ARLINGTON — Tre Norwood lurked on the left side of the field as Florida quarterback and Heisman finalist Kyle Trask stared his way and fired.
Undeterred, the redshirt junior nickelback flew to the ball, jumping the intended receiver’s route and picking off the pass. He proceeded to return his team- and Big 12-leading fifth interception of the season 45 yards for a touchdown. The pick-six gave OU a 14-0 lead over the country’s best passing offense not three minutes into the 2020 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium Wednesday night.
After missing all of 2019 due to an ACL injury, Norwood — one of the best comeback stories in college football — grabbed the first of three first-quarter interceptions and was the defensive MVP of the game for Oklahoma as the No. 6 Sooners (9-2) dominated a vaunted No. 7 Florida (8-4) offense in a 55-20 win.
“The play with the interception is just kind of trusting my technique, trusting the call and then just trying to take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself,” Norwood said. “And for our defense, I think just that first quarter, how we started off was big, just creating the energy for the team as a whole. … So I think that kind of just got a big momentum swing for us and got the energy going on all three sides of the ball.”
Following three-straight crushing bowl defeats in which it allowed 54, 45 and 63 points, respectively, OU stymied a prolific offense that dropped 46 points on No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Fueled by trash talk from Florida linebacker James Houston IV, who previously said the Sooners “aren’t on our level,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s Speed D washed away its soiled bowl reputation and helped Oklahoma to its first bowl win under head coach Lincoln Riley.
“Coach Grinch came in here, and he changed the culture, and he changed the standard, and the guys behind him — coach (Calvin Thibodeaux), (Roy) Manning, (Brian) Odom, and then coach (Jamar) Cain — they followed suit,” said redshirt junior defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas, who hinted after the game he’ll return in 2021 following a breakout eight-sack and 12.5-tackle-for-loss campaign. “And us players, we put it out there on film. Especially after that Iowa State loss the first time, ever since then, we have been firing on all cylinders.
“There's been takeaways, TFLs, sacks, stopping the runs, big things like that. We have been able to do that against every opponent ever since that game, no matter what conference they play in.”
Trask threw for 4,125 yards and 43 touchdowns before the bowl, but was without his four leading receivers in the contest due to NFL draft-related opt outs and COVID-19, and he struggled to hit his available targets.
After telegraphing his throw into Norwood’s hands, his fourth pass of Florida’s second drive was tipped up by the intended receiver and grabbed by redshirt sophomore Brian Asamoah. The Sooners’ starting WILL linebacker, who quietly led the team with 65 tackles this season, advanced 29 yards to set up OU’s offense for a field goal.
“One thing that coach Grinch always says is, ‘It's still you on film,’” Asamoah said of not becoming overconfident or distracted by Florida’s short-handedness. “Whether or not you are playing or not, you are still on tape. So you have to take advantage of that moment, and every time you get an opportunity to play football, (you’ve) got to play full speed and do your responsibility to the best of your ability every time.”
The Gators threatened on their third possession, moving the ball to the Oklahoma 10-yard line, but Trask made his third and final error of the night deep in enemy territory. Redshirt freshman defensive back Woodi Washington — an emerging star baptized by fire in 2019’s blowout Peach Bowl loss to LSU — got in front of his man, coming up with the Sooners third interception in the end zone.
“I learned a lot from that LSU game last year,” Washington said. “Just to keep my head up and just trust in God, and look where He got me now. … That was an exciting moment for sure, that I actually got to play a lot in this game, (and) just throughout the year.”
Oklahoma became the only team to pick off Trask three times and hold him without a touchdown pass in a start in his career. Florida’s offense averaged 388.4 passing yards per game prior to the bowl, but OU held it to 271 despite missing senior cornerback Tre Brown, who opted out of the game for NFL draft preparation. The Sooners were bullied in consecutive bowls by Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and LSU’s Joe Burrow, but found redemption in their third showdown with a Heisman contender in Trask.
After seasons of failure and mockery from all over college football, Grinch has righted the ship in Norman. His players fully bought into his philosophy in year two and excelled. The OU defense finished the season with 19 turnovers after having only 11 in 2019, drawing ever closer to their coach’s yearly expectation of 24 takeaways.
With Grinch at the helm and a host of talent likely returning next season, the future of Speed D is increasingly bright.
“I couldn't be more excited about the direction of our program defensively,” Riley said. “And I give our players a ton of credit. I give coach Grinch (and) our defensive staff a ton of credit. They've done just a fabulous job. It's been — so far, two years in — it's been what we hoped it would be.
"I think we sat here after last season and said, 'It's a great start, but we will be disappointed if it's not a whole lot better in year two.' And it was better. And now we're going to sit here and say, 'Really good two-year run, made a lot of improvements, love the way our guys are playing and improving, and we expect it to be a heck of a lot better in year three.'”