ATLANTA — As LSU quarterback Joe Burrow knelt out the clock and the final seconds of No. 4 Oklahoma’s season ticked away, some members of the Sooners' secondary didn’t even meet at midfield with the Tigers before walking to the tunnel.
The first Sooner to walk off the field was sophomore safety Pat Fields, who walked slowly with his head down. He was followed closely by redshirt sophomore safety Justin Broiles and freshman cornerback Jaden Davis.
They were walking away from a 63-28 loss in which the Oklahoma defense had possibly its worst performance in an era filled with embarrassing defensive lapses. Burrow torched the Sooner defense to the tune of 493 yards passing and seven touchdowns, with 227 of those yards and four of those touchdowns to wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
The two broke a plethora of College Football Playoff semifinal individual records — including most passing yards and touchdowns by Burrow and most receiving yards and touchdowns by Jefferson — en route to setting the semifinal record for most points scored by a team.
“We knew they were going to be a really good offense, we knew they were going to be explosive and make plays, but we bet on us making a lot more plays than we did tonight,” sophomore linebacker DaShaun White said. “A lot of the 50-50 plays, a lot of the jump balls — we have to make a play more times than not. And I feel like, tonight, we didn’t make those plays.”
Oklahoma entered the game shorthanded, as its best pass rusher in sophomore defensive end Ronnie Perkins was suspended and its second leading tackler in sophomore safety Delarrin Turner-Yell was injured. To add to that, sophomore nickelback Brendan “Bookie” Radey-Hiles was ejected for targeting in the second quarter. Without those three starters, the Sooners stood little chance from the start, as LSU scored touchdowns on seven of their eight first-half drives.
But what makes the Sooners’ defensive performance particularly shocking isn’t just the numbers on the stat sheet, it’s the timing. When Oklahoma lost in the College Football Playoff semifinal, 45-34, to Alabama in 2018, the Crimson Tide shredded a defense ranked 101st in total defense and 129th in passing defense.
This year, under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, the Sooners catapulted in the national rankings in nearly every statistical category, most notably ranking 25th in total defense.
“We went from being dead last in the country in pass defense to one of the top 25 defenses in the country,” Fields said. “We made remarkable improvements because our guys played well the whole year. One game doesn’t define us, but it’s disappointing to play like this after how much we’ve improved.”
It was a sharp increase that few expected to see in Grinch’s first year in Norman. When he was first hired in January, he was tasked with turning around a defense that returned the majority of its personnel that fielded one of the nation’s worst defenses in 2018.
“You have to think about the good things first — and I know this loss hurts right now, and it’s going to hurt as long as I’ll play — but I know we really made a step this year, and no one even believed we’d be here,” Davis said. “A lot of people didn’t believe in the defense or the secondary as a whole, but we made steps to get to where we are, and we have to keep making steps to get to that final game.”
Going into 2020, the Sooners will lose key pieces at every level of the defense. With senior defensive tackle Neville Gallimore and senior cornerback Parnell Motley graduating, the defensive line and secondary will lose their best players, and with junior linebacker Kenneth Murray maybe leaving for the NFL, the linebacking corps will be in the same position.
But there’s still reason for optimism, as young players have flashed their potential all season. In the secondary, Fields and Turner-Yell became two of Grinch’s most reliable assets, as they rarely left the field. Davis shined as the only true freshman to receive consistent playing time all season, and former four-star safety recruits Jeremiah Criddell and Woodi Washington both have potential to contribute next season.
Redshirt freshman Nik Bonitto and freshman David Ugwoegbu both stepped up at the outside linebacker spot when the injury of junior starter Jon Michael-Terry called upon them. And Perkins and redshirt freshman defensive end Jalen Redmond were both dominant in spurts throughout the year.
“It feels great to have the opportunity to immediately just play and make a difference, but I know there’s a lot of other guys, like Woodi, Jeremiah and David, who can contribute a lot to this team,” Davis said. “And I feel like with our recruiting class and other young players, I think we can really contribute to this team and make this run again.”
The Sooners’ 2019 defense may not be remembered for the improvements they made, as the final memories of them will be of their catastrophic Peach Bowl performance.
Whatever their legacy may be, their season ended Saturday in Atlanta, and now they will continue to try and build on the improvements they did make into the new decade.
“The reality is that this chapter and this season are closed, so everything that we did or didn’t do this year, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Fields said. “The chapter’s closed — we have to open a new chapter this next year. It doesn’t matter that we were in the top 25 this year. We could go out and be terrible or be the No. 1 team.
“We have to close this chapter and keep building.”