ATLANTA — Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch isn’t prone to superlatives. Nor does he often find himself at a loss for words.
Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Grinch was somewhere in between.
His defense had just thrown out an all-time stinker, a performance worthy of a flaming dumpster. LSU had just hung a 63-28 stomping on the Sooners, 692 yards, 31 first downs, etc. In the first half alone, Heisman quarterback Joe Burrow had thrown for 403 yards and seven touchdowns.
What could Grinch possibly offer following such a debacle that could assuage Sooner Nation even a little?
Nothing really, other than to avoid making any excuses for LSU’s historic performance.
“We’ve weathered a lot of storms over the year, and obviously credit goes to them,” Grinch said. “The lack of resiliency, kind of, was disappointing.”
Grinch was without two starters to begin the game (defensive end Ronnie Perkins, first on the team in sacks, was suspended for failing a drug test and safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, second on the team in tackles, was out with a broken collarbone). Then late in the first quarter, nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles was ejected for an obvious and intentional targeting penalty.
“I think at some point we lost our composure,” Grinch said. “I don’t know if we ever really got it back.”
Grinch gave credit to LSU for having tremendous talent, but he also tried to shoulder the blame for his players’ shortcomings — no matter how many starters were out.
“You get into the excuse business — you’re judged by results,” he said. “We didn’t get the results, regardless of the personnel and all those things. We’ve absorbed a lot of personnel things over the year. We had to do a better job tonight as coaches.”
As OU shuffled personnel in the backfield — sophomore Justin Broiles started at safety for Turner-Yell, then moved to nickel when freshman Woodi Washington replaced Radley-Hiles — LSU attacked the replacements with impunity.
“Credit goes to LSU,” Grinch said. “That’s a tremendous football team. Sometimes you’re surprised by your opponent. I don’t think that we were. We have tremendous respect for them, Burrow and all the weapons he had. In any event, we did a poor job early.”
Although Saturday night will forever stain the Sooners’ 2019 season, Grinch made remarkable progress in his first season in Norman.
“The positives heavily outweigh the negatives, without a doubt,” head coach Lincoln Riley said Sunday morning. “I think we did some things defensively this year that were really, really important for the team and program, and we took some steps. We always said it’s not going to all happen right away. There’s a step-by-step process to make that happen. I think last night was a good representation of that. You can see that we got to continue to build depth. We got to a point last night where we were outmanned in some areas.”
The OU pass rush almost never touched Burrow. The LSU receiver corps looked like men among boys. The Sooner run defense had its moments in holding the Tigers’ freshmen backups to 114 yards combined — but that’s only because they got the football 20 times.
The stark reality is that LSU’s offense had its way all night, every series, virtually any play, and did it with unanimous All-SEC running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire carrying the football only two times, and with Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Ja’Marr Chase catching just two passes.
To compete against the likes of LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and others, Oklahoma is going to have to get markedly better on defense.
“Every year the agreement is you have to be better than you were the year before,” Grinch said. “Going into 2020, we have some glaring issues as you go through it. Some of the issues you have during the year, you mask the problems. That’s the job of the coach, to use the personnel you’ve got to the best of their ability. Obviously, we didn’t do a very good job of doing that tonight.
“I also think you have to be careful. We talk about those one-game evaluations, ‘the sky is falling.’ I understand the stage. We deserve any criticism. Any criticism can be directed at me. I get that. No, we’ll assess where we are personnel-wise moving forward as we get into the offseason. We’re excited about the group that’s coming and will join us. Some in the mid-year and some in the fall.”
Also consider that Oklahoma played the entire season without starting cornerback Tre Norwood, and lost starting rush linebacker Jon Michael Terry and backup defensive tackle Kenneth Mann midway through the season. Others, like Parnell Motley, Nik Bonitto and LaRon Stokes, respectively, emerged from their absence. But having everyone healthy, Riley said, would have been “ideal.”
Riley said Grinch’s rebuild is clearly already underway.
“Phase one, you get it installed, you work on changing the culture and mentality, which I think we really got off to a strong start with that,” Riley said. “And you prove that, with a lot of the same guys, you can go up there and play really, really good defense. And now, I think the next part for us is now, all these recruits have seen that. They’ve seen the proof now. It’s not a mystery. It’s not us just projecting. It’s not hype. Like we did offensively a few years ago, we’re going to start to get better and better players and more of them there.
“And then, the other thing that happens is, when we get started here in a couple of weeks when these guys get back, it’s not the same starting point we were at last year with those guys. Everything was brand new with everybody. We’re starting at a much further point. Now, we’ve still got plenty to go, there’s no doubt about that. But we’re excited about the starting point and what we think we can build there.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.