OU’s Curtis Bolton (right), helping Ronnie Perkins (left) tackle OSU’s Chuba Hubbard on Nov. 10, says, “it kills us as players” when the Sooners don’t play up to expectations. IAN MAULE/Tulsa World
NORMAN — Curtis Bolton understands that his Oklahoma playing career is limited.
The senior linebacker is unsure how many games he has left. It could be as many as four. It could be as few as two.
One thing is certain: Bolton has taken a realistic approach to his final weeks.
Oklahoma’s defense has struggled for much of the season. When asked Monday night if this unit can improve by season’s end, Bolton admitted it was tough to answer that question.
“I can’t promise anything. I can promise you anything and go out on the field and do another,” Bolton said. “At the end of the day, I’m telling my guys to line up and play ball. Good or bad, I’m going to rock with them because I see the potential in them.
“They’re young. They have time. Me, I don’t. I can’t sit here and preach about how I’m going to change the defensive culture because I can’t. I can just line up and do my job and try to coach these young guys up and (help them) develop into the players they need to, but a lot of that goes into the offseason.”
Oklahoma travels to West Virginia in what can be considered a winner-take-all game Friday night. If OU wins, it will advance to the Big 12 Championship game for the second consecutive season. It OU loses, the Sooners will become dependent on Kansas beating Texas to move into the Dec. 1 title game.
West Virginia possesses one of the nation’s top offenses and is triggered by Heisman Trophy candidate Will Grier, who has passed for 300 yards in each game except one this season. He has 33 touchdown passes against eight interceptions.
It’ll be a stern test for the Sooners, who have given up 40 points in three consecutive games.
Kenneth Murray is one of the Sooners’ team captains. He was asked this week if there was accountability among the defensive players.
“There’s tremendous accountability. At the end of the day, I’m a competitor and there’s a bunch of competitors on that defense. When we go out there and have a bad performance, it’s not like we’re happy with it,” Murray said. “We’re glad we won, but at the end of the day, coaches set expectations and we set expectations as players that are higher than the coaches’. When we don’t live up to those expectations, it kills us as players. It makes us want to go out there and work even harder.
“At the end of the day, stuff is not going our way, (and) we’re hitting some adversity. But like I said before, this defense will never stop fighting. We’ll never give up. You know that sometime the storm is going to end and there is going to be some sunshine, and we’re going to come out and have the performance I know we can have as a defense.”
Murray said the defensive players got together as a group and assessed what went wrong against Kansas. The team leaders stressed the bad parts and said change was needed.
For example, the sophomore linebacker said, the tackling wasn’t good. Players were in position, he said, but they didn’t finish plays.
“We’ve got to get better at making plays. We’ve got to get better at finishing tackles,” Murray said. “That’s just something that we get together as a group and assess. We challenge each other as a group to hold each other accountable to play up to that standard.”
OU coach Lincoln Riley mentioned that immediately after the 55-40 victory over the Jayhawks and reiterated it Monday during his news conference.
He said mentally the defense played a very clean game. There were no busted calls, adjustments and checks from the sideline. It was tackling that hurt the Sooners against KU.
“Our yards (allowed) after contact was off the charts, probably the highest that we’ve had here certainly all year and maybe in the last couple of years,” Riley said. “We got to trigger. We got to make those plays. We’ve got to be more aggressive in our run fits.
“We played well schematically. Now we got to play more aggressive and play better physically. That’s going to be our challenge.”
Murray knows all about the criticism the OU defense has received, especially in the month of October. He still maintains the defense is only “a little bit away.”
“A lot of people don’t see it that way. A lot of people see it as us being far away because we gave up 40 points the last three games,” Murray said. “But at the end of the day, if we fix all of those little things we’re right there, right where we need to be. It’s about getting those little things fixed and believing in us and believing in what everybody in that room thinks. That’s really all that matters, not the outside noise.”