Oklahoma shows why this might be the season it can knock off Alabama, Clemson to win title

Pete Thamel

DALLAS – One year ago, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley confronted the first searing adversity of his sun-kissed head coaching career.

Oklahoma’s defense hemorrhaged 48 points, 501 yards and any shred of competence in its last-second loss to Texas. Riley fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops the next day, navigating the awkward political dynamics of dismissing the brother of the Hall of Fame coach who’d handed him the keys to the program.

This year’s Red River Rivalry marked a fitting coda for Riley’s most significant decision as Oklahoma’s coach. After he jettisoned Stoops, Riley eventually hired Alex Grinch to run the Sooner defense. As anniversary celebrations go, this one was marked by an emasculation of the Texas offense.

No. 6 Oklahoma showed in its 34-27 victory over the No. 11 Longhorns on Saturday afternoon that it can play complementary football, which is the ultimate compliment to OU’s transformation under Riley. In attempting to make the final push from College Football Playoff participant to winner, the Sooners’ defense featured something that feels awkward to type – a swaggering, dominant and punishing Oklahoma defense.

Oklahoma held Texas to 83 first-half yards on offense and just 310 for the game. The Sooners tied a school record with nine sacks, blitzed creatively and flummoxed Sam Ehlinger into his worst performance since he seized the full-time starting job at Texas early last season. (Ehlinger finished 26-of-38 passing for 210 yards, with linebacker Kenneth Murray harassing him all day.)

In a game within the confines of the Texas State Fair, this game played out like Oklahoma looking in a funhouse mirror. The Sooners’ long-maligned defense authored a signature performance. Their lauded quarterback, Jalen Hurts, coughed up a pair of disastrous red-zone turnovers and looked in spots like a decision-making liability. Oklahoma’s offense sputtered at key times – until bailed out by the resplendent CeeDee Lamb (three TDs) – and the defense played gnarly, ornery and oppressive. Let’s just say this didn’t follow the pregame narrative of a WAC-era shootout.

What’s up was down here in Dallas, as Texas entered the game with the nation’s No. 11 offense and left feeling like they’d eaten nothing but corndogs for a week. Texas has one decent tailback (Roschon Johnson), got a spotty performance by the offensive line and failed to dictate tempo through an inability to find any rhythm.

"They are extremely well coached [defensively] and confident in how to get there and where to [go] and how to fit different runs and routes and coverages," Texas coach Tom Herman said. "You can tell that they really know what they are doing."

Texas Longhorns receiver Devin Duvernay (6) is tackled by Oklahoma Sooners safety Pat Fields (10) in the third quarter at Cotton Bowl. (USA Today)
Texas Longhorns receiver Devin Duvernay (6) is tackled by Oklahoma Sooners safety Pat Fields (10) in the third quarter at Cotton Bowl. (USA Today)

Oklahoma entered the game with a defense ranked No. 25 in scoring, 76 spots higher than it ended last year. Some of the optimism for Grinch’s early success was tempered by a schedule that didn’t feature any team sniffing a national ranking. No one is throwing you a parade for slowing down Kansas or Texas Tech.

But on the anniversary of its defensive nadir, Oklahoma’s defense appears to have forged into a unit that completes the Sooners as a title contender. They’ll certainly move up in the rankings in the wake of Georgia’s 20-17 double-overtime loss at home to South Carolina.

Oklahoma gave up an average of 49.5 points per game in its two College Football Playoff appearances under Riley, defensive performances that underscored the width of the final gap between the Sooners and the game’s elite.

"We're judged by performance," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. "At this point it would be fair to say [we're in better position]. But we know there are many more games ahead. I really go back to mindset, it started [a year ago] and then we hired Alex. This is a good step, but we're not feeling like we accomplished anything yet."

The Sooners’ signature defensive performance on Saturday, however, changed the tenor of discussion around this Oklahoma team. They’re no longer the epitome of a Big 12 juggernaut where the explosiveness of the offense leaves the defense exposed and vulnerable. Over and over on Saturday, Oklahoma ran the ball with its array of options and counters. The Sooners finished with 276 rushing yards as Hurts established himself as both an option wizard and an imposing physical threat — his 131 rushing yards were the most by an Oklahoma quarterback in the history of this rivalry.

We all know that Riley’s offensive résumé reads like something from a Mike Leach fever dream, as he’s two-for-two with Heisman Trophy quarterbacks. Riley has shown enough innovation and play-calling panache that he’s got NFL general managers and owners drooling at the prospect of luring him.

But Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts isn’t going to win the Heisman Trophy this year. His reality is that he’s improved since his time as an ultra-successful starter at Alabama, where he went 26-2. But Hurts (16-of-28 passing for 235 yards) also isn’t quite the dynamic thrower of his two predecessors, which is no sin considering that they both went No. 1 in the NFL draft and are among the most decorated players in the history of the sport. Hurts is somewhere comfortably in the middle of his old self and the unfair standards of his predecessors at his new position. But the twist here is that this Sooner team has the best chance of any of Riley’s teams of winning the national title.

"If you can do it on offense," Grinch said in reference to all of Riley's gaudy statistics and All-Americans. "Don't tell me you can't do that on defense."

Grinch talks like he's auditioning from a Micro Machines commercial, and he's channeled that energy into the program. The big takeaway from speaking to Texas and Oklahoma players was that this wasn't some exotic blitz or pre-game speech that's led to the transformation. Grinch has instilled a lifestyle within OU's defensive unit, where toughness is a premium and simplicity in schemes highlights players' natural talents.

"It’s the ecosystem, it’s the air you breathe in that building," Grinch said when asked about changing the mindset.

He added: "It’s not one talk, one week. It’s none of those things. But it’s all of those things… It’s daily. It’s something that the minute we stop, it goes the other way. You’re never fixed, you’re never there. Football is hard."

The game unfolded in a manner few could have expected. After officials overreacted in breaking up some pregame trash talk, official Mike Defee set the tone by giving every player on each team a 15-yard penalty. That meant that any player who got an unsportsmanlike conduct foul – including the discussed-ad-nauseam “Horns Down” symbol – they’d be thrown from the game. (No one ended up getting tossed for this reason.)

Who knew that Defee’s bulging biceps would be the only big guns we’d see in the first half? (Someone at the Big 12 should make very clear to Defee that he liked the sound of his own voice a little too much, and the sold-out crowd didn’t shoehorn into the Cotton Bowl to hear Professor Defee throw flags and lecture us on sportsmanship in the pregame.)

The early part of the game played out as a confirmation of the genius of Riley hiring Grinch, who’d been ultra-successful with adverse conditions under Mike Leach at Washington State. (He spent last season as a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.)

Led by Murray, the marauding linebacker, Oklahoma suffocated Ehlinger and the Texas offense for the entire first half. Oklahoma ripped off eight tackles for loss, four sacks and gave up just 83 yards and three yards per play. It kicked off a day that should cement Murray as a first-team All-American, as he finished with five tackles, two TFLs and spent his day in Ehlinger’s grill.

"When the play breaks down, I'm looking for [No.] 9," Grinch said.

Grinch’s fingerprints can be seen all over this Sooner defense, which once functioned as a way to get Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray the ball back but has now forged its own salty identity. Oklahoma confused Ehlinger with pre-snap movement, tackled with an edge and simply played harder and more motivated than any of the units in Stoops’ sputtering final years.

A program that became the most sought-after destination for offensive innovation has found balance this season. The Sooner players should serenade Riley by singing “Happy Anniversary” all the way up to Norman, as they announced themselves as a serious national title threat on Saturday.

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