No. 4 Oklahoma’s defense in better state for this matchup at West Virginia

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MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — When Bob Stoops last visited Mountaineer Field, it was not a pretty sight for him and his Oklahoma football team.

Yes, the Sooners managed to escape with a win. Barely.

But it was what happened to Stoops’ defense that night that contributed mightily to a ton of soul-searching and reorganization, all of which seems to have paid off.

That was the night that West Virginia’s offensive coaches saw something in the Oklahoma defense and thought they could take advantage. In essence, the Sooners were vacating the middle of the field, playing two linebackers, and sometimes just one. There was a pass rush that would get after quarterback Geno Smith and an umbrella secondary that was designed to make sure Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey didn’t get behind them.

So West Virginia didn’t even try the latter. Instead, Austin, the little slot receiver, was turned into a tailback. He was given the ball 21 times, and when he broke through that pass rush — which he did almost every time — no one was there to tackle him. Austin rushed for an astounding 344 yards and caught four passes for 82 more. Combined with his kick return yardage, Austin’s 572 total yards went down as one of the most amazing performances in college football history.

Oklahoma did manage to win the game 50-49, but with the Sooners returning to Morgantown, West Virginia, for Saturday night’s Big 12 opener for the teams, it’s difficult not to recall how the vaunted OU defense was tormented that night.

It’s also appropriate to illustrate how that game changed things for Stoops and the Sooners.

“We don’t have time to talk about the biggest changes,” Stoops said Monday when asked how his defense was different from then to now. “That’s two years ago. That’s a long time ago. We’re totally different in every aspect — secondary, ‘backers, front, everything’s different. That’s the simplest way I can put it.”

Indeed, the defense that has contributed to Oklahoma’s 2-0 start and No. 4 national ranking is quite different. The coordinator is still Stoops’ brother Mike, but gone are the gaping holes that existed that night. Suffice it to say that through two games the Sooners are in the top 20 in the NCAA in virtually every significant defensive category.

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who presumably helped devise the offense that lacerated the Sooners that night, insists that it was nothing out of the ordinary. West Virginia simply went into the game thinking something might work and it did.

“It’s the cat-and-mouse game of coaching ball. You come up with some schemes, you get there on Saturday, you call some plays and whatever works you keep doing it,” Holgorsen said. “That happens to be one example of what happened in one specific game. There’s been many more examples of things we thought were a good idea and we go out there and it doesn’t work very good.”

And it’s not as if that game was an anomaly. West Virginia gained a staggering 778 yards that night, but Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel had 633 later that year against Oklahoma in a bowl game. Baylor and Oklahoma State averaged 45 points against OU in the games before and after the Sooners played in Morgantown.

All that seems like ancient history now, though. Oklahoma led the Big 12 in total defense and pass defense last year and was second in run defense and scoring defense.

“Obviously coach Stoops, both Bob and Mike, have done a great job of revamping what they’re doing,” Holgorsen said. “They’re playing as well as I’ve seen since I started watching tape of them going back to the 2000 season.”

Oklahoma proved that a year ago against West Virginia in Norman, Oklahoma, although with a great deal of help from a West Virginia team without even close to the firepower of a year before. Last year the Mountaineers scored just seven points on a long run by Dreamius Smith in a 16-7 loss to the Sooners.

“Defensively they’re about the same as they were last year in Norman,” Holgorsen said. “They changed some things from two years ago, obviously.”

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