MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — With all the attention on Kyler Murray and Oklahoma’s record-setting offense, it’s easy to overlook the group that will decide the Sooners’ fate — for better or worse — in the Orange Bowl on Saturday.
That responsibility falls on the shoulders of OU’s defensive backs — a group tasked with defending Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy and a number of other weapons who would be starting at most other programs.
All year long, Oklahoma has merely survived on defense. The Sooners gave up 46 to Texas Tech, 47 to Oklahoma State, 40 to Kansas and 56 to West Virginia. They still won those games thanks to heroics from Murray, consistency from the running game and a few timely defensive plays.
But will that be enough against an Alabama team that boasts top-10 offensive and defensive units according to S&P+? The numbers say it’s unlikely — unless the Sooners’ defense can play its best game of the season.
An effort like that would start with OU’s secondary, which seems to be ready for the challenge.
“It’s motivation,” sophomore cornerback Tre Brown said when asked about the defense’s critics. “We’ve been hearing it all year. And now we get to prove ourselves against one of the best offenses in the country. That’s gonna be really exciting.
“We believe in ourselves. No one else believes in us, but we’re going to believe in ourselves.”
Oklahoma’s secondary is coming off perhaps its best game of the season: A 39-27 defeat of Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game on Dec. 1. Sophomore safety Robert Barnes believes the Sooners’ experience in the pass-heavy Big 12 will have them prepared for Alabama’s aerial attack.
“Coming from the Big 12, we play fast receivers all year,” Barnes said. “Alabama definitely does have extremely fast receivers and they play physical … Coming from the Big 12, I feel like we’re probably best-prepared to handle this type of receiving core.”
Barnes also said Alabama’s offensive balance will be a challenge in the Orange Bowl.
The Tide have a trio of receivers in Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs III who each caught more than 40 passes for more than 700 yards this season. Alabama also uses three running backs — Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs — to keep defenses honest.
“In the Big 12, some teams you can go into it and say ‘they’re really not going to run the ball like that’ so I can focus on covering up,” Barnes said. “Some other teams, they just want to run the ball so you can focus on fitting gaps. With Alabama, it’s everything. So in preparation, you have to prepare for everything. Prepare to cover, prepare to fit gaps. The whole package.”
The Sooners were excellent at stopping the run this season, save for games against Army and Kansas. Both of those squads rushed for over 300 yards against Oklahoma, while no one else cleared 180. Aside from the outlier of KU’s 9.7 yards per rush, no team cleared five yards per attempt against the Sooners in 2018.
Oklahoma was much worse against the pass. The Sooners rank 10th in the Big 12 heading into bowl season in pass defense, and that’s without having to face their own offense — the conference’s most efficient passing attack.
If the Sooners are going to pull off the upset, an improved secondary will have to be part of the equation. At this point in the season, that group is happy to have one more chance to prove their doubters wrong.
“You hear all the things being said about you,” Brown said. “I can’t tell you, I’m so ready to get on that field.”
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