NORMAN — When is a 15-point home victory an unpleasant memory?
When it’s the 2018 Kansas game.
When the hapless Jayhawks gashed the Oklahoma defense for 348 rushing yards — or 201 more rushing yards than Kansas had against any other Big 12 opponent.
When the Jayhawks scored 40 points — or 12 more than they scored against any other conference opponent.
When Kansas punted only three times, after having punted nine times against Texas Tech.
That Kansas-OU game was played only 9½ months ago, so it’s an easy and legitimate exercise to compare the Sooner defense of Nov. 17, 2018, to the Sooner defense of Sunday.
As the Houston opener is the first point of reference on OU’s Alex Grinch defense — and as Jalen Hurts and the fourth-ranked Sooners rolled to 686 total yards and a 49-31 triumph — then most fans should have slept well on Sunday night.
Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray and his parents were in attendance. During the process of winning the 2018 Heisman Trophy, Murray as a Sooner senior had one of the more statistically impressive seasons in college football history.
Hurts’ final stat line was exactly consistent with what Murray did on a consistent basis. The offense cooked.
The defense? There were a few missed tackles and two dumb, 15-yard penalties, but even the most jaded critic must acknowledge that this Sooner defense looked much better than the 2018 Sooner defense. Through three periods, the Cougars had 221 total yards.
Against overwhelmed Florida Atlantic in last year’s opener, OU was up 42-0 at halftime. By halftime on Sunday, the Sooners had more than doubled the Houston yardage total, yet led by only 21-10.
Most OU fans probably weren’t in the mood to give Houston any credit for having a renowned offensive coach (Dana Holgorsen in his Cougar opener) and a quarterback (D’Eriq King) and receivers who will smoke most American Athletic Conference defenses.
There are Tulsa fingerprints all over this Sooner defense.
As Oklahoma’s defensive starters were introduced on the big video board, five minutes before the Houston-OU kickoff, LaRon Stokes was presented to the crowd of 84,534 as having been a first-team Sooner.
The unveiling of starters was attention-commanding because of the word “or” on recent depth charts.
At an edge-rusher position, it was Stokes or Jalen Redmond.
At the rush-linebacker spot, it was Jon Michael-Terry or Nik Bonitto.
Grinch trusted Stokes (who as a Tulsa high school athlete was homeschooled) and Michael-Terry (a dominant defender during his years at Victory Christian) with starting roles.
With former Union stars Tre Brown and Pat Fields in the secondary, there were four Tulsans in OU’s defensive starting lineup.
This feels unprecedented — to have four Tulsans in the OU starting defense — but maybe it happened 80 or 90 years ago. Certainly not in recent years.
Reasonable Expectation No. 1: That on opening night, the Sooner defense would be measurably improved.
It wasn’t close to perfect, but at the same time it was never really cringe-worthy.
If fans are determined to feel stressed about something, they can glance at the kicking game. OU misfired on both its field goal attempts.
With 5½ minutes left to play, OU got a fourth-down stop at the Sooner 23. A year ago, Houston probably converts or scores in that situation.
As first steps go for the defense, this wasn’t bad.
Do-or-die tackling was an issue last season. Five minutes before halftime, it again was an issue. Houston’s Kyle Porter collected a D’Eriq King swing pass and found himself in a face-to-face confrontation with Brown near the Sooner sideline.
As an off-balance Brown was unable to score the takedown, Porter rocked his way into the end zone for a 23-yard score. It was the most glaring missed tackle of the night. Moments like this happened all the time last year.
By Grinch’s tougher standards, OU might have missed 30 tackles on Sunday.
By my count, OU missed on no more than 10 tackle attempts. In an opener, and in consideration of Houston’s skill-position talent, 10 is not a terrible number.
Among positives was the Brown-Fields defense, on a deep throw by King, against Houston receiver Tre’Von Bradley. The coverage was executed perfectly, with Fields on the deeper end of the assignment, and he nearly got an interception.
Linebacker Kenneth Murray, who as usual was the Sooner leader in tackles with 13, sprinted 25 yards to grab King as the Houston QB released a wobbly incompletion.
Murray seemed to get faster with each stride. It was beautiful.
Houston punted five times. Against the Sooners last season, Kansas punted only three times.
Houston had 408 total yards. Kansas had 524.
Reasonable Expectation No. 2: That the Oklahoma defense is better at UCLA than it was on Sunday, and better in the Texas game than it was at UCLA.
If Grinch takes this Houston building block and achieves steady improvement each week — with many of the same players who last season were 130th nationally in pass defense – then he will have been a phenomenal hire and worth every dime of the $1.4 million he’s being paid.