NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — During the first half of a showdown with Baylor last month, Oklahoma’s defense looked a lot like the unit that ranked among the worst in the nation a year ago.
Similar struggles during a loss to Kansas State and a late escape against Iowa State in its previous two games had left Oklahoma without wiggle room. Now, the Sooners trailed Baylor 31-10, and their College Football Playoff hopes were slipping away.
The Sooners assessed the situation at halftime.
“It was just kind of about doing your job,” linebacker Kenneth Murray said. “The biggest thing was just keeping the faith and understanding that doing your job is enough. As long as we keep our faith and continue to fight and don’t give up, then good things will happen.”
Suddenly, all the things first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has emphasized began happening. There was pressure on the quarterback. The Sooners got third-down stops and forced turnovers. Oklahoma shut Baylor out in the second half, a critical part of a rally that ended with a 34-31 win.
Oklahoma’s defense remained strong in wins over TCU and Oklahoma State, and now the sixth-ranked Sooners (11-1, 8-1 Big 12, No. 6 CFP) will carry that momentum into a rematch with eighth-ranked Baylor (11-1, 8-1, No. 7 CFP) in the Big 12 championship game.
Oklahoma led the Big 12 in total defense during conference play after finishing last a season ago.
“I think we keep getting a little bit better each week,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “It's a constant climb, every year, even if your system's four or five years old, it's always a constant climb, and especially in the first year of a system. Totally new coaches, scheme, everything. It takes time. And if you're coaching it the right way and if your players are responding the right way, then it should get better.”
Baylor also has had a turnaround this season under defensive coordinator Phil Snow. The Bears led the Big 12 in scoring defense and ranked third in total defense in league play this season, a year after finishing seventh in total defense and eighth in scoring defense. The success has helped make Snow a finalist for the Broyles Award given to the nation’s top assistant coach.
“Obviously, we had to evolve a little bit in terms of what we were doing,” Baylor coach Matt Rhule said. “Coach (Snow) had to evolve in terms of getting the best guys on the field. But, it's the same players as last year. That's the cool thing.”
Defensive tackle James Lynch leads the Big 12 with 10.5 sacks and is third with 15.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker Terrel Bernard leads the team with 95 tackles, and linebacker Jordan Williams is second with 68. Cornerback Grayland Arnold leads the squad with six interceptions.
Baylor lost top tackler Clay Johnston at midseason to a knee injury, yet the unit continues to thrive. Last week, Baylor held Kansas to 280 total yards and forced six turnovers in a 61-6 win.
Rhule said a key was players’ willingness to improve and take direction from Snow.
“You can coach all you want, but if the player doesn't want to get better or doesn't trust you or doesn't have a relationship with you, it doesn't matter,” Rhule said.
Oklahoma’s defense has Baylor’s attention. The Sooners gave up just 204 yards in a 28-24 win over TCU, then held Oklahoma State to 335 yards in a 34-16 victory.
“They've been playing real good defense these last few weeks,” Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer said. “We know that we need to play well in order for us to be on that winning end, we're going to have to score points and establish the line of scrimmage.”
Murray leads Oklahoma with 85 tackles, including 13 for loss. Defensive end Ronnie Perkins leads the team with six sacks.
Oklahoma cornerback Parnell Motley ranks fifth with 12 passes defended and first with four fumbles forced. He was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week last week after forcing two fumbles, including a recovery, and intercepting a pass in the win over Oklahoma State.
The Sooners created turnovers in the final minutes of wins over Iowa State, Baylor and TCU. Now, the Sooners are looking for consistency.
“We’ve just got to keep climbing,” Murray said. “I think that’s really the biggest thing, not getting satisfied, not getting complacent. There’s definitely more room for improvement, more out there for us. We’ve got to keep climbing to go get that.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.