No defense in the country this season has wavered between dominance and disaster more often than Oklahoma's. Witness the Sooners' 42-35 victory at Texas A&M last Saturday, during which their D surrendered 320 yards and 28 points in the first half, then held the Aggies to 169 yards and seven points in the second. The defense's bipolar nature was in evidence right up until the final play, when A&M quarterback Ty Branyon lofted a Hail Mary pass toward the left corner of the end zone. Oklahoma appeared to have the throw well covered, with three defensive backs settling under the ball. But instead of swatting it down, one batted it into the air, nearly knocking the tying touchdown into the arms of diving receiver Chad Schroeder. "We know there are areas where we're capable of playing better," says OU coach Bob Stoops. "There's plenty to criticize."
Since it shut out Texas 12-0 last month, the Sooners' defense has looked little better than average and been remarkably weak against the pass. After giving up just 57 points in its first five games, Oklahoma (9-0) has surrendered 101 in its last four and allowed an average of 249.3 yards through the air. Even worse, in that span the Sooners' pass defense, which ranks 83rd in the country and ninth in the Big 12, has been burned for five touchdown passes of longer than 35 yards. "We're making basic mental errors that we don't even make in practice," says junior cornerback Chijioke Onyenegecha. "Guys get nervous and aren't playing their normal technique."
The Sooners also miss cornerback Antonio Perkins, who has sat out four games since injuring his left knee against Texas. With him in the lineup Oklahoma had allowed 215 passing yards per game and one touchdown pass of more than 20 yards. Against A&M, Stoops benched cornerback Eric Bassey after Schroeder beat him for a 45-yard score early in the second quarter. At that point Aggies quarterback Reggie McNeal was 8 of 13 for 159 yards and two touchdowns. After Bassey's replacement, freshman Marcus Walker--who had not played all season and was expected to redshirt--took the field, McNeal completed only three of his next 11 passes. "We had a gut feeling," says co-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. "Marcus played a hell of a game."
Despite their troubles, the Sooners are a virtual lock to play in their second straight BCS championship game. The offense, led by Jason White and Adrian Peterson, remains an efficient scoring machine, and in the anemic Big 12 that figures to make up for most defensive lapses. But how might Oklahoma respond in the Orange Bowl against the balanced attack of USC? "We've made several mistakes now, and we're lucky to have been able to survive," says Pelini. "One mistake is too many in our book, but when you're trying to win them all, you're going to have a few games like that." --Mark Beech
BILL FRAKES (OKLAHOMA)
After being beaten one too many times, Bassey (13) was benched.