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Guerin Emig: Texas arrival signals chance for OU defense to make rare impression

October 2, 2018

NORMAN – We last left the Oklahoma defense in this game beaten up but victorious. Remember?

The Sooners surrendered some plays and yards to Texas last year -- just as they surrender them to everyone else every week -- but stopped the Longhorns when they had to.

Kenneth Murray knocked Sam Ehlinger from the game temporarily. D.J. Ward sacked Ehlinger replacement Shane Buechele. Pass rushing Ogbonnia Okoronkwo split a double team, drew a holding flag and still forced Ehlinger, who had returned, into a drive-ending throwaway.

Texas’ last reasonable chance to pull ahead and win was thwarted at OU’s 34-yard line. As an exhausted Ogbonnia collapsed on his back and was helped off the Cotton Bowl field by teammate Caleb Kelly, you realized that for once the defense hadn’t hindered Baker Mayfield’s effort to win a big game, but actually helped.

Now that OU-Texas has come around again, I suggest the defense can help once more. I suggest the defense had better help, since this year’s score should be similar to last year’s (29-24).

Kyler Murray is somehow playing as well as Mayfield was this time last season. Murray’s receivers are playing even better.

But Texas has some defensive backs who can cover. Texas doesn’t have to tackle Rodney Anderson at the line of scrimmage Saturday. Texas has shown some defensive growth since the week one loss to Maryland.

This all points to the Sooners scoring half of what they did last week against Baylor (66). And that points to OU’s defense having a rare shot to play the hero’s role.

It’s a shaky proposition, I realize.

Defensive coordinators have stripped statistics down to: “Did we get off the field without being scored on?” Well, OU’s defense still isn’t getting off the field enough.

The Sooners are 100th among FBS defenses on third down. They are 122nd in the red zone.

They are creating a pass rush. They are being more aggressive. Coaches claim they are being more sound in alignment and coverage. That’s encouraging.

But nobody sees striking improvement. This isn’t a defense that makes you think, “Yeah, these guys belong in the playoff.”

It is a defense that makes you think, “Yeah, these guys can stop Texas when push comes to shove.”

That’s because of Longhorn limitations as much as anything.

Ehlinger, who rushed for 122 yards in this game last year, remains Texas’ best option on the ground. And while he is a better passer than he was last season, that means he has gone from poor to marginal.

Ehlinger had 29 completions at Kansas State last week, but for just 207 yards. That tells you coach Tom Herman has simplified Ehlinger’s pass game responsibility to: “Just don’t beat us.”

Ehlinger isn’t expected to beat OU Saturday. He didn’t a year ago after getting the ball down 29-24. He hasn’t made enough strides to do so now.

What strides has OU’s defense made? That’s hard to tell over the Sooners’ 5-0 start.

“I like where we are,” Murray said Monday. “We’re never going to have a perfect game. We’re going to have to fight some adversity every game. As long as we continue to fight through it, that’s all that you can ask. When you get hit with adversity you’re either going to fold or you’re going to fight. The last few weeks, we’ve been fighting.”

I suggest the Sooners’ D has been fighting since a season-opening shutdown of Florida Atlantic. UCLA, Iowa State, Army and Baylor all moved the ball to different degrees. They all forced the Sooners to man up and make plays.

Murray, with 45 tackles the past two weeks, has made plenty. Curtis Bolton has been a pleasant surprise alongside at linebacker. Kenneth Mann, Ronnie Perkins, Parnell Motley and Tre Brown have all had their moments.

But nobody has emerged beyond the sparkle of Murray, CeeDee Lamb, Marquise Brown and OU’s Roman candle of an offense. It’s tough getting noticed around those guys, just as it was around Mayfield, Anderson and Mark Andrews in ’17.

Well, we noticed OU defenders in this game a year ago. We noticed them with the outcome in the balance.

I predict we notice them again Saturday, one way or another.

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