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Entering Texas’ game against Oklahoma, questions existed about the Sooner defense under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. UCLA, South Dakota, and even Texas Tech didn’t have the talent of the Longhorn offense. The common inquiry was what would happen when the Sooner defense faced an offense composed of talented players?
On Saturday, they answered those questions with nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss, and a defensive effort that led the Sooners to a 34-27 victory.
It was the first time this season Oklahoma scored fewer than 40 points and won.
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley is thought to be one of the most successful offensive minds at any level of football. He’s produced Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks and first overall picks in the NFL Draft.
Even he noted the key to Oklahoma’s victory was the side of the ball he hired Grinch to oversee in the offseason.
“Defensively just was awesome,” Riley said after the game. “We tackled well, covered them well. Obviously, we were able to get quite a bit of pressure on the quarterback, which is probably the key to the game.”
The Sooner defense limited Texas QB Sam Ehlinger to just 71 passing yards in the first half. The Longhorns as a team had 83 yards of total offense, with 48 of them coming on the final drive that culminated in a 49-yard field goal from Cameron Dicker.
It was a dominant defensive performance by a unit previously lambasted for its woes.
“They are really, really good and played really, really well,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said. “We did not.”
The Sooner offense moved down the field easily in the first half, accumulating 260 yards of total offense. Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts netted a touchdown pass on his first drive in this rivalry when he found CeeDee Lamb for a one-yard score.
However, they would only add a second quarter field goal to cap their first half of scoring. Despite giving up plenty of yards and looking overmatched on both sides of the ball, Texas entered halftime trailing just 10-3.
Texas’ offense picked up the pace in the second half with 24 points and 227 yards of total offense. It wasn’t pretty, especially when one drive included two false start penalties in the shadow of the goalposts. Ehlinger rarely had time to throw, and when he did he still often couldn’t find an open receiver. Oklahoma’s consistent defensive effort made life difficult for Ehlinger.
His stat line is evident of that. He was 26-for-38 for 210 yards, good for a paltry 5.5 yards per attempt. He rushed the ball 23 times with two scores and finished with a final tally of -9 yards due to the nine sacks.
The only Texas rusher who had a solid day in the Cotton Bowl was freshman Roschon Johnson. He had eight carries for 95 yards, including a 57-yard run in the third quarter that put Texas in position to tie the game at 10. Johnson did that with a four-yard run a couple of plays later.
Johnson’s burst through the middle of the field was the only bright spot of the day for the Texas offense. The Longhorns rushed for 100 yards on 36 attempts, good for 2.77 yards per carry.
Subtract that 57-yard run and Texas rushed for 1.1 yards per carry.
“I think the scheme is not terribly complex in terms of knowing where they’re going to be, but they’re extremely well coached and confident in how to get there, where to get there, and how to fit different runs and routes and coverage,” Herman said. “You can tell that they really know what they’re doing.”
Complex or not, it was a puzzle Texas couldn’t figure out. Where the Oklahoma defense shined, the Texas defense fizzled.
It’s expected for the Sooners to score a bunch of points and put up bunch of yards on offense. It’s what Riley’s teams have done in his entire Oklahoma tenure. His team rushed for 276, passed for 235, and finished with over 500 yards. They had plenty of help from the Texas defense.
UT’s tackling was putrid. Lamb was a primary beneficiary of that notching three touchdowns and 171 yards on 10 receptions. On his third quarter touchdown in response to Texas’ tying score, he was left wide open after a flea flicker for Hurts.
He hauled in the pass and Texas had him surrounded, but the Longhorns failed to wrap up the star receiver. He bounced off a Longhorn or two and jaunted into the end zone for a 51-yard score to give Oklahoma a lead it wouldn’t surrender.
It happened once again, this time early in the fourth. Lamb looked corralled near the sideline inside the Texas 10-yard line. He slipped through several defenders, and added six to the scoreboard for the third time.
Texas struggled to not only bring down Lamb, but anyone wearing a white jersey.
Todd Orlando’s defense showed deficiencies with tackling and with air raid passing attacks in earlier games. Louisiana Tech, LSU, and West Virginia tallied huge yardage totals against the Longhorn defense and often evaded defenders who tried to make tackles.
Those problems were made all too obvious against the elite Oklahoma offense.
“Losing is not a failure unless you refuse or don’t learn from the things that you did poorly,” Herman said. “As long as we do that and continue to improve – I told our team we’ve got a team coming into our place next week and they could care less what the outcome of this game was, and they shouldn’t. They are going to give us their best shot.”
Herman has often repeated that his plan to win games at Texas includes playing great defense. It was part of a successful plan to win, only it was enacted by Oklahoma.