It is hard to believe we’re saying this, but Oklahoma’s final argument for the College Football Playoff was made in part by its defense.
Yeah, the Sooners’ offense did what it does – including a grinding drive for the clinching score. The highlights will be Kyler Murray doing what he does, or maybe tight end Grant Calcaterra’s one-handed touchdown catch with two minutes left. But that came after a sack-safety that had dramatically altered momentum, allowing the offense to forge a two-score lead. And the Sooners finished Texas off with an interception to win their fourth consecutive Big 12 championship.
No one is going to suggest the Sooners’ defense is much more than substandard; but against Texas, they were better than they’d been for most of the season.
“This team is still getting better,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “Our defense is playing better and better. Our best ball is still ahead of us.”
Here are takeaways from No. 5 Oklahoma’s 39-27 win against No. 9 Texas:
- The matchup was exactly what the Big 12 envisioned when it restarted its conference championship game: Its two perennial heavyweights slugging it out (and in a full stadium: the attendance of 83,114 was not only a record for a Big 12 championship, but for any conference championship game).
Despite the loss, Texas would play in the Sugar Bowl if Oklahoma gets into the playoff, giving the Big 12 two New Year’s Six bowl berths.
Can you imagine Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman hooking it up in rematches over the next few years – especially if the Longhorns continue their upward trajectory to the point where the championship game becomes a de facto quarterfinal, with implications for both squads? It’s a delicious thought.
- Kyler Murray was superb again, finishing a Heisman campaign with a strong statement. Murray was 25-of-34 for 379 yards and three touchdowns (418 total yards), connecting with 10 different receivers.
As usual, there were several jaw-dropping moments. This time they mostly came through the air. It might get overlooked in the highlights, but Murray’s short touchdown pass to tight end Calcaterra was something special: a flat-footed, sidearm dart on target. It resembled nothing so much as a shortstop coming up and firing a snap throw to first base (which probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering Murray’s other sport).
By now we’re used to the playmaking. But for Murray, locked in a Heisman race with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, it was an impressive finish.
- When defensive backs Parnell Motley and Tre Norwood combined for a deflection and interception, respectively, that extinguished Texas’ last shot, it was a startling development, no?
But it was only one of several critical plays made by the Sooners’ defense, and it was more than that: Not counting the end of the first half, Texas had 10 possessions and scored on only four (we know – but considering the first 12 games). More significant: Oklahoma held Texas to 88 yards rushing on 32 attempts, a 2.8-yard average.
And in the fourth quarter, Texas’ three possessions ended punt, safety, interception. The latter two plays were huge.
Just after Texas had forced a fumble near the goal line that felt like a huge momentum swing, Tre Brown blasted Sam Ehlinger for a safety and a five-point lead with 8:27 left. Then Motley and Norwood clinched victory with the interception with 51 seconds left.
Oklahoma’s ability to make at least occasional stops and come up with big plays might have actually been a carryover from the week before. West Virginia piled up 56 points and 704 yards, but the Sooners came up with several stops and – much more important – two defensive touchdowns.
Let’s float a contrary notion: It’s just possible the Sooners’ defense played better against the Mountaineers than we all thought – than it had all season – but it was camouflaged by the stress imposed by the best offense Oklahoma had faced all season. Regardless, the Sooners had a lot more success in slowing Texas than in their first meeting – and more success than they’ve had against most opponents.
- Texas limited Oklahoma’s running game. The Sooners averaged 264.3 rushing yards during the regular season, providing balance and making the passing game even more devastating (five times Oklahoma rushed and passed for at least 300 yards). But in the first half Oklahoma had 53 yards on 17 carries; it finished with 129 yards on 40 attempts (3.2-yard average).