DALLAS – Consider yourself warned, this might be jarring – and we don’t just mean the hits delivered by Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray, or taken by Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger – but here goes:
The final score from a 34-27 victory against Texas doesn’t fully illustrate the Sooners’ defensive dominance, or what its potential meaning. Statistics help a little: a school-record nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss, Texas with 310 total yards – but hold on, sorry, just stop.
Yes, that’s correct: Oklahoma’s defensive dominance. If it’s weird to read, it’s also hard to type, considering what we’ve all grown used to seeing from the Sooners.
“This is a new year, a completely different approach,” said Murray, Oklahoma’s standout junior, a playmaking catalyst who always seemed to be in Texas’ way. “It’s a completely different mentality for this defense.”
It’s a completely different result, too – which is why these Sooners might have a higher ceiling than in recent years. Yeah, we know: They’re regulars in the College Football Playoff. They also keep losing shootouts in the semifinals.
But with this defense, Oklahoma might be the complete package.
The symmetry was unavoidable. A year ago, the Cotton Bowl was the scene for Oklahoma’s worst defensive performance in – well, it’s hard to really say when, but in a very long time and maybe ever. Ehlinger ran and threw and the Longhorns did pretty much whatever they wanted en route to 501 yards and 48 points. The next day, Riley fired longtime defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, brother of former coach Bob Stoops.
Contrast that with Saturday. Under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, Oklahoma seemed to have found some defensive answers – but the schedule had been soft; heading into Dallas, preparing for the best opponent the Sooners had faced, there were still questions.
Texas entered the day averaging 42 points. In a shootout loss last month to LSU, the Longhorns punched out 530 yards and 38 points. But Oklahoma didn’t allow a Red River shootout. Asked afterward to describe the difference in emotions, one year to the next, Murray didn’t bite.
“New year,” he reiterated. “New identity. We’ve got to keep getting better. That’s the mentality. … There’s a lot more out there for us.”
He might just be correct. Because while Oklahoma’s offense remains potent, it’s not quite the machine we’re used to watching put up points. But it might not need to be.
“Regardless of what the outside world thinks, we knew we had a lot better defense,” Riley said. “… The way we’re playing right now, it was the difference today.”
In the locker room a few moments earlier, Riley was a little more strident.
“It’s a little different around here,” he told the Sooners, as shown in a video posted to Twitter by the Oklahoma football account. “A little different around here. And when offense was sputtering in the first half, our defense was outright dominant. Outright dominant.”
It's a little different around here #SpeedDpic.twitter.com/r2NrnUxsgs— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) October 12, 2019
It needed to be, because for a change the offense was something just short. Or at least, somewhat different.
Against the best team Oklahoma has faced, Jalen Hurts piled up a nice statistical day (16 of 28 passing for 235 yards and three touchdowns, 131 yards rushing on 17 carries). But Hurts’ two first-half turnovers cost the Sooners at least a couple of field goals – and given how the offense was humming, probably more. Instead of a blowout, Texas remained within striking distance.
“I definitely didn’t put the team in the greatest and best situations,” Hurts said, “but the key is, we found way to overcome.”
They did – and it’s worth noting that Hurts and the Sooners had ready responses for every Texas push. Much of that is because of the spectacular performance by junior receiver CeeDee Lamb (10 catches, 171 yards, three touchdowns).
Still, while Hurts is thriving in Riley’s offense, and brings a difficult dimension with his running ability, he’s not the same passing threat as either of his two Sooner predecessors. A young offensive line is developing, but it’s not as good as its previous iterations, either. Oklahoma rushed for 276 yards. With Hurts’ skill set, the Sooners have morphed into something slightly different, yet still imposing.
But if by Oklahoma’s lofty standards this offense is really good but might not be great? It might not be an issue.
In semifinals the last two years, Oklahoma’s exquisite offense – led in 2017 by Heisman winner and future No. 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield, and in 2018 by Heisman winner and future No. 1 overall draft pick Kyler Murray – was almost unstoppable. But Oklahoma gave up 54 points in a shootout loss to Georgia and 45 in a shootout loss to Alabama, and the question was: What if they played any defense at all?
We might have gotten the answer.
“They did a really good job of swarming the football,” said Ehlinger, who threw for 210 yards on 38 attempts (5.5 yards per attempt) and never really got loose. He was also held to minus-9 yards rushing on 23 carries as his running threat was neutralized.
Oklahoma’s nine sacks tied a school record (and nine sacks allowed tied a Texas school record, too). The Sooners’ 15 tackles for loss were the second-most they’ve notched against Texas. For much of the day, the Longhorns struggled to find any kind of offensive consistency.
“You saw a group of guys playing downhill, playing fast, playing aggressive,” Grinch said. “When you do that, you give yourself the chance to be successful.”
Credit a total makeover by Grinch, who arrived in January and said the goal was first to change the mentality. We’re used to Oklahoma outscoring opponents, because it had to – its porous defense could turn any opponent into a juggernaut and any game into a shootout. But referring to the production from that powerful offense, as well as the awards it generates for its stars, Grinch insists:
“If you can do it on offense, don’t tell me you can’t do it on defense.”
On Saturday, the defense did, stuffing Texas when the Sooners’ powerful offense sparked but couldn’t quite catch fire.
“Man, it’s great,” Lamb said. “Obviously when you fail to score and your defense picks you up, the energy just switches over to the offense. At some point, we’re gonna put up points.”
And at several important points, they did. The combination added up to a very impressive win.
“Not a complete game,” Hurts said, “but definitely another step in the right direction.”
Oklahoma’s not quite a complete team, either – but with this sudden defensive development, the Sooners have taken a huge step in the right direction.