OU football: The day Oklahoma's reborn defense became a life raft for its prolific offense

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Oklahoma nose guard Neville Gallimore tackles Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger during the Red River Showdown, Saturday, at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

DALLAS — The scene was typical at midfield of the Cotton Bowl following an Oklahoma-Texas football game. The winners glistened with joy.

OU receiver CeeDee Lamb was smiling for a postgame interview on live television. The team’s director of operations, Clarke Stroud, was trying to corral him for a team photo. Head coach Lincoln Riley was out gathering other stray players.

Defensive end Ronnie Perkins wasn’t hard to find. He was bouncing off a crowd of cameramen with a massive OU flag he planned to jab into midfield after the Sooners beat Texas 34-27 on Saturday.

Defensive back Pat Fields was posing with the Golden Hat on his head when in strode defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who by his own players’ accounts might be the most intense person on the sideline at any given time. Except after one of OU’s best defensive performances in years — which is becoming a common refrain this season — Grinch looked calm.

“What happens in regards to the stage, you know, a football game breaks out. I don’t think [this game] is different that way,” Grinch said. “I don’t think I’m different than most coaches that way once you get to gameday.

“But certainly, what a venue.”

His players were equally businesslike after OU tied a school record with nine sacks and made 15 tackles for loss, a program record against Texas. The Longhorns finished with just 305 total yards.

The scoring margin didn’t tell the whole tale of what could have been a dominant victory for the sixth-ranked Sooners, if not for an offense that uncharacteristically scuffled in the first half. OU quarterback Jalen Hurts turned the ball over twice in the red zone, blowing multiple chances to build a three-score lead.

But in a stark contrast from years past, the defense was a life raft. Texas punted on its first four drives and only chipped in a field goal before halftime.

The 11th-ranked Longhorns had just 83 total yards by intermission. Hurts was more productive with his legs over that time — 93 yards rushing — than the entire Texas offense.

OU led just 7-3 by that point and Texas began with the ball to start the second half. But middle linebacker Kenneth Murray sacked Sam Ehlinger for a 10-yard loss on third down to deliver the ball back to OU.

“When you fail to score and your defense is picking you up and doing their job and holding their end of the bargain, the energy switches over to the offense,” ” said OU’s CeeDee Lamb, who finished with a career-high 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns. “At some point, we’re going to put up points.”

Lamb scored on big plays of 27 and 51 yards in the second half.

Ehlinger was under duress much of the time. Last year, he was one of the ones celebrating after the teams’ regular-season meeting. Texas’ 48-45 win over OU in 2018 signaled rock bottom for the defense and helped usher in the Grinch era.

Saturday was a completely different story.

“I think they did a really good job of swarming the football,” Ehlinger said. “Obviously they recruit extremely well and have tremendously talented players, and I feel like they just let them go make plays rather than go do a whole bunch of complex stuff. They let them go be athletes.”

The Longhorns finally found the end zone, with Roschon Johnson’s 57-yard run setting up a short TD that tied the game at 10-10 with 8:48 left in the third quarter.

Lamb pushed OU ahead again with some impressive moves on a 51-yard TD catch after Hurts’ flea-flicker pass with 7:40 in the third. Texas got close, but never close enough.

The Longhorns (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) didn’t have a 100-yard rusher or receiver. Nine sacks was the most the program has surrendered since 2009 against Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game.

OU (6-0, 3-0) looked prepared defensively, with work to do offensively, which is new territory for the Sooners. But they officially own an inside track to the Big 12 championship and are sure contenders for the College Football Playoff.

It’s due to a defense that has been reborn under Grinch.

"I’m a true believer in the past doesn’t define you. This is a new year. Completely different approach. Completely different mentality for this defense," Murray said. "Coach [Grinch] has done a phenomenal job of, you know, making things simple and letting me just go out there and fly around. I’m extremely proud of the way the guys played today. Like I said, I’m a true believer in the past doesn’t define you and I’m just proud of the way we’re playing right now."

Riley wouldn't let Grinch leave the field without savoring the joy with him, remembering how his first win in Dallas felt in 2015. They shared a brief conversation on the ramp leaving the field.

“I was excited about how we played defensively,” Riley said. “It was cool to be able to share that moment with him. Journey is just getting started, though.”

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