Wanting to keep a shutout intact, Alex Grinch needed to motivate his Speed D to finish.
A threat did the trick.
Western Carolina was moving the ball against No. 4 Oklahoma (2-0) better in the second half than it had in the first, when the Sooners held the Catamounts (0-2) to 68 yards. So OU’s defensive coordinator told his players they’d run extra in practice Monday if they allowed their FCS opponent to score a touchdown. He wanted them to keep their foot on the gas after watching them relent during the second half of their season opener against Tulane.
Twenty-three minutes later, sophomore cornerback Joshua Eaton tackled the opposing ball carrier to cap a mercifully shortened 12-minute fourth quarter. The play put the finishing touches on OU’s dominant 76-0 win over Western Carolina on Saturday evening in Norman, which is Grinch’s second shutout since coming to Oklahoma in January 2019.
“That was motivation for those older guys to help those younger guys out,” Grinch said afterward of his ultimatum. “Tonight was a pretty good opportunity for a lot of guys, and happy for those guys that they took advantage of it, almost to the man.”
Grinch’s other shutout came against FCS foe Missouri State in OU’s 2020 season opener, and Western Carolina proved an even less challenging opponent than the Bears. But after OU's defense dragged through the second half against Tulane, allowing 21 points, it needed a chance to prove itself. The Sooners did that and more, as defenders veteran and rookie shined under the lights of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium’s first night game of the season before a sellout crowd of 83,538.
Six of the Catamounts’ first-half drives ended in punts, while the other two resulted in turnovers on downs. OU sacked opposing quarterback Rogan Wells three times in the first two quarters, and senior noseguard Perrion Winfrey delivered 1.5 of those himself. He already has two sacks this season after posting just 0.5 last fall following his transfer from Iowa Western Junior College.
“He's in better shape,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “He's better mentally, he's just in a much better place and I think we're seeing some of the results here. He looked like he played quite a bit better tonight from his game one performance. … When you’ve got a guy who can push the pocket and create disruption in the run game it makes life tough, and it does free up other guys on the edges to really be aggressive.”
As Winfrey and crew kept bringing pressure, WCU’s mistakes piled up in the second half. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Jordan Kelley and freshman defensive end Ethan Downs forced fumbles. Those turnovers were recovered by sophomore linebacker Shane Whitter and redshirt freshman safety Bryson Washington — two players who showed glimpses of improvement after frustrating Grinch in the past.
“In Shane's case ... I expect more from him,” Grinch said. “He can run, he has a lot of the skill sets that we look for in a linebacker and particularly the ability to use speed and be elite that way. Same thing, Bryson is one of the fastest guys on our team. They’ve got to practice that way and ultimately they’ve got to play that way, and it's trending in the right direction, but by no means is it something that is quote, unquote fixed, but it's certainly the right steps.”
Freshman linebacker Danny Stutsman, a former three-star prospect who has drawn rave reviews since arriving on campus this fall, also impressed against WCU. He finished with a team-high eight tackles — seven solo, 0.5 for loss — and a forced fumble.
Stutsman left during the fourth quarter with an apparent injury and tweeted after the game he’ll get a CT scan on his arm Sunday, but Riley said he doesn’t believe any injuries suffered in the game were serious. Stutsman has since deleted the tweet.
One defensive series after Stutsman’s departure, Washington picked off Western Carolina backup quarterback Carlos Davis on WCU’s second to last drive. All but the Catamounts’ final possession ended in a turnover or punt. They produced only 178 total yards to OU’s 624 and carried -4 rushing yards into the second half.
“The whole week of practice, we just practiced finishing, finishing, finishing,” Winfrey said. “Every play, every rep, just going in and doing what we need to do, just focusing on the fundamentals and realizing that everything else will come. So it's just good to have a shutout. We wish we could have kept the rushing yards at negative, but maybe next time.”
Grinch also said the week’s preparation in practice forecasted better results after warnings of slip ups preceded OU’s matchup with Tulane. He added he’s “still not over” his unit’s shortcomings against the Green Wave, but is slowly moving on after its dominance against Western Carolina.
Speed D will need to sustain strong preparation ahead of next Saturday’s clash with Nebraska, reigniting the Sooners' and Cornhuskers' historic rivalry. By then, perhaps Grinch won’t need to threaten his players to finish.
“As long as you play the call, 11 guys doing the same thing, we’re gonna be alright,” Grinch said. “And obviously, that wasn't the case, certainly at the level it should have been a week ago, and so again, tonight was better, and (we’re) on to the next week. We're gonna make sure that we're doing things the right way over the course of Monday through Friday so we can play at a higher level next Saturday than we did this Saturday."