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OU football: Sam Ehlinger, Longhorn receivers to be tough test for Alex Grinch's defense

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Ronnie Perkins

Freshman defensive end Ronnie Perkins tackles UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger in the Big 12 Championship game Dec. 1.

With the Red River Rivalry just days away, no one is questioning No. 6 Oklahoma's offense.

The Sooners (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) have established under coach Lincoln Riley that they can put up points on just about any team, whether it's an FCS opponent or a juggernaut like Alabama.

What's held Oklahoma back in recent years is the defense, whose struggles came to a head a year ago after falling to Texas 48-45. Texas was able to do whatever it wanted offensively, and then-defensive coordinator Mikes Stoops was fired the next day.

A year later with first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch at the helm, Oklahoma's defense has looked improved, but their opponents have a combined record of 10-16. 

The Sooners return 10 starters from 2018's defense, and the Longhorn that tore them up a year ago returns: quarterback Sam Ehlinger. In two games against Oklahoma last season, Ehlinger racked up 777 total yards and nine touchdowns.

"The one you circle is the guy at the quarterback spot," Grinch said. "He can just make so much happen, specifically in the pass game but also in the run game. He can hurt you with his feet and get the ball down the field to some explosive receivers."

Ehlinger displayed an ability to beat defenses both in the air and on the ground in 2018, and he's continuing to improve through the first half of the season. He's already scored 19 touchdowns and nearly tallied 2,000 yards.

But Ehlinger isn't the conventional dual-threat. He'll succeed with brute force as opposed to blazing speed. His three rushing touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl in 2018 all came inside the 9-yard line. 

One of the 2018 Sooner defense's rare highlights came in the Big 12 Championship Game, when then-sophomore cornerback Tre Brown blitzed and took down Ehlinger for a safety. 

The play was crucial to sealing Oklahoma's win, but Brown isn't sure he would've been able to bring down Ehlinger if he didn't have a full head of steam, which illustrates the problems he presents for the Sooners.

"If I stopped running and let up a little bit, I don't think I would've tackled the guy," Brown said. "He was so big and he can run out of anything. I've seen him get out of things from guys way bigger than me, so if I would've stopped I don't think that play would even exist."

While Ehlinger on his own will be a challenge for Grinch's defense, he also has a talented group of wide receivers to work with. 

Senior Devin Duvernay is the Longhorns' leading receiver with 45 catches for 463 yards and four touchdowns. But the Sooners are likely most concerned about senior Collin Johnson. 

Johnson's season stats aren't eye-popping because he has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury, and is listed as probable for an appearance in the Cotton Bowl. His 6-foot-6-inch height has presented problems for the Sooner secondary in the past, most notably in the Big 12 Championship Game when he snagged eight passes for 177 yards and a touchdown. 

"They're really physical, and they're all 6-foot-6, 6-foot-5," Brown said. "It is going to be really tough trying to contain that just because of how physical and big their bodies are, so we really have to bring our A-game."

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