Tackling in focus for No. 15 Sooners

Thursday, September 7th 2006, 6:05 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) One big reason a season-opening victory nearly slipped out of Oklahoma's grasp was that so many UAB players did exactly that.

When looking back at the Sooners' 24-17 win, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was most disappointed in how his team played defense, particularly in one area.

"Tackling was poor,'' Stoops said.

On one scoring drive alone, the Sooners (1-0) allowed UAB to run 15 plays, gain 80 yards and absorb nearly half of the 2nd quarter. 13 of those plays were rushes as UAB gobbled up one 1st down after another.

At the end of the game, Oklahoma had given up 135 rushing yards, the most any Big 12 team yielded in its opener this weekend.

"It disappointed us all as a defense because we pride ourselves on tackling and pride ourselves on being a good defense,'' said linebacker Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma's leading tackler last season. "Those are the things that break down a defense and make for bad defense.''

Stoops said the problems were breakdowns in fundamentals that Oklahoma practices every day. He said he thought preseason rankings that placed Oklahoma among the nation's best defenses might have factored into his team's poor execution.

"You guys have probably told them they're too good and they believed it, and in our first game we need to realize the speed of what's happening and execute better,'' Stoops said.

Linebacker Zach Latimer doesn't believe rankings were a factor.

"I think not at all,'' Latimer said. "Regardless of whoever says you're supposed to be good, you're going to have to go out there and prove it. It's real quick that if you don't get it done, they'll say you're overhyped and all that.

"We know what we have to do. We have to get it done this week.''

It's even more imperative that the Sooners fix their tackling problems this week because Washington (1-0) brings in speedy quarterback Isaiah Stanback, a track sprinter who piled up career highs last week with 102 rushing yards on 17 carries.

Stoops said he thought the Sooners were undisciplined against the quarterback keep on the zone read option play, and that allowed UAB quarterback Sam Hunt to lead his team in rushing.

"It's something that we're going to have to try and get contained because (Stanback) has a lot of speed and he can throw the ball a mile,'' Latimer said.

Stoops said the 15th ranked Sooners placed an extra emphasis on tackling this week, but that can be a tricky proposition in practice. The risk of injury means there isn't full contact.

"It's hard in practice because not everything is to the ground,'' Stoops said. "You have to find that balance where you're not creating big piles, but we need to finish in practice better than we have. ... We've always worked it, but obviously you have to do something to pick up the pace on it. Hopefully the more we play, it should help the improvement as well.''

Alexander, who shared the team lead in tackles with Latimer on Saturday, said tackling does generally improve during the season as players get used to taking offensive players all the way to the grass. But he said the Sooners can't just rely on that improvement to come naturally.

"You can say that it'll get better as the year goes on, but it has to get better now,'' Alexander said.

Tackling certainly hasn't been a weak point for Oklahoma under Stoops. The Sooners have finished either first or second in the Big 12 in rushing defense the past five years, and they've never been lower than 20th nationally in that span.

Oklahoma was 4th in the nation against the run last season and 6th in 2004, allowing less than 100 yards per game on the ground both seasons.

"I don't think people go around saying, `Hey man, we've got this great defense.' Nobody believes that,'' Latimer said. "You're only as great as your last game. From the last game, we (weren't) too hot.''