Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley announced Tuesday that sophomore wide receiver Brian Darby will be inactive Saturday for the No. 3 Sooners’ game against Nebraska.
Riley didn’t clarify why Darby will be out, but it appears injury related. Riley also said starting redshirt sophomore cornerback Woodi Washington is doubtful to play against the Cornhuskers with an unspecified injury.
Others are also questionable, Riley said, likely referring to nickelback Billy Bowman and linebacker Danny Stutsman, both freshman, who exited OU’s game against Western Carolina last Saturday with apparent injuries. Bowman’s issue appears related to his hamstring, while Stutsman suffered an arm injury. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jamal Morris was also inactive for the Western Carolina game but was on the sideline with a cast on his arm and is presumed questionable to play against Nebraska.
During OU’s midweek press conference, the Sooners (2-0) also discussed their defensive inconsistencies and preparation for their looming showdown with Nebraska (2-1), commemorating the teams’ 1971 battle in the Game of the Century. Here are additional notes from Riley, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, junior running back Eric Gray and sophomore defensive end Reggie Grimes:
Defensive message to play 'full four quarters'
Riley and Grinch have continued to preach focus on playing a “full 60 minutes” and “finishing” as a group to their players.
That was sparked by the Sooners’ second-half play against Tulane, when they surrendered 21 points to the Green Wave — but scored just three in response — after carrying a commanding 37-14 lead into halftime.
“It’s hard to be average if you don’t finish,” Grinch said. “It’s impossible to be good, and even less of a chance to be anything above that if you’re not playing a full-four quarters.”
Grinch says some of the blame falls on his returning players for failing to improve thus far.
“Anytime a guy’s a returning player, we expect (you) to be a different dude than you were before,” Grinch said. “So far, I don’t see a different Brian Asamoah. I don’t see a different David Ugwoegbu. I don’t see a different DaShaun White. I haven’t seen a different Pat Fields. I haven’t seen a different Perrion Winfrey. I haven’t seen a different Isaiah Thomas.
“That bar’s gotta go up, and it’s our job as coaches to get them there. … I think we’ve seen better football from them, and at (the defense’s) base, it's as good as it was last year. We had eight months to prepare for those first two games. It should be better than it was last year.”
Despite the unit pitching its second shutout under Grinch, he indicates there’s still improvement to be made with the defense’s mindset.
Scouting Nebraska defense, QB Adrian Martinez
Nebraska’s defense, known as the fearsome Blackshirts in the heyday of the Sooners and Cornhuskers’ rivalry, finished No. 50 nationally in total defense last fall. Though its current No. 58 national ranking early in the 2021 season isn’t reflective of progress, Riley believes the unit is much more refined from 2020.
“I think they've really improved, from looking at some of last year's tape and onto this year,” Riley said. “I think it's a much better unit, and they’ve played at a high level, there's no doubt about it, so it's a challenge. They've done a nice job with that group. You can see it heading in a positive direction for them.”
Nebraska’s offense is driven by junior Adrian Martinez, a team captain who has already thrown for 728 yards and four touchdowns this season while rushing for three more scores. Riley recruited Martinez some while he was in high school and has only seen the former four-star prospect improve since.
“He's one of those guys that you can have somebody account for him, but at the same time, sometimes he can just beat that guy too,” Riley said. “His athleticism jumps off the screen. I think he's really improved as a passer. They're settling down with what they want to do with him and he does it well.
"He looks, to me, improved on the on script stuff and then the things that get off script is when he gets really, really good. ... It'll be a big challenge, and he'll be as athletic a guy as we’ll play all year.”
Eric Gray improves against WCU
Gray scored his first touchdown at Oklahoma against Western Carolina last Saturday. The Tennessee transfer went untouched into the end zone on a 20-yard pass from redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler.
After rushing for just 27 yards on nine carries in his OU debut against Tulane, Gray responded in a big way with 94 total yards and a touchdown on only 10 touches.
“He trusted it more,” Riley said of Gray’s performance against the Catamounts. “He trusted the (offensive) line, where it was supposed to hit. I thought he ran more decisive. … I thought it was a step we kind of expected, sort of a natural second-game improvement. I appreciate the way he trusted our line. ... It was definitely an improvement for Eric.”
Gray’s breakout game proves important for Oklahoma’s running backs room, as just he and redshirt junior Kennedy Brooks are on scholarship and spearhead the backfield in front of walk-ons Todd Hudson and Jaden Knowles.
Reggie Grimes’ Cornhusker connection
Grimes has an interesting family tie to Nebraska. His mother, Mikaela Perry-Grimes, was once a track star for the Cornhuskers in the 1990s before transferring to Alabama to finish her career and meeting Reggie Sr., then a defensive end for the Crimson Tide.
Grimes no longer has family in Nebraska, as his grandparents moved to Florida upon retirement. However, his family has still acquainted him with the Sooners and Cornhuskers’ longtime feud.
“She brings it up as what it is,” Grimes said of his mom. “It's a very historic rivalry, very important to the game of college football itself. She grew up a Cornhusker, her entire family, they were Cornhuskers … and now they’re OU fans because of me.
"So I think it's a really cool, interesting little wrinkle in there. But at the same time, I’m just taking it for what it is. It's a very important game for college football."
Grimes was never a diehard Nebraska fan growing up, but he said he did watch the Cornhuskers occasionally if they were on. Furthermore, he added that his family’s roots in Lincoln were not a deterrent on his journey to Norman.
“She was all for it,” Grimes said of his mom’s input on his college decision. “That's the one thing she did stress — both her and my dad from the beginning, was that they went to college wherever they went to college. And this is me, this is my journey, this is my process. So whenever I started being recruited by OU, and then eventually, of course, choosing OU and going to OU, they were all for it.”