NORMAN, Oklahoma — Oklahoma's defense quietly has become the Big 12's best under defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
Many fans were calling for Stoops to be fired last season, and he even was going to be forced to share the defensive coordinator title before Jerry Montgomery left to work for the Green Bay Packers.
Maybe everything has worked out. Last season, the Sooners finished sixth in the conference scoring defense, eighth in passing defense and fifth in total defense. This year, Oklahoma leads the Big 12 in each category during conference play.
The fifth-ranked Sooners need one more strong effort in their showdown with No. 9 Oklahoma State to claim the Big 12 title and a likely slot in the College Football Playoff.
"I don't need validation," Stoops said after a win over Baylor. "I know what I'm capable of doing, and our players know too."
The players took responsibility for the criticism directed at Stoops last year.
"At the end of the day, we're the ones on the field," cornerback Zack Sanchez said. "We've got to make the plays, and last year, we didn't make enough of them to put ourselves in situations to win, and this year, we are."
Oklahoma's defensive resurgence has come at every position.
The inside linebackers have been solid. Dominique Alexander, a junior, ranks fifth in the Big 12 with eight tackles per game. Jordan Evans, the other inside backer, is right behind him with 7.8 tackles per contest.
Defensive tackle Charles Tapper has emerged late in the season with seven sacks the past four games. Outside linebacker Eric Striker, an all-conference pick last season, ranks third in the Big 12 in sacks and tackles per loss.
The pressure up front has helped the secondary. The Sooners lead the Big 12 in sacks and interceptions in league play.
"We wouldn't be anything without our defensive line, and they've been playing lights out every game, especially in these big games," safety Steven Parker, whose batted pass saved last week's 30-29 win over TCU, said. "As a secondary, and as a secondary player, we would love to thank them."
Sanchez, an all-conference pick last season, has six interceptions this season and 14in his career, including three runbacks for touchdowns. He has been named Big 12 defensive player of the week three times this season, despite missing two games with injury. He picked off two passes against TCU.
Jordan Thomas, a sophomore, has emerged this season. He was suspended for the Tulsa game for unspecified reasons, but he has been a force since his return. He has three interceptions this season.
Safety Ahmad Thomas has an interception in his past two games and three overall.
With so many playmakers, it becomes a weekly competition.
"Everybody's competitive on this defense, so when somebody sees somebody else make a play, they're hungry to make a play the next time we go out," Sanchez said. "That's the biggest thing with this team — everybody wants to be that guy. I think that's why we've been so great defensively. We have 11 to 15 guys ready to do that when they come in."
The Sooners like the idea that Oklahoma State will test them deep. James Washington is averaging 20.2 yards on his 45 catches.
"It's going to be a challenge, but as a secondary, we've talked about their receivers a little bit," Parker said. "We already we live for this kind of game and this atmosphere and the receivers we're going to face. As a secondary, we love a challenge. We're always ready to step to the challenge."
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter @CliffBruntAP