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OU football: Lincoln Riley's playcalling, Jalen Hurts' play aggressive with defense holding steady

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Jalen Hurts and Ceedee Lamb

Senior quarterback Jalen Hurts and junior wide receiver CeeDee Lamb celebrate during the Red River Showdown at the Cotton Bowl Oct. 12.

DALLAS — In his Red River Rivalry debut, senior quarterback Jalen Hurts had to rely on his defense.

With a fumble and an interception — in the red zone — in back-to-back drives, Hurts and the No. 1 offense in the nation kept leaving the field empty handed in the first half, giving the responsibility back to the defense after each falter.

But defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and his unit had his back. With junior Longhorn quarterback Sam Ehlinger struggling to escape a suffocating Sooner defensive front, Texas almost left the first half — where Hurts’ woes were plentiful — scoreless. The Oklahoma defense held on to a 10-3 lead. It prompted the Sooners to regroup for the second half, where sacks were plentiful and suffocation from the OU defensive line was key in the No. 6 Sooners’ 34-27 win over No. 11 Texas Saturday.

And Hurts is all for it. He saw from the sideline how players like junior linebacker Kenneth Murray and sophomore defensive end Ronnie Perkins made explosive plays against the Longhorn offense that torched the Sooner defense, 48-45, in 2018. But Murray has said again and again that this year is going to be different, and Hurts can now add “Red River Rivalry Champion” to his resume that also has Iron Bowl wins in it.

It didn’t take a spectacular performance for the Alabama transfer to show that he was all in on Oklahoma. Hurts trusted his team as a whole to make the plays needed for a victory. In response, Hurts sat the podium after the win and told the world he’s emotionally invested in his new team.

"I think that's a testament to my teammates," Hurts said. "I wouldn't rather do it with any other group. Talk about emotional ties I have to this university — they're there now, for sure.

"OUDNA in me."

In 2018, switching to defense trouble for the Sooners. Now-Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray didn’t play the first half he wanted either, and Ehlinger made the Sooners pay for it. The first four drives for the Longhorns in 2018’s Red River Showdown resulted in three touchdowns and a field goal, prompting Texas to go into the half up 24-17.

On Saturday, if Hurts and the offense couldn’t score in the first half, the Sooner defense made sure Texas’ next drive usually resulted in punts. Texas punted four consecutive times to start the game and was held to a field goal right before both teams walked through the tunnel with the Sooners on the high side, 10-3, at halftime.

Despite his struggles in his worst game as a Sooner, Hurts finished with 235 passing yards, three touchdowns in the air, 131 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground. He showed flashes of greatness, like his behind-the-back move in the third quarter when a Texas defender just about sacked him, and almost stripped the ball as well. But he stayed on his feet, and completed a pass to junior wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who finished the day with 171 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

But Hurts didn’t play it safe. He fumbled the ball in the red zone when he could’ve slid, threw an interception and led his team to a turnover on downs on their own side of the field. If the defense hadn’t changed from last year, it could have produced a different outcome.

But this season, the Sooners can fall back on the defense to bail out the Hurts and the offense.

“I don’t care what our defensive calls are, schemes, any of that,” Riley said. “The way we play right now, today, was the difference. The aggression, fundamentally sound, kept our aggression, even in the second half when Texas made a few plays. We were outstanding there. We’re gonna continue to get better. This won’t be our best game.”

Oklahoma has now gotten past its biggest test this season so far. A win over No. 11 Texas was a testament that OU is moving in the right direction, and that the five other wins over lesser teams isn’t a fluke. Hurts, a Heisman contender, doesn’t need to carry his team like Murray did last year. Hurts can rely on his defense giving them a chance to start over. That was certainly the case on Saturday, and it looks like it’ll continue throughout the season.

"I didn't put the team in the greatest, best situations," Hurts said. "We had each other's back.

“I definitely think this team showed some perseverance and some mental toughness."

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Caleb McCourry is the assistant sports editor at The Daily and is a junior at OU majoring in English. He's covered football, basketball and volleyball. 

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