In Year 2 under Alex Grinch, Oklahoma’s defense continues to make significant strides.
The Sooners rank 20th in the nation in total defense (yards per game), 11th in rushing defense and 29th in scoring defense. There’s still work to do in defending the pass (60th), but clearly, Grinch is seeing continued progress in 2020.
“Yeah, I think part of it,” Grinch said this week, “is beginning to get a better understanding by our guys in that every play matters, your performance matters.”
Grinch acknowledges that it wasn’t an immediate sell. College football at Oklahoma has become synonymous with efficient offense, huge offensive statistics, lots of points, lots of yards and big plays.
And a lousy defense.
“A uniqueness of it was when one side of the ball is not having success from a statistical standpoint, but yet as a program you’re having elite success,” Grinch said. “There’s a dynamic there that most places don’t have.”
By the time Oklahoma plays its next game on Dec. 5 against Baylor, Grinch will have been on the job for 23 months. That’s how long he’s been trying to convince Oklahoma’s defensive players of two things:
1) There’s no reason they can’t be elite.
2) He knows what he’s talking about.
“That’s one of those things where you walk in the room and say, ‘It's not good enough; we need to change,’ and you have a room look back at you and they have all their Big 12 rings on and they look at you — ‘When have you been to the playoffs, coach? So explain your record in the playoffs. Ours isn’t good enough, explain your record.’ Obviously that creates a dynamic.”
Grinch, 40, came to OU after coaching FBS programs at Wyoming, Missouri and Washington State before spending the 2018 season at Ohio State.
Maybe that’s where head coach Lincoln Riley steps in and manages the “dynamic” in the room.
“I thought the most important change for us was from a culture standpoint,” Riley said. “That was the first thing that struck me (in choosing to hire Grinch).
“The second thing is I appreciated what he did schematically. We had good talks about that. What I was hoping our defense at Oklahoma would become schematically, he already did. And what he believed in, whether it’s Oklahoma or anywhere else, fit so much. It was honestly one of the easier hired I’ve had to make.”
Almost two seasons into it, the Oklahoma defense is no longer a laughingstock. In fact, the Sooners are now feared and respected — in Big 12 circles, anyway.
OU gets off the field on third down 73 percent of the time, which ranks seventh in the nation. Opponents are averaging just 3.2 yards per rush, which ranks 17th nationally. The Sooners rank 14th nationally in tackles for loss (8.0 per game) and sixth in quarterback sacks (3.75 per game).
In every defensive coordinator’s favorite statistic, OU ranks 29th in the FBS in points per game at 23.0.
On its own, that’s not exactly an earth-shattering number. But at Oklahoma, it’s nearing elite levels, at least by recent standards: the 2015 Sooners allowed just 22.0 points per game. The lowest number before that was turned in by the 2009 unit, which gave up just 14.5 points per game.
So a couple more good performances next week against Baylor and on Dec. 12 at West Virginia, and this Oklahoma defense could produce the program’s best scoring defense of the last decade.
“To the kids' credit,” Grinch said, “the bulk of them were very excited to (say), ‘OK, let’s go in this direction.’ ”
That OU lost three elite players off last year’s defense — first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray, third-round noseguard Neville Gallimore and NFL free agent cornerback Parnell Motley, plus the entire rotation on the interior line — and is somehow still playing better than ever is a testament to Grinch’s motivational tactics as well as the players’ investment in themselves and each other.
“I’ve talked about the buy-in in the past,” Grinch said. “But there's also a percentage of your group that’s very content with the past. You get outcomes. If you're an outcome-based guy and you’re kind of driven that way and oh by the way, you’re getting reps on Saturdays, as frustrated as you may be with your individual play or what the tone is in respect to your side of the ball, yet ultimately you find yourself a champion, so you get the outcome. It’s everything.
“Our performance matters,” Grinch said, “and ultimately you find that group of guys that believe in that message and continue to hammer it.”
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