It is no secret that Oklahoma’s defense will have to perform at its best for the Sooners to have a chance to beat Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
The unit has absorbed much criticism this season and some frightening statistics back up those arguments. OU ranks low nationally in total defense (108), red-zone defense (126), first downs allowed (127) and passing yards allowed (128). As a primer, there are 129 schools rated in each category.
For all of those bad numbers, though, the Sooners have played their best at critical points of key victories that led to the College Football Playoff berth.
“You’ve got to win by one point in these games last time I checked,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said after the Big 12 Championship game triumph over Texas. “I feel like we can score points on people … I feel like we’re gaining traction defensively.
“I feel like we have (had) our highest performances in the last couple of weeks in huge games against dynamic offenses and I don’t think we’ve played our best yet this year and I think we’re going to get there.”
Entering the fourth quarter of nip-and-tuck games at West Virginia and against the Longhorns, the Sooners didn’t lead in either contest. The Mountaineers led 49-45 going into the final period, while the Big 12 title game was tied at 27.
OU’s defense buckled down in the fourth quarter, allowing only seven points in both victories against ranked opponents.
Against the Mountaineers, Curtis Bolton’s 48-yard scoop-and-score following Kenneth Mann’s sack provided much-needed breathing room with 9:58 remaining in the 59-56 road victory. It was the second defensive touchdown during the Nov. 23 game, joining Caleb Kelly’s sack and 10-yard fumble return for a score.
In the Big 12 win, Tre Brown’s corner blitz resulted in a fourth-quarter safety, and Tre Norwood’s interception in the final minute sealed the win.
“I definitely think we’re getting better every week and I think we’re practicing better and it’s carrying into the game more,” Kelly said. “I think we’re making more plays and getting turnovers and doing things that we need to do.”
Oklahoma hasn’t created many turnovers this season — 11 (which is tied for 118th nationally) — but it’s taken advantage in the fourth quarter and overtime. Eight of the takeaways have come during that point and saved games against Army, Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
Riley said his defense has played some of the nation’s top offenses this year, with a potent Alabama unit on the horizon. All have aggressively tested OU’s defense.
“There is no doubt there’s been things we have needed to get better. We haven’t run away from that but we’ve also felt a lot of confidence of the coaches and players in that room that they would step up the most and we did with two big defensive touchdowns (at West Virginia),” Riley said after the Texas win.
“(Against Texas) we continued to take steps. We’re a young defense in that we’ve got a lot of young players and we revamped at mid-season … I’m so proud of our guys there and excited about what they’re going to do in the next one because I think we’re going to do absolutely nothing but get better.”
Interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill has faith in his defense, which has had many ups and downs including having to weather the loss of former coordinator Mike Stoops following the regular-season setback to Texas.
“I think the kids, regardless of what people thought, they have really grown a lot as young men,” McNeill said. “They have learned to face the adversity and not quit. Think about how many controversial situations this group has met and faced and didn’t quit when other people may have.
“I’m very proud of them for that. I like their mentality. They have worked hard every day and their focus never wavered.”