LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Hurts has played in big rivalry settings, national championships. Oklahoma’s quarterback saw the big stage plenty while at Alabama.
And with the exception of its line trying to get healthy, OU’s offense is operating without so much as a hiccup.
For the sixth-ranked Sooners, Saturday’s pinnacle game against No. 11 Texas (11 a.m., FOX) in Dallas is much about defense.
That unit skidded into turmoil this time last season following a 48-45 loss to Texas. It set into motion where the Sooners are today, with Riley dismissing former defensive coordinator Mike Stoops last October and ushering in a new culture in the offseason.
Enter defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who will be baptized in the OU-Texas rivalry this week.
“I know it’s one of the greatest rivalries in the sport. I do. It’s something that there’s not a college football fan — which I think all of us coaches, there’s some level to that — that doesn’t know about that and have the respect factor between both schools and both football programs,” Grinch said after OU’s 45-20 win at Kansas. “You know it’s a war each year and you have to respect it that way. We know it’s game six, but you can’t go down that road and say it’s just game six. It’s not just anything. I know enough about that to suggest that.”
Grinch’s OU defense is noticeably improved from the 2018 version. It has held four consecutive teams to 20 points or below, the program’s longest streak since 2006 when the Sooners beat Iowa State 34-9, Colorado 24-3, No. 23 Missouri 26-10 and No. 21 Texas A&M 17-16.
OU ranked 91st in total defense this time last year, now it’s 47th.
Saturday, for the second time this season it finished a game without forcing a turnover — the backbone of Grinch’s philosophy — but opponents are still having a more difficult time rattling the Sooners, who surrendered 501 yards of offense to Texas a year ago.
“Definitely grew from that time last year,” linebacker Kenneth Murray said. “This is a new year, a new identity, a new identity as a defense. We expand on that identity and we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to prepare this week and go out there and play our brand of football Saturday.”
That improvement will be either proven or questioned against the Longhorns, who have one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks in Sam Ehlinger.
It will be a proper measuring stick for OU all-around.
“I feel good about our whole team. I mean, I feel like our team's in the same boat,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “We've got to continue to have an extreme sense of urgency to improve. There's no doubt when we play well on any of the three sides of the ball that we can do some really, really good things. Obviously we'll be excited to get back to preparation this week. I feel good about our entire team. We obviously have a lot of things to do better, but I like where our heads are at. I like this team. I do.”
Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore’s not trying to make too much of winning the regular-season matchup with Texas. Trying on the Golden Hat and reveling in all that comes with winning the rivalry game is important — but so is every game, he said.
“It's a big week,” Gallimore said, “but every week's a big week. We're just going to go back to what we do, trust coach and do our best to make sure that we're on point and in sync.”
Going into the year Houston, UCLA and Texas Tech were thought to be better challenges, but are a combined 6-10. Collectively their scoring average is a respectable 30.5 points.
Texas is putting up 41.8 per game.
“I feel like we've been tested a lot. But I wouldn't say enough,” OU safety Delarrin Turner-Yell said. “We still have to work on a few things but we're also going to be ready for Texas.”
OU vs. Texas
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Place: Cotton Bowl | Dallas
Records: AP No. 6 OU (5-0, 2-0 Big 12); AP No. 11 Texas (4-1, 2-0)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7