STILLWATER — As No. 7 Oklahoma’s defense trotted into the tunnel on the northeast side of Boone Pickens Stadium after a dominant 34-16 win over No. 21 Oklahoma State, the Sooners radiated focus and determination.
The Sooners (11-1, 8-1 Big 12) weren’t reveling in a way that would be expected from a team that just beat its in-state rival for the fifth-straight year, held the nation’s leading rusher to more than 60 yards below his season average and emerged one win away from a potential third College Football Playoff appearance.
Outside of a joyous hug shared between junior linebacker Kenneth Murray and Clarke Stroud, director of football operations, hardly any Sooners did more than high-five the remaining Oklahoma fans as they went to the locker room.
Perhaps no player embodied the mindset and performance of Oklahoma’s resurgent defense more than senior cornerback Parnell Motley, who bookended the Sooners’ performance with a forced and recovered fumble on the Cowboys' second drive and intercepted a pass on their final drive.
“It was a great win, but we have a lot of things ahead of us if we want to accomplish the things we want,” said Motley, who has forced four turnovers this year. “It was great for this team to stay locked in and kept in focus because there’s a lot of opportunities out there, and we’re reaching for something much bigger.”
Motley and the Sooners’ defensive performance in 2017’s Bedlam showed no resemblance to Saturday’s game. In that game, which ended in a 62-52 Oklahoma win, the Sooners gave up 448 yards and five touchdowns in the air, and Motley ended up being benched due to his poor performance.
Two years later, Motley and the defense have carried the Sooners in recent weeks — from a shutout in the second half of Oklahoma’s 34-31 win over Baylor, to dragging a struggling offense in a 28-24 win against TCU and allowing only one touchdown against Oklahoma State.
“(Motley) was awesome,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “He tackled well, he covered well, they went at him with a lot of double moves, and he was in great position. I thought he really trusted his technique really throughout the entire game. He made big a lot of big plays, they gave him a lot of opportunities, and he certainly responded.
“You could tell he wanted the ball thrown his way tonight.”
The biggest challenge presented to first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch this week was Cowboy running back Chuba Hubbard, who entered the game with 1,832 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, which ranked first and second in the nation, respectively.
Hubbard finished Saturday with 24 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown, an impressive stat line for most running backs. But for the Heisman dark horse, it was a far cry from his 166.5 yard and 1.8 touchdown per game average.
“In our defense, we don’t really game plan for one person,” sophomore defensive end Ronnie Perkins said. “We’re always going to run what we run in our defense. It was definitely good to keep him under control. He had a few plays where he got loose on us, but we mostly had good control and that helped us a lot. If they got him going, their whole team would have gotten going.
But the game didn’t start with a dominant performance. On the Cowboys’ first drive, they marched 76 yards on eight plays, with the drive resulting in a 3-yard Hubbard touchdown run.
For the rest of the game, Oklahoma State would fail to get the ball back in the end zone, turn the ball over twice, suffer a turnover on downs and settle for three field goals.
“We have the ultimate respect for him and that offense,” Grinch said. “I thought we weathered it early, and (that) was critical. Give them credit for outexecuting us early. Finding a way to make them count in threes was a critical element because we didn’t have our feet underneath us ... we played better ball as the game went on.”
The resilience that the Sooners displayed has been the main difference between this year’s team and recent woeful Oklahoma defenses. In the past, when an opponent had early success, the Sooners floundered and failed to recover.
But when the Cowboys kept pounding after the first touchdown, the Sooners held up and persevered.
On three different drives — two in the second quarter and one in the third — the Cowboys made it deep inside Sooner territory but had to settle for 3 points each time. Those moments won Oklahoma the game, and the Sooners will need to continue to excel in those moments if they want to reach their lofty goals.
“What this game comes down to is, you can’t kick field goals and beat a good football team,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “We got down inside the 15-yard line several times and kicked field goals.
“We put ourselves in a jam and could never get over the hump.”
Correction: This story was updated at 12:52 p.m. Dec. 1 to reflect Oklahoma's current standing in the College Football Playoff rankings.