OU football: Sooners running the ball at elite level, though struggling to defend it

Nov. 9—If there's one thing Oklahoma has done well all season, it's run the football.

The early season trends that showed the Sooners' success on the ground have continued deep into conference play. The Sooners lead the Big 12 in rushing offense and are averaging nearly 220 yards per game. They've recorded 156 rushing yards or more in every conference game. They also rank 12th nationally and sixth in the Power 5 conferences.

A key reason for that has been volume. They're running the ball on nearly 60 percent of their plays — the 23rd highest rate in the country — and their 402 rushing attempts lead the Big 12.

But the success is due in large part to Eric Gray. The senior running back continues to provide efficiency and productivity for the Sooners' offense. He's turned 140 carries into 902 yards and eight touchdowns, and he's accounted for nearly 46 percent of the team's rushing yards. He ranks 10th nationally in yards per carry (6.4).

He was again a bright spot in last Saturday's loss to Baylor, finishing with his sixth game if 100 yards or more to go with two touchdowns.

"Eric did today what he's done all year, whatever we've asked him to do," OU coach Brent Venables said after the game. "He's as consistent of a player as we've had. He's a man with toughness, he's always straining and he's a very, very dependable player. It means a lot to him and he makes those plays when he gets his opportunities."

The Sooners have struggled to remain healthy behind Gray. Jovantae Barnes, who's second on the team in rushing yards (316), has missed the past two games and it's unclear if he'll play this weekend against West Virginia. Marcus Major has missed two games this season and has struggled with an early-season injury for most of the year.

Gray will again be needed Saturday against a Mountaineers defense that ranks fourth in the Big 12 in stopping the run.

"He's been a stud, man," OU offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. "He's been so consistent on and off the field. His daily routine. How much time he spends in the building. Again, since we've been here, Eric's been a pro. Proud of him. He's had a bunch of production because of what he's put into it. [We're] going to need him to have a big one on Saturday, too."

While the Sooners have been elite at running the ball, they've been bad at defending against it.

The Sooners' rushing defense ranks dead last in the Big 12. They've surrounded the most rushing touchdowns and total yards, and they're allowing a league-worst 4.8 yards per carry.

Just like the offense, a key reason is volume. The Sooners have defended more rushing attempts than any team in the league, as opposing offenses have focused on exploiting them on the ground. They've had good moments — they surrendered just 28 and 66 rushing yards to UTEP and Iowa State, respectively — but they've given up at 160 yards or more in their other seven games.

It was a big part of their struggles against Baylor. The Bears carried the ball 48 times for 281 yards and attempted just 23 passes.

Facing West Virginia could help. The Mountaineers rank seventh in the Big 12 in rushing offense and their 317 rushing attempts are the second fewest in the conference.

"The thing about the Big 12 is what we've seen through nine games is that this is a pretty good conference, especially offensively," Venables said. "There is no forgiveness from that standpoint. With that being said, we have to work on our consistency... We need to be more physical at the point of attack. That goes without saying. We have to do the things it takes to win."

Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at jesse@normantranscript.com or at 405-366-3580