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Will Oklahoma's defense turn it around before it's too late?

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Walking off the field with one of his captains Saturday afternoon, OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was decisive.

“We’re gonna figure this out,” Grinch told Sooners defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas moments after OU had finished off a 35-23 win over Kansas in a game that was in doubt in the fourth quarter. “We’re gonna get it fixed.”

Early in the season, the narrative around the Sooners centered on OU’s improved defense and how it was Grinch’s group that was keeping the Sooners afloat.

Now, it’s become clear that OU’s defense remains a problem.

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Kansas running back Devin Neal (4) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the first half of a 35-23 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday in Lawrence, Kan.
Kansas running back Devin Neal (4) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the first half of a 35-23 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday in Lawrence, Kan.

The defensive line, which came in with expectations of being the best in quite some time for the Sooners, struggles to stop the run or be disruptive with any kind of consistency.

The secondary, which has suffered a litany of injuries that zapped it of depth or any semblance of progress, has struggled to some up with big plays particularly on third down, or limit the opposition’s ability to make plays down the field.

And even when things go right otherwise, the defense plenty of times makes it more difficult on itself with penalties that seemed to pile up higher than the hills around David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

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All of that was on display from the start, when Kansas coach Lance Leipold’s offense looked more like it was trying to avoid a blowout than win a game.

On the game’s first drive, a demoralizing one for Grinch’s group, the Jayhawks ate more than nine minutes off the clock on a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.

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The Jayhawks’ freshman running back cut through OU’s defense repeatedly early, rushing 14 times for 75 yards in the first half.

Kansas picked its spots through the air but picked on freshman Billy Bowman, forced into action at cornerback by recent injuries.

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The Jayhawks converted thrice on third downs on the opening series, continuing a theme of late. Kansas finished 9 of 13 on third downs, converting 7 of 9 in the first half. In the first half of the last four games, the Sooners have stopped opposing offenses just 12 of 30 times on third down — and three of those stops were immediately followed by fourth-down conversions.

Then there were the penalties, three of which came on offsides calls against the defense on that opening drive.

Instead of just keeping the Jayhawks in the game, Leipold’s plan helped keep Kansas ahead, as the Sooners didn’t take the lead for the first time until early in the fourth quarter.

Kansas had trailed its five games against Football Bowl Subdivision competition this season by an average of nearly 28 points per game after three quarters.

The Jayhawks had gone 1-14-1 against the spread in their last 16 games and hadn’t beat an FBS opponent since 2019.

Kansas quarterback Jason Bean (17) throws under pressure from OU defensive end Reggie Grimes (14) during the second half.
Kansas quarterback Jason Bean (17) throws under pressure from OU defensive end Reggie Grimes (14) during the second half.

“There’s a theme forming over the last few weeks — an inconsistent unit,” Grinch said. “Who’s fault is that? It’s all of ours, obviously, specifically, me. It does come down to practice. That’s where you attack those issues. It comes down to the plan, making sure from a coaching staff standpoint that you’re asking them to do the things that you put them in a situation they can be the most successful. It’s also having an awareness of every extra hat that you put in the box, it limits you from a coverage standpoint.

“In the end, what we need do, is we have to find ways to make plays. … We’ve all gotta take responsibility for it.”

Grinch wouldn’t even revel in one of the few positives to come out of the day for his group — Key Lawrence’s stripping the ball from Steven McBride to create a turnover early in the fourth right after the Sooners had taken their first lead.

Turnovers came in bunches for the Sooners — 20 in nine games beginning midway through last season — but now they’ve been slowed to a trickle. The Sooners have just six takeaways in their last six games.

“No one talks about it more,” Grinch said. “We’ve gotta do maybe less talking and more actual doing. Where are those snaps? Where are those gang tackles with guys stripping at the football? What are we doing wrong as a coaching staff to not convince guys of the impact of those plays? We keep seeing the impact one we do do that, so why is that not happening more?

“Key stepped up. If I think about the guys that have stepped up over the recent weeks, that list is very short.”

Now, with just one more game — next week against Texas Tech — before finally getting a bye heading into the tough three-game stretch to end the regular season, the Sooners are still looking for answers.

Those have to come from within, Thomas said.

“The most frustrating part is that all of that was self-inflicted, whether guys weren’t in the right fits or whether guys were jumping offsides,” Thomas said. “Just as a group, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. But it’s always great to respond. Finishing is what we always preach on, but now we’ve got to harp on starting better than what we have.”

Follow Ryan Aber on Twitter @ryaber

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: College football: No. 2 Oklahoma undefeated, but it has a big problem

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