ARLINGTON — By the time Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger saw it coming, it was too late.
At the last moment, Ehlinger whipped his head to his right only to see Oklahoma’s Tre Brown, who was running with a lot of speed and zero abandon. Brown pancaked Ehlinger in the end zone for a play that carried more significance than what it meant in that moment at AT&T Stadium.
Brown’s safety did start a flurry of points that helped No. 5 Oklahoma beat No. 14 Texas 39-27 in the Big 12 championship game. But more than that, it was that play, along with the Sooners’ overall defensive effort, that could bolster Oklahoma’s case to make the College Football Playoff.
“When we weren’t scoring they got stops, and that’s how football is supposed to be played,” said Oklahoma junior quarterback Kyler Murray, who was named the game’s most outstanding player by the media.
Throughout the Sooners’ run to their fourth straight conference title, Oklahoma’s defense has statistically been the worst in the Big 12.
It wasn’t great against the Longhorns. But that defense was good enough to give the CFP committee something to think about when picking this year’s semifinalists.
Brown’s safety gave Oklahoma (12-1) a five-point lead, the ball and a ton of momentum with 8:27 left. Murray and the Sooners’ offense put the game out of a reach when they capped an 11-play drive with a touchdown with two minutes remaining.
All year, Oklahoma’s prolific offense has been well documented and very necessary. But in the same breath, many will mention the Big 12 winner’s porous defense.
The Sooners entered Saturday’s game last in the conference in scoring defense and total defense. And early in front of a crowd of 83,114, the largest ever for any conference title game, it appeared Oklahoma’s inability to stop opponents was as advertised.
But the defense that played the Longhorns (9-4) on Saturday was much better than the one that surrendered 48 points to Texas on Oct. 6, the Sooners’ lone loss of the season.
“Watching the tape the first time, we looked very unorganized at times,” Oklahoma sophomore linebacker Kenneth Murray said. “They kind of caught us off guard at times.”
That loss was the final game for former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, who was fired soon afterward.
On Saturday, interim coordinator Ruffin McNeill caught the Longhorns by surprise by blitzing Brown to pick up the key safety, a sweet moment for a defense that had very few of those this year. The Sooners dashed any comeback hopes when safety Tre Norwood intercepted Ehlinger in the final minute.
Sitting on the bench with his wife, Erlene, McNeill praised his team’s ability to withstand the criticism throughout the year and make progress.
“A lot of young people, when they face adversity, their teams maybe will splinter,” McNeill said between bites of trail mix after the game. “This group has not and they have not the entire time since the transition.”
Second-year Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said the Sooners are showing late progress because of the transition from Stoops to McNeill. Last weekend against West Virginia, the Sooners used two defensive touchdowns to beat the Mountaineers 59-56 and set up a rematch against Texas.
Oklahoma wasn’t great in its revenge game against the Longhorns. Texas’ Ehlinger still racked up 349 passing yards and the Longhorns averaged 6.3 yards per play, higher than the aforementioned season average that was worst in the Big 12.
But Oklahoma’s defense doesn’t need to be great. With the Sooners’ offense, it just has to be good enough.
Against Texas, Oklahoma made the necessary plays on both sides of the ball to set off the confetti cannons inside AT&T Stadium and win another conference title. From there, it was all about waiting to see if the performance was good enough to send the Sooners — and the Big 12 — back to the CFP semifinals.
“We did what we had to do to win,” McNeill said. “I’m excited about accomplishing that goal and being able to win another championship. We’ll see where it goes from here.”
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