NORMAN — It was soon after the Orange Bowl, soon after Alabama hung 45 points and 528 yards on the Oklahoma defense — one final insult to add to the indignation of the worst defensive season in school history — that Kenneth Murray got a phone call from his head coach.
Lincoln Riley called his middle linebacker to let him know that he had hired a defensive coordinator. A businessman ball coach with stubbly hair and a gravelly voice and a no-bull attitude would take the Sooner defense in a new direction, Riley said.
Follow him, Riley told Murray and other leaders on the defense, and you will get this thing fixed. Be prima donnas and complainers and 2019 might look an awful lot like 2018.
“I think that message was sent,” Riley said Monday as his team prepares to try to win its fifth consecutive Big 12 Conference championship this time in Saturday’s title game against Baylor.
“ ‘Look,” Riley continued, “I can promise you this: if you don’t buy in, it’s not going to work. Period. That’s the one thing I can promise you. If you do buy in, it gives us a chance.’ ”
Murray said he did buy in, and he did so that day, on the phone with Riley, before he ever met Grinch.
“When (Riley) says, ‘This is the guy,’ I believe a hundred percent — a thousand percent — in coach Riley. When he said, ‘This is the guy,’ I knew this was the guy.
“From day one, whatever coach Grinch said, I was always bought into.”
It was all about trust. If the players trusted Riley to hire the right coordinator, and then if they trusted ‘that the coordinator was the right man for the job, then success would follow.
“ ‘You’ve got to trust us that we’re bringing in the right people,’ ” Riley recalled. “ ‘You don’t know these guys. You never met ‘em. They didn’t recruit you. You don’t know ‘em. But if you will trust ‘em, I think you’ll see what we see, that we’ve got a great group coming in here and something we think can be very very special on that side of the ball. ’
“I do remember specifically telling ‘em, ‘I could go bring in Vince Lombardi himself, and if you guys don’t believe in it, it’s not going to work. Your buying is just as important, if not more, than who we bring in. And if we get it right, and you guys buy in, and we do hire the right person, then it’s going to get pretty fun. ’ ”
A quick (if painful) reminder that OU last season shattered numerous school records for defensive futility:
- Most points allowed (466, the old record was 392 set in 1996),
- Most touchdowns (62, the old record was 49 set in 1996),
- Most yards allowed (6,353, or 453.8 per game; the old record was 432.0 set in 2016),
- Most passing yards allowed (4,116, or 294.0 per game; the old record was 276.2 set in 2014),
- Pass efficiency defense rating (151.87, the old record was 144.78 set in 1996),
- Most yards per completion (Most rushing touchdowns allowed (33, the old record was 28 set in 1997),
- Most first downs (342, the old record was 286 set in 2017),
- And yards per play (6.1, the old record was 5.8 set in 2016 and 2016).
Not only that, but the Sooners were last in the nation in 2018 — 129th out of 129 FBS teams — in pass defense.
How, exactly, was Grinch supposed to fix all that? And exactly how fast was he supposed to fix it?
“There was just such a disgusted feeling from the way we played last year, you know?” said linebacker DaShaun White. “Like, we were itching. Like, ‘Whoever’s gonna take us to where we want to be, please bring ‘em in here and we’ll be waiting for him ready to work.”
Lincoln Riley’s first big hire, it turns out, was a home run. The data might have seemed implausible going into the season — impossible to the truly devout critics — but after 12 games, it is irrefutable.
Oklahoma has the top-ranked total defense in the Big 12 Conference. OU allowed 10 fewer total yards than TCU this season (4,033 to 4,043) and ranks No. 1 in the league in fewest yards allowed — 336.1 per game. That’s 123 yards per game better than last season.
OU’s scoring average of 24.7 points per game is almost 10 points per game better than last year’s average (33.3).
And the nation’s No. 129 pass defense? It’s now the Big 12’s No. 1 pass defense, giving up just 195.9 yards per game, or 98 yards per game better than last year.
Want to just compare the numbers against Big 12 opposition?
Oklahoma wins the title for total yards allowed in nine conference games (330.6 per game), as well as for passing yards allowed (190.4). OU also ranks No. 3 in scoring defense, No. 2 in rushing defense, and No. 2 in pass efficiency defense.
And while the Sooners have been one of the nation’s worst at getting takeaways, they have gotten off the field to end each of the last four games — three tense victories and a rivalry game on the road — with an interception.
As the season wound own through November and into December, against some of the best opposition they’ve faced all season, the Oklahoma defense is playing better than ever.
Saturday’s rematch against Baylor at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, represents something of a full-circle moment: OU started playing truly dominant defense after halftime of a 34-31 win at Baylor on Nov. 16.
In its last 2 ½ games (Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State), Oklahoma allowed just 608 total yards (243.2 per game), 35 first downs (11.7 per game) and 306 passing yards (108.7 per game) on 32-of-64 passing with zero touchdowns and three interceptions. The Sooners in that span also gave up just 91.7 rushing yards per game and an average of 3.9 yards per carry.
The change wasn’t immediate. But it was drastic.
“With any type of change there’s going to be bumps in the road and we had those bumps in the road,” Murray said. “Where we’re at right now as a team, we’ve come a long way and we’ve made a bunch of strides.”
Grinch wasn’t invited to Little Rock next week as a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award — that goes to the top assistant coach in college football — but with numbers like that, he probably should have been.
So how did Grinch do it?
“We just had to get rid of the old mindset of the defense and adapt coach Grinch’s mindset,” said defensive end Ronnie Perkins. “It was just buying into what he was preaching and what he was saying. Then once the games started rolling along and we started seeing success on the field, I feel like everybody kind of bought in, like, ‘OK, this does work. Everything he preaches, it works.’ ”
It has been a process of trial and error, of growth and trust. Ultimately, players are playing better because their minds are clearer. There are fewer defensive calls, fewer what-ifs. There is only a strict set of guidelines and rules which apply no matter the offense, no matter the formation, no matter the play.
Without having to process too much mental input, and without fear of immediate and harsh reprisal, they’re more confident in their actions, and it shows on the field.
And, of course, there is the relentless hustle. Loafing is called out in front of the entire team. No one wants to be “that guy.”
“The biggest thing is not running to the football,” Perkins said. “Last year, we would have a big standard for that, running to the ball. This year, it’s all we do. It’s preached in practice. One guy’s not running to the ball, we start the whole play over. Like you gotta hustle around. There ain’t no slow guys on the field. Speed D.
“It probably clicked for me midway through the spring. I had to get out of some of my old habits. Hustling every play, it’s a big thing. So you’re not just gonna wake up and be a new football player overnight. So it took me probably midway through spring to adjust to his ways.”
The improved defensive rankings, Grinch said, are evidence that the system is working and the players have invested — and those rankings should be celebrated.
“I think so,” Grinch said. “What you obviously are trying to get done is get a W every single Saturday. That’s first on the goal board. Beyond that, you’re certainly trying to limit points. We can do a better job with that. Every statistic category, the minute you bring ‘em up, you say, ‘We can do better.’
“… From where we started back in January to where we are now, certainly proud of the progress. But we’ve got another major challenge this week.”
Said White, “Probably the hardest thing to me is just adjusting to a new coach. I think he was a perfect-man-for-the-job sort of thing. So yeah, it was pretty hard. But we all attacked it. Last year we all wanted to be a lot better. We knew we had talent. We knew that wasn’t our ceiling. This isn’t our ceiling either, but this is a first step.”
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.