Berry: OU defense taking bandwagon applications after 20-6 beatdown of Cincinnati

Berry: OU defense taking bandwagon applications after 20-6 beatdown of Cincinnati

Sooner Nation has been bedeviled before over the eight years that the Sooners have played mediocre-at-best defense. But Brent Venables was hired to change that 22 months ago, and evidence finally is emerging that maybe he is.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 23, 2023, 7:30pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 23, 2023, 7:30pm CDT

CINCINNATI — The Delta Tau Delta fraternity partied early Saturday. Before 9 a.m. Ohio time, with Animal House revelry and a sign intended to trash-talk the Sooners.

“YOUR MASCOT IS A LITERAL BANDWAGON.”

Speaking of the mascot, the Sooner Schooner was not at Nippert Stadium on Saturday. The Conestoga wagon makes road trips only to Dallas and bowl games.

But cut the Delts some slack. An Oklahoma bandwagon indeed graced the UC campus Saturday. It’s called the Sooner defense and plenty of people are jumping aboard.

Climb on at your own risk, of course. Sooner Nation has been bedeviled before over the eight years that the Sooners have played mediocre-at-best defense. But Brent Venables was hired to change that 22 months ago, and evidence finally is emerging that maybe he is.

Venables’ Sooners beat Cincinnati 20-6 Saturday in a Big 12 football conference opener that was historic and raucous. Bearcat fans were celebrating their inaugural Big 12 conference game, and Nippert Stadium has a reputation making things rough on visiting squads.

The environment indeed was great. But it kept getting squelched by OU’s ability to turn back the Bearcats. Hard to generate too much buzz when the home team doesn’t reach the end zone.

UC nine times got out of their own territory. Yet two field goals was the Bearcats’ only bounty for the day.

“Like coach Venables says, they’re not in til they’re in,” said Sooner safety Billy Bowman, who had one of OU’s two interceptions. “So as long as we can keep fighting and keep points off the board, we do our job. So that’s just a bunch of wasted yardage, to get down there. It feels great not allowing the offense into the end zone and holding them to field goals.”

Here’s what I liked about the defense Saturday: lots of people contributed. 

Late third quarter, OU led 17-6, but Cincinnati was driving. From the Sooner 20-yard line, UC went with a novel play, a straight quarterback keeper from Emory Jones. But Sooner linemen Isaiah Coe and Reggie Grimes stacked Jones for no gain. Yes, the same Grimes who seemingly has been in the catacombs of the depth chart since sometime last season.

A play later, OU well-covered Cincinnati’s pass routes, Jones threw incomplete and the Sooners had the game well in hand, despite little offensive explosion of their own.

“We’ve talked all season about competitive depth,” said linebacker Danny Stutsman, who is turning into a star. “I think this game really showcased that.

“Defense wins championships. That’s been a big emphasis for us with Coach V coming in. We want to be the reason. The defense. We want to be the why, not the but.”

The Grimes play was especially gratifying. A sign that Venables hasn’t given up on players. Keep working, and you’ll get a chance. Venables figures OU used almost 30 players on defense in a game that always was contested.

“I know I say this about a lot of guys, but it’s the truth,” OU defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “Reggie’s put a lot of work into it off the field in terms of preparing. Getting himself ready. So when his opportunity came, regardless of it’s as much as what some people may have thought, he was ready for it. He made some big plays for us today.”

Don’t get the idea that this is the Cincinnati offense of Desmond Ritter, who quarterbacked the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff two years ago. But UC has a veteran offensive line, a solid run game and a mobile quarterback. Run-around QBs have been hurting the Sooners going back to the glory days of OU defense.

But the Sooners kept turning back Cincinnati. Safety Key Lawrence’s interception on a poor-decision throw from Jones. A missed 26-yard field goal. The Grimes/Coe stop. Bowman’s interception off a twice-tipped fourth-down pass.

“It’s just like a will,” Lawrence said. “Like, they’re not in until they’re in.”

Hmm. There’s that phrase again. Venables must be saying it a lot. And it’s true. Yards are hollow. Points are gold.

“I mean, that’s huge,” said linebacker Dasan McCullough, who had played only two snaps this season, due to an ankle sprain, but had seven tackles Saturday. “I mean, if you stop a team on third down, that shuts down a lot. I think they were 4-of-19 today on third and fourth dow … that’s championship level football.”

Cincinnati helped the OU cause. Jones missed some throws. Flanker Chamon Metayer dropped a deep ball that might have been a touchdown. A penalty or two cost the Bearcats.

But this remains the 21st century. You hold any team to six points, you’ve done well. You hold a self-respecting offense to six points, you’ve done yeoman’s work. And Cincinnati is a self-respecting offense.

The 4-0 Sooners haven’t played a murderer’s row of offense, but they’ve allowed just three touchdowns all season. 

“In two of the three weeks, we didn’t have a lot of pushback,” Venables said. “Today, obviously, we did. That’s how you build a team. I thought it was a great day.”

Venables let his mind wander to 2022, when the Sooners went 3-6 in the Big 12 and finished 6-7 overall.

“You look at the areas a year ago where we weren’t very good, we let people score touchdowns when they got in the red zone,” Venables said. “Today was an outstanding effort in those areas, third and fourth down and red zone stops. Our guys were fantastic.”

Tougher tests await. But the early returns on the OU defense look good. Room remains on the bandwagon, but space is going fast.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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