“We’re just here trying to win,” Riley reminds of Sooner record amid criticism of defensive struggles

MIAMI, Fla. – Although the Sooners have a stellar offense that seems to be firing on all cylinders, the team has been criticized for its defensive performance this season.

According to NCAA statistics, OU is ranked 108th in total defense. The Sooners have allowed opponents to record 5,800 total yards of offense against them, which breaks down to about 448 yards per game.

In fact, many analysts argue that the committee decided to overlook its poor defensive performances in its vote to allow the team to make it into the College Football Playoffs.

When asked if this team’s success should be measured in something other than yards allowed, OU’s Kenneth Murray said they have still managed to find a way to win.

“I mean, I don’t — I don’t want to say that that’s acceptable. As a defensive player, as a leader on the defense, that’s never acceptable. You always strive to be the best. But I also think you can’t hang your hat on stuff like that. At the end of the day, this team, we found a way to win 12 out of 13 games we’ve played. At the end of the day, that’s what I think it’s all about. It’s all about finding a way to win. It’s all about getting in position right now. Right now we’re in the position of a lifetime, so it’s all about taking advantage of that, not hanging your hat on unnecessary things like that,” Murray said.

When you look at it by the numbers, it’s not a pretty picture.

OU’s defense is ranked 128th in passing yards allowed, 126th in red zone defense and 96th in scoring defense.

If Alabama has any doubts about the skill of the OU defense, they aren’t expressing them to the media.

“I think they’re a lot better than people give them credit for. I’ve said this all week, I don’t think that they would be one of the top four teams in the playoffs if they didn’t have a quality defense. They’ve got a good front seven that plays very physical, a lot of strong guys inside, and they’ve got a lot of guys in the back end that can make plays on the ball. I
definitely give their defense a lot of credit, and we know they’re going to present a lot of challenges for us, so come Saturday we’re going to have to be at our best,” said Damien Harris, Alabama running back.

“I always kind of thought people didn’t give them enough credit, and I think it’s because, number one, their offense is so good and they score so many points, and two, they play in a conference where scoring, that’s what everybody does. They’re playing teams like West Virginia, all these teams with really explosive offenses. When you play a team that can put up 50 and 60 points every single week, it’s kind of hard to stop. I think that they haven’t gotten enough credit
all year, but definitely watching them on tape, we’ve seen a lot of things that prove that they’re a good defense,” Harris added.

Whether the Sooners’ defensive talents are being overlooked by the analysts or not, the team will have their hands full with one of the nation’s best offensive units, led by Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

“Very gifted group as a whole. They play real physical, and they play as one, which I think definitely helps on offense and defense when you’re able to like communicate and play as one group, and everybody is on the same page,” said Amani Bledsoe, OU defensive end.

Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill says that this game will likely come down to which team takes control of the moment and seizes on opportunities.

“In this type of game you’re going to need a lot [of breaks of serve] because they do a great job of taking advantage even if you’re not making mistakes, again, 50/50 balls, competitive balls, they’re able to make them. You know, we’ll need quite a few, and I think — I’m sure Coach Saban feels the same way about our offense,” McNeill said.

It will likely also come down to whether or not the Sooner secondary can stop the air attack from Tagovailoa. So far this season, Tagovailoa has passed for 3,353 yards and 37 touchdowns to lead the Crimson Tide to the top spot in the polls.

“I think it’s all about just taking advantage of the opportunities when the opportunity presents itself. I think as a defense the last couple games we’ve been very prepared, very good with taking advantage of those opportunities. You know,
when the opportunities came, we took advantage of it, and I think that’s just a byproduct of our coaches, a byproduct of our players taking advantage of the opportunities. When opportunities come Saturday, I look forward to guys on my defense and including me myself making those plays and having huge plays in this game,” said Kenneth Murray.

The Sooners after winning the Big 12 Championship

Despite the defense’s downfalls on paper, OU coaches and players stress that they still have been able to find a way to win games.

“We’re just here trying to win. Just like we’ve tried to win all the other ones. Again, it sounds like a broken record, what’s your formula for winning. We’ve found ways to win games. We want to continue to get better on all three sides of the ball going into this game and into the future years of our program. There’s no doubt about that. But we found ways to win, and we’re going to try to do it again,” said OU head coach Lincoln Riley.

“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to play our best ball, play our best complementary team ball,” said Bledsoe.

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