Wow. During Saturday’s game against #4 in the nation Ohio State, an unfortunate series of events saw a ball deflect off of receiver Keevan Lucas’ hands and into the hands of a diving Buckeye defender.
On the first play of the game.
On the road.
Against a team that won 77-10 last week.
Junior quarterback J.T. Barrett took over with only 16 yards to go to the end zone. He led an offense which is entirely comprised of 4-star recruits. I checked: every offensive starter for Ohio State is a 4-star player. According to 24/7 Sports, Tulsa does not have a single 4-star player on its roster.
And they held. THEY HELD! TU forced a 3-and-out on the road from their own 16 yard line! Ohio State settled for the field goal. Unbelievable.
Except, perhaps it might be somewhat believable. The linebacker corps returned from last season. The front seven altogether have been incredible. Juco transfer Keanu Hill has been revolutionary for the secondary already. Kerwin Thomas has nearly been a lockdown corner opposite of Hill. Freshman Cooper Edmiston made a crucial 4th down stop at the goal line against San Jose State in week 1. Several other underclassmen have already gotten minutes, despite the veteran leadership present on this year’s defensive crew.
Yes, the defense was not particularly good last year. When I first thought about writing about the defense this summer, I was thinking about how I would have to argue for them against the detractors, hence the title. But they have already settled this argument for me with their play thus far this season.
They weren’t good last year. I’m sure they will readily admit that. I’ve heard the opinion that they were each trying to do each other’s jobs, rather than simply focusing on their own. I’d agree with this idea. We gave up a multitude of big plays, which often comes when assignments are left unfulfilled.
However, I also think it is important to note that they were in a difficult position to begin with. The offense was very fast-paced last year, which led to quick turnarounds that expected them back on the field without much time for rest. Also, we scored so many points last season, other team’s had to keep up. When you know two touchdowns may win the game, you tend to have much more conservative calls. Opponents knew we would score much more than a couple of times, so they likewise needed to score. Tulsa isn’t the only team to suffer from this phenomenon; I remember hearing a stat on ESPN last year that said that Oklahoma State’s defense actually allows less points per possession than Alabama’s. I’m in no way saying that OSU had a better defense than the Crimson Tide, but it shows that just because a lot of points are on the scoreboard at the end of the game doesn’t meant the defense is underperforming.
It is a known fact that pass-focused offenses score more points on average than run-focused offenses. When teams faced Tulsa, they often had to resort to passing in order to keep up with our high-octane offense. In fact, I checked on sports-reference.com and broke down each quarterback Tulsa faced and where the game placed on their most passes attempted for the season:
Jaquez Johnson (FAU) – 1st
Lamar Jordan (New Mexico) – 3rd
Baker Mayfield (OU) – 3rd
Greg Ward, Jr. (Houston) – 1st
Garrett Smith (Louisiana-Monroe) – 1st
Two quarterbacks played (East Carolina) – N/A
Paxton Lynch (Memphis) – 2nd
Matt Davis (SMU) – 1st
Justin Holman (UCF) – 2nd
Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati) – 4th
Keenan Reynolds (Navy) – 12th [an outlier, as they run an option offense, so all his passing number were low]
Jordy Joseph (Tulane) – 1st
Michael Brewer (VTech) – 2nd
An exhaustive list, sure, but it surely illustrates that Tulsa’s explosiveness necessitates other teams to pass much more than they are accustomed to, and also giving them much more possessions per game in which to score.
But, even if the defense wasn’t as bad as it seemed last season, how they are playing right now is insane. Ohio State didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the 1st half. A potential College Football Playoff team couldn’t score on our defense in 30 minutes of play. For much of the first half, it was a 6-3 game. Surely an average team with a below-average defense couldn’t force 3 three-and-outs, a fumble, and an 8 play drive that ended with a fourth down stop without being an elite unit.
Coming into this season, it was expected that seniors Dane Evans, Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson would simply overpower and outscore opponents, needing the defense to only achieve a couple stops to win. However, even though I expect the offense to pick it up as the season really gets going, our defense is the main reason TU has been in the position to win both games – of course, winning the first, and playing close for the first 26 or so minutes of the second.
All of this rambling can be boiled down to one sentence: our defense has made the jump this season, showing that not only were they not all-bad last season, but also that other teams should fear the Golden Hurricane when the offense begins to roll.