ATLANTA — Junior linebacker Kenneth Murray sat on a chair and broke into tears.
For the third consecutive year, Murray was part of a Sooner defense that succumbed to its struggles of the past in the College Football Playoff. The No. 4 Sooners fell to the No. 1 Tigers in their most lopsided defeat in recent memory, a 63-28 loss to an LSU team that'll head to the national championship.
A year ago, it was a 45-33 loss to Alabama in the Orange Bowl, and the year before that, it was a heartbreaking 54-48 loss to Georgia in overtime. But in those two seasons, Oklahoma's defense hadn't yet experienced the transformation it has this season under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who put emphasis on destroying those past tendencies.
In most ways, the defense improved tremendously. But on Saturday night, the Sooners were overpowered by LSU quarterback Joe Burrow — the Heisman Trophy winner — and his 403 passing yards and seven touchdowns in just the first half of the game.
"We came a long way," Murray said. "I'm extremely proud from where we started from to get to where we are. It's definitely night and day from where we were this time last year.
"But we still got a long way to go."
Murray, the leader of a defense that went through a massive culture change under Grinch, might have played his last game as a Sooner on Saturday night. He said after the game that he hasn't made a decision on whether or not to leave for the NFL.
If he chooses to do so, he'll leave a legacy unlike any other current Sooner.
For two years, Murray was a bright spot on a defense that was at the bottom of the defensive statistic categories. In 2018, the Sooners ranked near the bottom in total defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision — 101st, to be exact. It was also a year where Murray had his best season statistically by tallying 155 total tackles, good enough for eighth in school history.
His work ethic and determination to make his defense better never faltered, and he was open to the media about it. At the 2018 Big 12 Media Days, he told reporters that he watched former Georgia running back Sony Michel end the Sooners' 2017-18 season with a walk-off touchdown on film over 100 times, and he used his past failures as motivation.
"I think I've grown a lot," Murray said. "I put my heart and my soul into this defense, and I think that's all that matters."
He did the same this season and made his teammates around him better. In 2019, he tallied 95 tackles, 60 fewer than the year before. But going into the Peach Bowl, the Sooners ranked No. 25 in total defense, even going as high as No. 21 earlier in the season. In his third year, as a critical part of the Sooners' defense, he was a leader for OU's biggest improvement in defensive ability in years.
But LSU played the best game the Peach Bowl has ever seen. Burrow threw for 493 yards and seven touchdowns, while also rushing for a touchdown. LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson, the Tigers' second go-to wide receiver after Biletnikoff winner Ja'Marr Chase, caught four touchdowns and 186 yards in the first half. LSU coach Ed Orgeron coached an unstoppable offense that punted only once out of 11 drives.
The Sooners were missing three starters on defense. Junior Ronnie Perkins, the team's best pass rusher, was suspended for the game, sophomore safety Delarrin Turner-Yell broke his collarbone in practice a week before, and sophomore nickelback Brendan "Bookie" Radley-Hiles left the Peach Bowl after a targeting call in the second quarter. The saying is "next man up," a "no excuses" mentality that Murray has had all three years, no matter how low the defense stooped.
It all unraveled for the Sooners on Saturday, but in all the ups and downs the defense had in Murray's three years, he leaves a legacy of putting it all on the line for his teammates.
"He's a part of changing this culture, this defense," senior cornerback Parnell Motley said. "He's done a great job for all we do. If he did leave today, whatever his decision would be ... I'm just glad he did so much for the university. And today, I think he's left a great legacy for the University of Oklahoma."