This season, Oklahoma led the Big 12 in total defense for the first time since 2006 and finished 11th nationally.
Not too shabby.
And yet, to hear the conventional wisdom, the undersized Sooners will be pounded into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf by Alabama’s smashmouth attack in Thursday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl.
“Yeah, they are kind of disrespecting us,” sophomore linebacker Eric Striker said, “We’re so little and all of that.
“But the little guys also have the biggest hearts. We’re going to go out there, play with the right technique and also get gritty down there in the trenches with them.”
It is true that Oklahoma’s primary 4-2-5 defensive scheme is primarily designed to deal with the spread-happy offenses the Sooners primarily go against in the Big 12.
And it’s also true that against team they played that most resembles Alabama. Against Texas, the Sooners gave up 445 yards, 255 rushing in a 36-20 defeat.
“They play old-school, NFL-style football,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “There’s nothing tricky in what they try to do.
“I’m excited to play in a game like this. But I don’t know if come Thursday about 11 I’ll feel the same way if we can’t stop the run.”
Actually, Alabama has a balanced offense, 212.0 rushing and 236.9 passing.
But the Tide will use the run — primarily T.J. Yeldon — behind All-America tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, to set up the passing of Heisman Trophy runner-up AJ McCarron.
That was especially evident in the LSU game, when Alabama pushed the Tigers down the field in the decisive fourth quarter.
“It’s cool when we’re moving the ball like that,” Kouandjio said. “I’m a big movie fan, and when we have a game like that I’m saying quotes from The 300 and Gladiator on the field, and the rest of the line of the line replies because that’s what it feels like.
“It’s a great feeling — doing what you’re born to do.”
So the Sooners know what they’re up against.
“They’re a powerhouse for sure,” sophomore linebacker Frank Shannon said. “They’re going to run, and run and run at you until you make them pass.
“But we feel like we’ve been as physical as anybody we’ve played.
After that, it’s all about preparation and getting ready for what you have to do.”
That’s the message Sooners’ Stoops has been preaching.
“Our defense is a little bit undersized as a whole,” he said. “We’re built more for speed.
“So we’re going to have to do some thing to create some plays with our speed. But we’re going to have to play physical as well.”
Stoops said that some of his bigger backups, like defensive ends Chaz Nelson and P.L. Lindley, can expect to see more action than usual.
But injuries have left the team thin at some key positions.
And the Sooners, despite their team accomplishments, are a team without marquee defensive players.
End Charles Tapper and defensive back Aaron Colvin are the lone first-team All-Conference players (Baylor had four and Oklahoma State three) and Striker is the only second-teamer, although fellow linebacker Dominique Alexander was the league’s Defensive Freshman of the Year.
With limited options, then, Stoops said he will have to rely on stalwarts like junior defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue.
“More than anything else, you watch a lot of film,” Ndulue said. “You pick up the tendencies of what they like to do in certain situations.
After practice (on Saturday at the Saints facility) we were leaving and Drew Brees was still there looking at film even though they were done before we started. Studying film is just as important as playing the football game.”
And, Shannon added, going against the fast-paced offenses they face in the Big 12 might be to the Sooners advantage against the more deliberate Crimson Tide.
“You don’t get a lot of time between plays in the Big 12,” he said. “We won’t be as winded, so that should help us focus even more.”
But to Striker, it still will come down to approximating Alabama’s physicality — if possible.
“You’ve got to be a technician on the field,” he said. “Throw off their blocks and don’t let them hold you tight.
“But mainly we’ve got to hit them in the mouth before they hit us. If we don’t, it’s going to be a long night for us.”