Nov. 10, 2004
SportsLine.com wire reports

NORMAN, Okla. -- What started with an occasional blown coverage for a long score has turned into a legitimate problem for No. 2 Oklahoma.

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With a key injury eliminating depth and experience all at once, opponents have been exploiting the Sooners' secondary.

The weakness couldn't have been more evident than in the first half against Texas A&M last week. Facing four third downs of eight yards or more, the Aggies converted all four with passes. With the Sooners unable to make a stop, A&M scored on its first two possessions to pull ahead 14-0. A 45-yard touchdown pass on the Aggies' third possession made it 21-7.

Looking for a solution, Oklahoma defensive coordinators Brent Venables and Bo Pelini turned to freshman Marcus Walker. The highly touted Texan had sat out the first eight games, well on his way to a redshirt season. But with Oklahoma's national title hopes on the line, the freshman was thrust into action.

"It was a gut reaction time," Pelini said. "It was time to make a change and shake things up and he was the guy that I felt at that point I was ready to go with."

With Walker in the lineup, Oklahoma was finally able to slow the Aggies' passing attack, but Sooners coaches aren't ready to suggest that patching the defensive hole was so simple. Venables and Pelini both say Eric Bassey -- the man Walker replaced -- wasn't the problem and shouldn't be the scapegoat for the other 10 defenders.

"It's not just at the back end," Pelini said. "That's the thing that you see the most, but it's a team deal.

"Sometimes it's letting a guy out of contain. It's just the most obvious things are the ones that result in touchdowns."

A knee injury to cornerback Antonio Perkins has hurt. Perkins is the only senior among Oklahoma's corners. He has been out since Oct. 9 against Texas and the Sooners aren't sure when he'll return.

Perkins' departure shuffled junior college transfer Chijioke Onyenegecha into the starting lineup and pushed Bassey into covering opponents' top receivers.

The first sign of vulnerability was a 78-yard touchdown catch by Kansas' Brandon Rideau two weeks after Perkins' injury, but the play was sloughed off as a one-time mistake.

The next week, Oklahoma State went deep often with quarterback Donovan Woods completing passes for 50, 46, 39 and 32 yards as part of a career day. Then Texas A&M racked up 360 yards passing, although 71 came on a fake punt, as the exploitation continued.

The struggles are entirely uncharacteristic for Oklahoma, a team that ranked No. 2 against the pass last season and has been among the country's top-25 pass defenses each of the past four seasons. This year, the Sooners rank 83rd in the nation, allowing 230 yards per game.

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Pelini says his secondary remains confident, and he's confident in them.

"I feel good about our team, about our defense, about our secondary," he said. "Heck, we're 9-0. That's the bottom line. That's all that we care about."

Apparently trying to focus on the changes that need to be made, the Sooners didn't allow their defensive backs to speak to reporters this week -- a change from the team's usually open policy.

Pelini said defenders needed to protect against the deep pass before worrying about anything else -- something he thinks the Sooners were doing well earlier in the season.

"We've had guys in position and we've just had some lapses, and that's unacceptable not only to myself, but to the players," he said.

Defensive tackle Lynn McGruder said he thought the team's problems defending the deep ball had been blown out of proportion in comparison with the team's overall success.

"I haven't seen an offense come and just run over us," he said.

However, if there is blame to be given, McGruder said no one person or unit should be the target.

"It's easy to point fingers, but as a man I'd rather take the blame as a whole," McGruder said. "It's our defense out there. When a touchdown gets scored, it's not just on the (defensive back), it's on the whole defense."