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OU’s Nik Bonitto jumps on a fumble Sept. 4 during the Sooners’ game against Tulane at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

NORMAN — Months of anticipation came to a head last Saturday.

In the offseason the Sooners defense was touted as one of the top units in the Big 12, and maybe in college football, and their matchup against Tulane was the first opportunity to prove those expectations were warranted.

Instead, the defense struggled. They surrendered 35 points and nearly 400 total yards to the Green Wave.

After the game, Grinch focused on the team’s lack of effort particularly in the second half.

“I was disappointed with our effort,” Grinch said Tuesday. “I thought our effort was OK. It’s not OK to be OK here.”

The defense did show flashes of potential. They held Tulane scoreless in the second quarter, forced three turnovers, and recorded four sacks along with nine tackles for a loss.

They also rallied back after Tulane recovered a late onside-kick attempt, forcing a turnover on downs on the Green Wave’s final possession.

“The film also shows some positive things,” Grinch said. “They were obviously too few and far between. The final drive, you have to go win a football game. You better go win a football game, and those guys did, give them credit for that. We sit here 1-0 and would feel a lot differently if we were 0-1. Clearly, a lot of work still to do.”

There were bright spots along the defensive line, who worked to limit Tulane to just 100 rushing yards for the game.

But a lot of the struggles came from the linebackers and secondary, as Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt finished with 296 passing yards and three touchdowns.

Grinch is hopeful the performance was an outlier, and has high expectations for them through the rest of the season.

“I thought overall, it wasn’t to the standard that we expected to play,” Grinch said. “It wasn’t to the standard that a lot of those guys have played in the past. In fairness to them, there’s no other way to describe it. I predict it’s the outlier. They are a well-coached unit.

“As I told the guys yesterday, some of these guys who we [had] frustrations with [against Tulane], we’ve hugged after championships, big-time ball games [where they] played at a high level, borderline elite level. To see the same guys perform the way they did last Saturday, it is something that pains you as a coach. I expect a lot more from them.”

In Western Carolina, the Sooners face a second-straight matchup against a team they’re expected to beat handedly. OU defensive end Isaiah Thomas said the team may be guilty of playing down to Tulane last Saturday, and they’ve worked in practice this week to avoid that happening again against the Catamounts.

“I think the biggest thing that stood out [against Tulane] was the inconsistency,” Thomas said on Wednesday. “How we started off shaky, then ramped up quickly and showed what we’re capable of, but in the end we didn’t finish the way we wanted to. I say that just comes from effort, not from not knowing what our jobs are, but just simply effort, including myself. I play a role in that as well.

“I have to do a better job of that, and this week that has been heavily emphasized.”

OU coach Lincoln Riley said the team has practiced with a sense of urgency this week, and that the defense understands they have to be better.

Heading into today’s game, Riley has a few areas of improvement he needs to see from his defense.

“I think the work has been very intentional by the guys,” Riley said Thursday. “We’ve coached the whole team really aggressively this week. They’ve responded with a solid week. You can feel the strain and the sense of urgency is higher, it just is, across the whole team.”

“I think, for us, [we need to be] more aggressive in coverage. If there are yards to be had, they are earned. and we [need to] do a better job on our adjustments and some of the small communication things that we had a few errors on the other day. It’s your intent, it’s your focus, it’s being able to maintain it. It’s also being more aggressive in the secondary. Those are the biggest keys for us moving forward. When we do that, we play pretty good defense.”

Jesse Crittenden is the sports editor of The Transcript and covers OU athletics. Reach him at jesse@normantranscript.com or at 405-366-3580

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