NORMAN — It is here. The big game has arrived. It’s OU-Texas week.
This is the reason why Lincoln Riley fired Bob Stoops’ brother. This is the reason why he hired Alex Grinch. And this is the reason why Joe Castiglione agreed to make the Sooners’ new defensive coordinator the highest-paid assistant coach in school history.
It was a watershed moment for Oklahoma football, and one in Riley’s young career as well.
OU assistants are supposed to get hired, not fired — especially those with the Stoops name. But Riley bucked those trends because, simply put, Mike Stoops had to go. He had lost touch with his players, they didn’t listen to him anymore, they didn’t respect him, he couldn’t reach their level — whatever the rationale, whatever the terminology, it was time for a change.
Losing to Texas 48-45 in the Cotton Bowl, with a transcendent quarterback and college football’s most prolific offense ever and a purely shameful defense — that was the last straw. An impatient (and now gone) president, angry (and influential) boosters and a wounded (and still playoff-worthy) football team became a volatile combination that, halfway through the 2018 season, cost Stoops his job and set the Oklahoma defense on a new course.
“I’m extremely disappointed in my inability to get this team to play at a higher level,” Stoops said after the game.
Texas had 501 yards total offense and 27 first downs, was 5-of-5 in the red zone and kept the ball for 34 minutes.
For Riley, it was a hard choice. But it was the only choice.
The next day, Riley called it “a gut feeling” and “the appropriate response right now,” but it was a personal challenge to fire the brother of the man that gave him his big break.
“I don’t look back at it anymore. It’s over,” Riley said during Monday’s news conference. “I’ve answered 5,000 questions about that game before, and I don’t have any new answers on it.”
In a pinch, defensive line coach Ruffin McNeill filled in admirably for his old pal Riley, but that was only on an interim basis — which showed by the way the defense regressed and faltered down the stretch.
When the season was over, Riley went on the hunt for Stoops’ replacement, and he brought in 39-year-old Alex Grinch from Washington State via one season at Ohio State. In Pullman, Grinch had orchestrated a defensive renaissance under Mike Leach, flipping the Cougars from a lifeless, beaten-down defense to one of opportunity and aggression.
Riley also got Grinch a three-year contract worth an unprecedented $1.4 million a year that also includes a $100,000 annual stay bonus. Previously, Riley’s $1.3 million was the most ever paid to an OU assistant.
Grinch brought in cornerbacks coach Roy Manning and inside linebackers coach Brian Odom at $425,000 and $375,000 a year.
And so now, one year after all this began — five games into the 2019 season — Sooner Nation finds out Saturday if Grinch and his staff are a bargain or a bust.
“I’m excited about where we’ve headed as a program,” Riley said. “I’m excited about the way we’re playing defensively and the progress we’ve made. Obviously, you’re only as good as your next performance. This is the next one for us. We plan to go play well.”
Texas represents by far the best offense the Sooners have faced this season. OU has played five opponents of limited talent so far. The Longhorns most definitely are not limited.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger (20 total TDs, 2 interceptions, a .692 completion percentage and 337 total yards per game) is considered a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy. Running back Keaontay Ingram is a long touchdown waiting to happen. And receivers Devin Duvernay (45 catches, 463 yards), Brennan Eagles (25 yards per catch) and Jake Smith have combined for 12 touchdown catches, and veteran wideouts John Burt and Collin Johnson are supposedly getting healthy.
OU leads the nation in total offense (644 yards per game) and ranks second in scoring offense (53.4 points per game), but Texas ranks 19th (484 yards per game) and 13th (41.8), which is significantly higher than anyone else on the Sooners’ schedule so far.
OU linebacker Kenneth Murray was asked Monday about the defining play of last year’s Red River Rivalry, the third-and-21 early in the second half on which Ehlinger threw a give-up screen pass to Lil Jordan Humphrey, who turned it into a 19-yard gain by plowing through and over Oklahoma defenders for the final 10 yards. Humphrey’s effort empowered Texas coach Tom Herman to go for it on fourth-and-2, the ‘Horns converted, and then Ehlinger scored to give UT a 31-17 lead.
That kind of play, Murray said, won’t happen this year.
“Not at all,” he said. “Different approach. Different mentality.”
That remains to be seen on Saturday, of course, but the reality is that that play is why Riley fired Stoops, why he hired Grinch, and why OU is paying its new defensive coordinator so much money. That different approach, that different mentality has given OU a good return on investment so far.
“They’re playing really, really hard,” Herman said Monday. “They’re flying to the football. No. 90 (Neville Gallimore) is a havoc-wreaker, if you will. Obviously, Kenneth Murray deserves all of the accolades that he gets. I think you just see them playing so hard and flying to the football. Really aggressive. Not terribly complex. Some of the things they do with their line movements, and twists and stunts, are going to be difficult for our offensive line and quarterback. They are in the right place at the right time, and they’re getting there with their hair on fire and really physical.”
But Texas is no UCLA, no South Dakota, no Houston. For this Oklahoma defense, Saturday is a different beast altogether.
And that’s OK. The Sooners are ready, Murray said.
“Throughout the season, guys have been bought in and guys have been doing a tremendous job,” Murray said. “But I think the biggest thing for us right now and the biggest thing that we do gotta fix is we’ve gotta finish. I didn’t like the way that we finished the last game, versus Kansas. We’re obviously happy to get a win, but we’ve got to finish as a defense.
“I mean, given what happened last year, obviously, we want to come out and dominate,” Murray said.
Murray said he hasn’t re-watched the embarrassing Humphrey play much, but he has replayed the Longhorns’ postgame celebration — internally.
“It’s been played in my head a bunch, just seeing those guys cheering on that field with that (Golden) Hat (Trophy) in their hands,” Murray said. “Last year, walking off that field, I vividly remember exactly how I felt. … And I think this team this year is different from the team last year. I think it’s a different approach. I think it’s a different mindset, and so I’m excited to get some preparation this week and go out there and dominate on Saturday.”
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.