ARLINGTON, Texas — When No. 3 Oklahoma ran out for the second half of the Big 12 Championship Saturday afternoon, there was an eerie feeling in AT&T Stadium. No. 11 TCU had come back from a 17-0 first quarter deficit, cutting the Sooners' lead to just seven right before the half.
Oklahoma fans were all too familiar with what they thought was going to happen. Their nationally criticized defense was going to ruin Oklahoma's chances at the College Football Playoff.
But they were wrong.
The Sooners would force a three-and-out to start the second half, which would be followed by a Baker Mayfield 55-yard touchdown pass the very next play. Oklahoma's (12-1, 8-1 Big 12) defense would go on to force four punts, a turnover on downs and an interception in the second half on its way to a 41-17 rout of TCU (10-3, 7-2 Big 12).
"It started with the stop," coach Lincoln Riley said. "That was big. Defensively, the biggest thing we talked about at halftime was we just had to tackle better. We gave them a few big plays just simply based on missing tackles when we were there. So we tackled much better in the second half, we got a stop, we played a lot of great complementary football in that quarter and we were able to really separate ourselves."
While the Sooners played arguably their best defensive half of the season, maybe the biggest play they've made this season came on TCU's first play of the game. Sophomore defensive lineman Amani Bledsoe and true freshman linebacker Kenneth Murray stripped the ball from TCU running back Kyle Hicks, and sophomore linebacker Caleb Kelly swooped in, picked the ball up, and ran 18 yards into the end zone.
"I wasn't going to fall on it for sure," Kelly said. "I just had to go for the scoop-and-score. It was just laying there."
Oklahoma's defense has been much improved over the past few weeks, making big stops when needed most. After the Oklahoma State game, when they gave up 661 total yards, the defense started a new tradition.
Every Friday night they met as a unit, expressing their concerns and setting expectations.
"Honestly since we started that, it's been great," sophomore defensive lineman Du'Vonta Lampkin said. "I think we're going to do that for the next few years."
These meetings are an open floor — anybody can say anything at any time. This Friday, sophomore cornerback Parnell Motley spoke to the team.
"He told the whole team he was going to put it all on the line," Lampkin said. "He told us he was going to come out and what he had to do to make sure we get a W."
Motley, who was benched against Oklahoma State, had two big pass breakups Saturday, including one on that first drive of the second half. Motley and the Sooners showed confidence Saturday, a confidence they haven't had all season.
"The last couple games we've kept the numbers down and we've been handling business on defense lately," Kelly said. "I feel like we've been disrespected and now we're earning our way back."
Oklahoma's defense is peaking at exactly the right time. With the best offense in the country, the Sooners defense only has to make so many stops a game, but they're not satisfied with that. They want to be the force behind where they're going, even if that means not being perfect all the time.
"(I'm) proud of our guys. No one has jumped ship," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "We don't want to be the cause of us not getting to where we want to go. We want to be the reason we're going to where we're going. That's the attitude we've took ... It's not always perfect."