John Hoover

SPORTING NEWS: Oklahoma defense’s redemptive performance finally has Sooners looking like title contenders

SPORTING NEWS: Oklahoma defense’s redemptive performance finally has Sooners looking like title contenders

Oklahoma defensive lineman Neville Gallimore (90) plants the Oklahoma flag on the field at AT&T Stadium after a 30-23 overtime victory over Baylor in an NCAA college football game for the Big 12 Conference championship, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

ARLINGTON, Texas — ­­­College football has become a game of elite quarterbacks.

But at Oklahoma, elite quarterbacks could only go so far.

Despite the efforts of all-timers like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray behind center, the best the Sooners could do in 2017 and 2018 was win the Big 12 Conference and make it to the Playoff semifinals — but no further.

This Oklahoma team, however, looks decidedly different.

On Saturday, while the Sooner offense scrapped for inches, settled for field goals and struggled to hold onto the football against a talented Baylor defense, it was the Oklahoma defense that rose up time after time to get a stop.

The final result was a 30-23 overtime victory for the Sooners (12-1) in the Big 12 championship game at AT&T Stadium. It was the Sooners’ fifth consecutive league crown, the longest title streak by a Power 5 team since Alabama in the early 1970s (which can be matched Saturday night by Clemson).

Baylor (11-2), a team that averaged 36 points and nearly 450 yards per game this season, managed just two touchdowns, 265 total yards and only eight first downs against an Oklahoma defense that has been reborn out of a coaching makeover, reconstituted in the image of its new coordinator.

“Whatever it takes,” Alex Grinch said afterward.

Whether that’s tackling a runner by his dreadlocks, forcing six three-and-outs and an overtime stop, punishing three different Baylor quarterbacks, saving a game-winning touchdown with an all-out sprint in the closing minutes or limiting the Bears to 1.2 yards per rush, this Oklahoma defense might be the one element that finally gives the Sooners a fighting chance in the College Football Playoff.

“That’s our ‘Speed D,’” said head coach Lincoln Riley, who had to part ways with Mike Stoops — his old boss’s little brother — in the middle of last season before bringing in Grinch from Ohio State. “That’s what we are. We are an effort-based defense. … Our guys have bought in.

“I couldn’t be happier with our defense, the way those have played with so much new — we knew it could be done here, and our guys believed it, and our coaches believed it, and we’ve got a pretty good defense here.”

The Sooners finished the regular season ranked No. 26 nationally in total defense, yielding just 336 yards per game. Forget analytics, some of which reflect OU’s massive resurgence, some of which do not — just going from 114th in the nation to 26th in the span of 11 months and from 129th nationally (dead last) in pass defense to 22nd this year shows what kind of difference Grinch has made. And that showed up Saturday.

Four Baylor pass plays resulted in 221 yards. Baylor’s other 48 plays netted just 44 total yards.

Despite paltry offensive production in the first half, the Bears had a 13-10 halftime lead because Jalen Hurts committed two turnovers, and because backup quarterback Gerry Bohanan came in for injured Charlie Brewer and connected on a couple of lob throws into the Sooner secondary.

And despite continued struggles to move the football in the second half, Baylor seemed headed for a game-winning touchdown when third-string true freshman quarterback Jacob Zeno completed a 78-yard bomb to Chris Platt with fewer than five minutes to play.

But Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown chased Platt down at the Sooner 17, and Oklahoma forced a field goal to force the game into overtime. There, after Oklahoma took a 30-23 lead on Rhamondre Stevenson’s 5-yard touchdown run. Baylor ran four plays — three incomplete passes and a sack — that netted minus-10 yards.

“We brought the guys up as we went to overtime, and I told them, ‘This is fitting,’ ” Riley said. “The way we started fall camp was red zone work, and three straight days of it, and it’s fitting to start fall camp and finish the regular season championship game with that kind of overtime period.”

To read the rest of John E. Hoover’s report for Sporting News, click here:

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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.

John Hoover
@JohnEHoover

John Hoover wrote for the Tulsa World for 24 years before joining The Franchise, where he was co-host of "Further Review" and "The Franchise Drive." Now he's The Franchise college football insider: Oklahoma's state Heisman rep, a voter in the FWAA Super 16 poll, an FWAA media access liaison, and a Big 12 writer at Sporting News and Lindy's preseason magazine. In his time at the World, Hoover won numerous writing and reporting awards, including in 2011 National Beat Writer of the Year from the Associated Press Sports Editors for his work covering the Oklahoma Sooners. From 2012 to 2016, Hoover was the World's lead sports columnist and won national awards in 2012 and 2014 from the National Athletic Trainers Association for reporting on sports medicine and in 2015 won first place in sports columns from the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists. After receiving a journalism degree from East Central University, Hoover worked at newspapers in Ada, Okmulgee, Tahlequah and Waynesville, Mo. He played football at Ada High School and grew up in North Pole, Alaska. Hoover and his family live in Broken Arrow.

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