As the Oklahoma defense took the field in the fourth quarter on Saturday, a peculiar scene unfolded inside Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
After Gabe Brkic surprisingly missed his only field goal of the game, the Tulane Green Wave offense took over trailing by just 12 points with about five minutes left in the game and all three timeouts.
But the defense that was sent out to greet them wasn’t the usual suspects.
Clayton Smith, Kori Roberson, Isaiah Coe and Reggie Grimes took the field to start the drive. While they didn’t necessarily play poorly, the second string d-line wasn’t expected to take the field while the game was still hanging in the balance, and Tulane marched 80 yards down the field to cut the lead down to five.
While the Sooner defense returned once more to ultimately kill off the game, the amount of rotation on that side of the football was staggering.
Lincoln Riley and Alex Grinch confirmed that 31 different players registered snaps on defense, a number which will have to come down once Big 12 play starts.
“We played 31 guys,” Grinch said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “Which I’d like to be proud of, but you don’t play 31 guys to get more rest. We play 31 guys to get your absolute best. I don’t think we got that across the board.”
OU was punched in the mouth early, giving up touchdowns on both of Tulane’s first two offensive possessions, but the defense appeared to right the ship in the second quarter. Grinch’s unit forced three fumbles, shutting Tulane out in the second period to set the stage for what should have been a blowout.
Instead, Tulane tacked on another 21 points in the second half.
“We lost our edge,” Riley said on Tuesday about OU’s second half struggles. “You could just see it. Our effort was off. Our mentality was off. Our execution, the mental mistakes ... it just turned into not focused.
“You combine that where we lost our edge and you've got a quarterback I think that played extremely well against us and the answer was, they moved the ball and scored points. As a defense, when you get in that position, when you're up like we were and the offense is basically in four-down territory the rest of the game, you've gotta defend a lot of plays and you've gotta do it well.”
The idea is to rotate enough for players to ensure they can give their full 100 percent on every single snap. The tradeoff is players may struggle to get into a groove if they’re constantly being pulled off the field every few plays, something the Sooners are mindful of and try to guard against.
“That’s the balance of it,” Riley said. “We practiced that throughout fall camp and leading into it.”
“We’ll see how that evolves. Part of it is that we have a lot of new pieces and you want to see what you have. You want to see what they’re doing and how they respond in game situations. Then those 31 guys that played we felt like on the practice field had earned the right to play. Now with some game tape to evaluate and some game situations to evaluate, that will certainly factor into decisions in the upcoming weeks.
“Listen, we’re not gonna play 31 guys on defense every week. It will narrow. But we have proven over the years that we play our best when we play a high number of people, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The hope is, and maybe it’s not 31, but that we have good batch of players that we can rotate in and out and still have continued productions.”
For Grinch’s money, he said he doesn’t think the heavy rotation upsets a player’s rhythm, and that the defense must simply stay locked in on the task at hand for the entirety of the four quarters.
“In the second half, watching the scoreboard to dictate your performance is a slippery slope on every side of it,” Grinch said. “When the scoreboard is in your favor and when it’s not in your favor. I certainly think the film suggests we’re guilty of it. Our history suggests we’re guilty of that, at times, which isn’t a proud moment for a coach to say that.
“What the film shows, beyond that, and including that, is execution wasn’t what I believe we’re capable of doing… I believe our execution should be better. The film suggests that things we’ve been repping for eight months, we weren’t able to execute on Saturday.”
The Oklahoma defense still has a lot of work to do to live up to their preseason expectations, and Grinch said that his side of the football is ready to do the work it takes to get to that point.
“The film also shows some positive things,” Grinch said. “They were obviously too few and far between. The final drive, you have to go win a football game. You better go win a football game, and those guys did, give them credit for that.
“We sit here 1-0, would feel a lot differently if we were 0-1. Clearly, a lot of work still to do.”
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