, Texas had minus-7 yards rushing and linebacker Rocky Calmus returned an interception for a touchdown as Oklahoma won 63-14. At then-No. 2 Kansas State the following week, the defense stuffed the Wildcats for the final 10 minutes of the game, allowing the Sooners to win 41-31.

``At Kansas State, we had some major stops in the fourth quarter,'' Stoops said. ``I think they had one consistent drive through the whole game.''

The most impressive defensive performance game Saturday against top-ranked Nebraska. The Cornhuskers drove 76 and 91 yards on their first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead, then got shut down the rest of the afternoon. They totaled 136 yards in the final three quarters.

Oklahoma's final touchdown came on an interception return by sophomore cornerback Derrick Strait, one of seven underclassmen on the secondary's depth chart.

``That's probably as good a defensive performance as I've seen,'' said Stoops, a former defensive back and longtime defensive coordinator before becoming head coach. ``I don't know when they've been held down like that offensively in a long, long time.''

Oklahoma has given up just two fourth-quarter touchdowns all season. The Sooners rank fifth nationally with a plus-11 turnover margin and are 10th in points allowed (15.7 per game).

In four conference games, they have come up with 14 turnovers and 19 sacks. Opponents have averaged 18.8 points per game.

``We've played good enough to win and that's what's important,'' co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said Tuesday. ``I don't know if we're a dominating defense. But if we play well, we're always going to have a chance to win.

``I don't think people are going to light us up like they did last year. We just weren't very good last year. We weren't very smart and just didn't execute very well.''

The Sooners allowed 18.4 points per game in 1999, but gave up 34, 38, 38 and 38 in their four regular-season losses. The 31 scored by Kansas State is the highest total by an opponent so far. No one else has scored more than 16.

``I think it's the maturity of the system, the maturity of the players,'' Mike Stoops said. ``We're mentally stronger, and I think that's it as much as anything. We're a much mentally stronger football team than we were a year ago.''

Oklahoma just completed a stunning October, with victories over teams that at the time were ranked 11th, second and first. Next up is Baylor (2-6, 0-5), which has lost 18 straight conference games dating to 1998.

The defense should have an easy time against the Bears, who have scored 88 points all season. But Bob Stoops said his team, No. 1 for the first time since 1987, will prepare just as it has for every other opponent.

``I look at the part of being No. 1, and I think for our players it is exciting and it is motivational in that it's right there, why give it up?'' he said. ``Most teams fight a long time to be in that position. Let's hold on to it and keep earning it.''