NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- A year ago, Mike Stoops was a very unpopular man.
Oklahoma's fans were looking for scapegoats after the Sooners lost two of three to start the season and allowed at least 40 points to Ohio State, TCU, Texas and Texas Tech. Stoops, the Sooners' defensive coordinator, took most of the blame.
Even though the defense improved the second half of the season, some weren't sure he'd be around for long after Lincoln Riley took over as head coach this summer. He was retained, and he was vindicated when Oklahoma posted a resounding 31-16 win at Ohio State in between dominant performances against UTEP and Tulane. The third-ranked Sooners (3-0) have one of the nation's top defenses heading into Saturday's conference opener at Baylor.
"They are starting to build pride and confidence and want to play consistent football," Stoops said "We didn't have any consistency a year ago. We were up and down, quarter by quarter, game by game."
Stoops has been around long enough to realize that he could be in the crosshairs in a week.
"You have to handle prosperity well, too," he said. "People tell you how great you are for a week straight and then, again, you have to block out the noise. It's a week-to-week season, and you have to be smart enough to realize that."
Riley said Stoops took last year's struggles personally. Now, the Sooners rank 13th out of 129 schools in points allowed per game, seventh in passing yards allowed per game and 20th in total defense. Oklahoma held Ohio State to 350 yards and only allowed the Buckeyes to reach the end zone once.
"Mike and them do a great job, but they've done an even better job this year with our guys' heads, making sure that we're in the right frame to play great team defense and to play the type of defense that this university has been known for for a long time," Riley said.
Oklahoma cornerback Parnell Motley has been a key reason the Sooners have improved. He had an interception against Ohio State, and his 77-yard interception return for a touchdown against Tulane turned the momentum in a 56-14 win .
"He's confident," Riley said. "He's physically better. Mentally, he's more comfortable with what we're doing. He's not thinking, he's just kind of letting his natural ability take over, his instincts take over. As a DB, there's probably nothing more important than that."
Linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo has evolved from a pass-rushing specialist to an all-around player. He has at least two tackles for loss in each of the first three games and is second on the team with 19 tackles.
Defensive back Steven Parker is the veteran leader of the secondary. He's fourth on the team with 14 tackles. Linebacker Emmanuel Beal leads the way with 21 tackles. Freshman linebacker Kenneth Murray is third on the team with 16 stops.
First-year assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill, who is helping with the defensive line, has made an impression helping Stoops.
"He brings a lot mentality-wise, to us, there's no doubt," Riley said. "He's got a presence out there that, not just defensively, I think the whole team feels it."
The Sooners got off to rough starts against UTEP and Tulane but rallied and posted shutouts in the final three quarters of both games.
"The staff has made the adjustments necessary," Riley said. "I think the players, though, have had a good mentality. Even though you don't start off right, you've got to keep swinging. They've done that. They've settled in. I think they've got a lot of confidence in what we're doing defensively, and that shows in situations like that."