Oklahoma's defense finally matches its offense with dominant showing vs. Texas in Red River Showdown
The Sooners came to play on both sides of the ball, which has not always been the case
DALLAS -- Twenty-eight minutes before the 115th Red River Showdown, Big 12 referee Mike Defee decided to make himself the story. As Texas and Oklahoma milled around each at midfield during pregame, there were the usual insults and shouts between the teams. There might have even been a few hands thrown.
Defee had enough and threw an unsportsmanlike conduct flag that applied to every player on the field. Another such infraction during the game, Defee announced over his referee's microphone, and that player would be ejected.
"I'm not sure there weren't punches thrown," Defee said afterward to a pool reporter. "I got hit a couple of times. My head linesman got hit."
The depth of this rivalry had been defined again. Yes, before these teams even kicked off, every player on the field had been flagged.
"I said to Coach [Lincoln] Riley, 'It might be the best thing that happened.' I mean that," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. "To eliminate all the clutter that goes with the game. … It was pretty cut and dried at that point. No talk."
With the ground rules set, Grinch's defense dominated what Defee would call during the coin toss "the greatest rivalry in college football."
That came before he warned the players a final time, "Are we clear?"
Uh, yeah, big dog. All Defee needed at that point was a house band and he could have had his own talk show.
But even a grandstanding referee couldn't take away the real story -- another Red River classic. This one a 34-27 Oklahoma win defined by Grinch and his suddenly reputation-worthy defense.
Perhaps the hottest defensive coordinator in the country was at the controls of a defense that tied a school record with nine sacks. The 15 tackles for loss were the second-most ever against Texas in this series.
"It was finally good to see our execution come alive, to see guys hungry," defensive lineman Neville Gallimore said.
"You don't just wake up the week of OU-Texas and get ready to play," Riley said. "It's been building for a long time."
Building to the point that it's OK to suggest the Oklahoma defense has an edge. That word just hasn't been used about that side of the eball for the Sooners in a while.
Witness junior linebacker Kenneth Murray, who may have locked up a spot on the All-America team based on Saturday's performance. Two of his five tackles were for a loss to go along with a sack. More than that, he seemed to be putting pressure on Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger from all angles. The effort was so impressive it harkened back to the OU linebacking greats who made their reputations in this game -- Brian Bosworth and Rocky Calmus.
"You come to Oklahoma to play a certain brand of football," Grinch said. "You come to Oklahoma to play in these type of games. You come to Oklahoma not to be all-conference [but] to be All-American. The best defensive player at Oklahoma should be in the conversation for national awards."
Grinch calls his style "smart aggression," suggesting it's OK to get a couple of pass interference penalties if it contributes to the greater good.
"We played. We weren't thinking too much at all," cornerback Trey Brown said. "We wanted to swing first, not let them swing first."
What did Brown think when he heard the game plan contained so many high-risk, high-reward blitzes?
"I actually didn't know the game plan, but when I heard we had nine sacks, it was like, 'Wow, we were getting to them.'"
Wait, didn't know the game plan? When was Brown going to find out?
"As we go, honest," Brown said. "Coach Grinch, he's a pressure man. I knew he was going to throw pressure out there."
"We play it by ear," Gallimore added.
"Football," Grinch summarized on more than occasion, "is hard."
Yeah, but he's making it look simple at defense-starved OU. The result sent a message not only to Texas but to the Big 12. Oklahoma has won four consecutive outright conference titles.
No more snickering under your breath at the offensive nature of the league. You're going to have to play through this Oklahoma defense, not just try to outscore the Sooners.
"It's the ecosystem. It's everything," Grinch said. "It's the air you breathe in that building. At the risk of sounding too dramatic, since this defense got together in January, it's been an onslaught on our part."
Here's how far the Oklahoma defense has come: Two years ago, the Sooners blew one of the biggest opportunities in their postseason history, surrendering a 17-point first-half lead against Georgia in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
A couple of days after last year's Red River Showdown, a 48-45 loss to the Longhorns, Riley fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Even though Oklahoma won the Big 12 and got to another playoff, the defense actually got worse statistically in the second half of the season.
"It's pretty crazy but you know what changes have to be made," Brown said. "We're a changed defense."
When the 39-year-old Grinch became available after the coaching change at Ohio State, he already had been responsible for the best defense ever played by a Mike Leach-coached team (from 2015-17 at Washington State). Consider that Leach has been a head coach for more than 15 years.
"Football," Grinch again said, "is hard."
His manipulation of the defense is making it look easy. Riley jumped at the opportunity to get Grinch. Within the program,.
Now, it's evident. The nation's worst pass defense in 2018 is now 37th in the FBS. The defense has a whole is giving up 100 yards fewer per game than it did a year ago.
"He's made a big difference," Brown said of Grinch. "He's made goals that haven't changed throughout the year at all. We want to set the standard, change the culture around here."
Just when it was OK to suggest the 'Horns were back for good, it was back to the drawing board for Ehlinger and Texas. Last October in this game, Ehlinger had his coming out party, accounting for six touchdowns and almost 400 yards in total offense. This time? Texas as a whole compiled only 305 yards.
"It was nothing exotic," Ehlinger said Oklahoma's defense.
Maybe not, but at 4-2, the Longhorns are now all but out of the playoff race. Their best hope is to finish second and get a rematch with Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game.
That's where Oklahoma got its revenge last year. Yes, the possibility exists these teams could meet twice each year. But there's something special about this game, at this stadium, in the middle of the Texas State Fair.
"Pretty similar to Week 2," Ehlinger said referring to the early loss to LSU. "You're playing a top-five team, you have a chance in the second half, but you play really, really poorly to your standards. It's frustrating because it's right there."
It says something that we have not mentioned Jalen Hurts until now. Through five games, Hurts and his rebirth after his career at Alabama was the story of this Oklahoma team. Certainly, Riley showed why he is a quarterback maker with Heisman Trophy talk swirling around Hurts.
But on Saturday, Hurts might have played his "worst" game of the season. Two first-half turnovers inside the red zone kept the game from being a blowout.
As it was, hold your parlays. The 'Horns scored late for a backdoor cover and the 61-point total was way under the expected 77.5.
"It was a great defensive battle today," said Hurts, appropriately.
Last year's Red River Showdown featured 93 points with Texas kicking the game-winning field goal late.
A halftime of Saturday's battle, it looked like a soccer game had broken out. Oklahoma led 10-3, but the numbers said otherwise. OU led in total yards (260-83), rushing yards (165-12), tackles for loss (8-3) and sacks (4-0).
Hurts righted himself and accounted for 366 yards in total offense, including 131 yards rushing. That's the most ever by an Oklahoma quarterback against Texas. Considering all the greats running all the wishbones against all those Texas teams, that's also amazing.
Three more touchdown passes -- Hurts has 17 now -- went to CeeDee Lamb in a true breakout effort that likely shot him up NFL Draft boards.
"When I came to Oklahoma, I didn't really have a place to stay for the first week or so, so I stayed on his couch," Hurts said of Lamb. "That kind of shows you what type of guy he is to even allow that to build that chemistry early on."
"Great guy, especially when he can catch the ball, too," Hurts said.
Hurts also noticed something else coming together: both sides of the ball.
"Talk about this collective group," Hurts concluded, "what we have is something special."
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