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Bulls defense makes improvement

"Back to the basics'' approach reverses the poor effort in Game 3.

By JAY UPCHURCH

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2002


"Back to the basics" approach reverses the poor effort in Game 3. "Back to the basics" approach reverses the poor effort in Game 3.

NORMAN, Okla. -- Finding even the slightest trace of a silver lining in a 31-14 loss is no easy task. South Florida coach Jim Leavitt has no room moral victories in his game plan.

But the truth borne in the aftermath of the Bulls' 17-point loss Saturday was part silver lining, part moral victory -- and mostly dealing with the defense. Yes the same defense that surrendered 34 first downs, 547 total yards and 42 points to Arkansas Sept. 14.

Maybe the Bulls were inspired by the fact they were playing at the former home of athletic director Lee Roy Selmon, who is considered the greatest defensive player in Oklahoma history.

Maybe it was a matter of pride. After all, the Bulls gave new meaning to the "bend but don't break" theory of defense vs. Arkansas, leaving the "don't break" portion on the team bus in Little Rock.

But Saturday's performance was a major improvement. The Bulls limited a potentially high-powered Oklahoma offense to modest numbers, including 239 total yards, 89 fewer than the South Florida offense mustered.

"We were totally embarrassed at Arkansas because we know we're a better team than we showed that night," senior defensive lineman Greg Walls said. "That was a horrible game and we came back and practiced hard and really didn't do anything different this game. The key was we took it on ourselves tonight that we were going to outplay Oklahoma's defense."

Walls pointed to the efforts of linebacker Kawika Mitchell, who recorded a game-high 12 tackles, including five in the Sooner backfield, and totaled 24 yards in losses.

"We realized at Arkansas that really wasn't our defense," Mitchell said. "We like to think we have a good defense and we had to get back to the basics. We had a good effort (tonight)."

Despite the marked improvement, South Florida trailed 31-0 deep into the fourth quarter. Poor field position and an 82-yard punt return were the main contributors to the insurmountable deficit. Not a lack of defense.

The Sooners managed 15 first downs and 45 yards on the ground. In the loss to Arkansas, four Razorback runners finished with at least 56 rushing yards on the way to a 307-yard performance.

The Bulls surrendered 192 yards to the Sooners in the opening half, including quarterback Nate Hybl's 140 through the air. But Mitchell and company shut the door in the final two quarters, limiting the hosts to 47 second-half yards.

"Give South Florida a lot of credit," OU coach Bob Stoops said. "They played well. They're a good football team. Jim's done a good job there."

Leavitt, who was an assistant coach with Stoops at Kansas State in the early 1990s, noted the improvement. But wasn't ready to give his defense much more than a passing grade.

"The defense played well, I thought," he said. "Against Arkansas, there were a lot of factors that weighed into that (loss).

"But I thought our effort tonight was good, and the offense moved the ball, which was a big difference."

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