DALLAS — This Oklahoma defense appears to be for real.
A swarming Sooners attack never let Texas get comfortable and new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch celebrated his first big victory Saturday, 34-27 over Texas at the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
It was a measuring-stick game, and OU passed with flying colors.
“Coming in here in this game, we know it was a big game. It was like do-or-die right here. This was to see if we were for real or not,” cornerback Tre Brown said. “(Grinch) gave us a game plan and we executed. So, we all helped each other out and it just feels good to see him smile.”
Ronnie Perkins isn’t bothered that there still could be some who continue to doubt OU’s defense.
“Some people still probably don’t believe in us after this performance, which is fine,” the defensive lineman said. “As long as we believe in each other and keep doing what coach Grinch is teaching, I feel like we can perform at this level for the rest of the season.”
OU — anchored by that hard-hitting defense — proved its worth against a hated rival.
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger was a magnet for OU defenders all afternoon. The Sooners tied a school record with nine sacks and raced up 15 tackles for loss, the most for OU since 2011.
“Everything is simple, so guys can just fly around,” said safety Pat Fields, who had one of OU’s sacks. “We don’t have to think about anything. We don’t have any clutter on our minds.”
Grinch is the mastermind of a defense that continues to improve on a weekly basis. Confidence is flowing at the midway point of the regular season.
The defensive players, as well as head coach Lincoln Riley, say they hate to compare last year’s defense to this unit. Last year’s 48-45 loss to the Longhorns in the Red River Showdown prompted former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops’ firing.
But improvement can be seen in the statistics.
On Saturday, OU only allowed three passes of 15 yards or more. Last year, Ehlinger had 10 completions of that distance. OU had nine sacks compared to only one in the 2018 game. The Sooners only had three tackles for loss, which is one-fifth of this year’s total.
“I don’t care what our defensive calls are, schemes,” said Riley, before readjusting his thoughts. “Not that I don’t care, but the way we play right now was the difference today. Aggression, fundamentally sound … we were outstanding out there.”
And then there was a warning that will probably rally Sooner Nation.
“We’re going to continue to get better. This won’t be our best game,” Riley said.
In years past, OU may not have survived a sluggish start on offense. The Sooners were held to 10 first-half points Saturday, their momentum stunted by two red-zone turnovers by quarterback Jalen Hurts.
With all of the pressure placed on the defense, the unit responded by harassing Ehlinger. The Big 12’s preseason offensive player of the year never could get comfortable in the pocket and Texas’ ground game never found consistency.
“They did a really good job of swarming the football,” Ehlinger said. “Instead of doing a lot of complex stuff, they let (their players) be athletes.”
This rivalry remains fiery. After pregame warmups, the teams had a fracas that resulted in every player on both teams drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
No. 6 OU (6-0 overall, 3-0 Big 12) took a 7-0 lead when Hurts hit CeeDee Lamb with a 1-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal. Gabe Brkic’s 19-yard field goal with 1:49 left before halftime made it 10-0, and Cameron Dicker put the Horns on the board with a 49-yard field goal on the final play before intermission.
The No 11 Longhorns (4-2, 2-1) tied it at 10 midway through the third quarter, but the game wasn’t knotted for long. Just 63 seconds later, Hurts hit Lamb with a 51-yard TD pass on a flea flicker to make it 17-10.
“We knew that the game was going to come down to this. We knew these guys were going to fight,” Lamb said. “Texas did a great job over the years to give us competition and I’m happy that they did this year. I’m happy to be on the right side of the win column this time.”
Lamb ended with 10 catches for 171 yards. He has a touchdown reception in his past eight games.
The Longhorns cut OU’s lead to 27-20 with 6:53 remaining to cause a ripple of excitement for the Texas fans, but the Sooners put together an important drive that ended with Hurts scoring on a 3-yard run with 4:19 remaining.
Texas — aided by two 15-yard penalties — cut the lead to 34-27 with 1:49 left, but it didn’t recover an onside kick attempt.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, a celebratory Hurts pointed to a raucous OU fan base in the south end zone before taking a final snap.