NORMAN — Lincoln Riley, Alex Grinch, Kenneth Murray all walked away from Sunday night’s 49-31 victory over Houston feeling positive about the Oklahoma defense.
Effort was vastly better. Tackling was mostly good. Communication was essentially flawless.
At no point did a Sooner player look to the sideline with his palms skyward and his shoulders shrugged. At no point were the OU defenders lost or confused.
Hey, that’s a plus.
“It’s a lot different from what we’ve done in the past,” Murray said. “Coach Grinch prides himself on being simple and keeping that simple consistent. It’s nothing new to us. It’s not like we’re coming in every week and installing new stuff, so we’re able to focus in the rules and playing fast.”
Still, there was one thing missing — one key thing that has been the talk of preseason training camp: Turnovers.
“It rips your heart out,” said Grinch, the new defensive coordinator who came to Norman with a reputation for turnovers and a mathematical formula to back it up. “It’d be the equivalent of asking an offensive coach how you feel not scoring touchdowns. That’s your purpose of being on the field.”
“Having zero takeaways is unacceptable for us,” said Murray, the junior linebacker who played Sunday’s game like a recurring Dana Holgorsen nightmare. “Especially after all the work we put in during the week.”
Riley, the third-year head coach who is beyond eager to see even the slightest degree of improvement from one of college football’s most dreadful defenses of 2018, may have begun embellishing a bit when he said a late fourth-down stop counts as a turnover.
It does not, Grinch said.
“Certainly, obviously, you’re excited about the win,” Grinch said. “But, no, devastated that we got none. Tell me why. I want to know why. Got to do a better job as coaches.”
There are facts to build on, which are irrefutable:
- Oklahoma was very bad on defense last year. Statistically, the Sooners had college football’s worst pass defense in 2018.
- The Cougars came into Owen Field loaded with offensive talent, triggered by dynamic quarterback D’Eriq King.
- At the halfway point of the second quarter, OU had limited King to ZERO net passing yards.
From that point, Holgorsen and Houston made a few offensive adjustments, and the Sooners’ opening adrenaline rush began to wear off a bit.
“I thought we played extremely well early,” Riley said. “We were outright dominant for the majority of the first half until that last drive. We did some really good things. I thought we came out strong early in the second half but we had that little lull period as a team. It’s something we have to do better.
“They threw a lot at us and we handled it extremely well,” Riley added. “I thought we had some mental lapses in the second half that we have to improve, but we flew around and we were pretty sharp for a large portion of the game.”
In the second quarter, King converted a third-and-1 with a 12-yard completion, then hit Marquez Stevenson on a screen pass for 20 yards, then scrambled away for a 22-yard burst. He then slipped a screen pass to Kyle Porter, who juked cornerback Tre Brown and went 23 yards for the Cougars’ first touchdown.
A lot of that drive looked familiar to OU fans: a third-down conversion, a demoralizing scramble, some errors in the screen game, a backbreaking missed tackle.
On Houston’s next drive, King hit Stevenson with another short throw that went 30 yards and led to a field goal and a 21-10 halftime score.
Oklahoma’s offense quickly rebuilt the lead to 35-10 in the third quarter, but King got the Cougars going again midway through the period with three third-down conversions — and three busts by first-time starter Patrick Fields. One was an unnecessary holding penalty on a third-down incompletion, one was a dropped interception in the end zone, and one was a questionable personal foul penalty on a sideline collision. OU was also flagged for roughing the passer on that drive, and three runs by Mulbah Car after the second Fields penalty produced another touchdown to cut it to 35-17.
King and Carr powered another Houston TD drive in the fourth quarter — 12 plays, 75 yards, including an 18-yard run by King on third-and-7 and a fourth-and-goal throw from King to Stevenson for the touchdown to make it 42-24.
Houston scored another touchdown later in the fourth quarter against mostly Sooner reserves.
King finished with 167 yards on 14-of-27 passing with three touchdowns but was sacked three times. He also rushed 15 times for 103 yards and a TD.
“They will score a lot of points against a lot of people,” Riley said. “I said it all week, D’Eriq King … there ain’t five quarterbacks in the country better than that cat and that may be too many. He’s fantastic. We gave him hell. He had to move around a lot. I don’t think we really let him get comfortable very much. We did a good job. He got out a few times but that’s going to happen with that cat. He’s very, very impressive.”
Sooner Nation can lean on another positive that, if nothing else, show that a mentality shift definitely seems to be taking place: When Houston’s offense did make plays, Oklahoma’s defenders didn’t fall into a cave of despair and let things snowball out of control. That’s been a problem in recent years.
“I certainly saw a lot of positives in that way,” Grinch said. “… I like the group, I like their response. Now, we’ve got to perform better in those moments. But just from a mentality standpoint, to answer your question, I think it’s a positive. I think that’s a trust element between them as players, us as coaches. But certainly the performance has to be better.”
“We had a couple of penalties that let drives continue on when we had them in some pretty tough situations,” Riley said. “We had a couple of busted calls. There were some things that we have to do better on that side. But I love the way our guys flew around and I loved how disruptive our front was, especially. We have to keep building on that. There’s a lot of positives there.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. 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 also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.