OU football: Why Alex Grinch exhaled a bit after Sooners' Big 12 triumph
ARLINGTON, Texas — Alex Grinch spotted his family in the celebratory chaos on JerryWorld field and locked in on them like so many of his defenders have done with ballcarriers this season.
When he finally got to Becky and the kids, there were hugs and kisses as Grinch’s father, Greg, snapped photos with his phone. Finally, Grinch and his dad embraced, and when they separated, the Oklahoma defensive coordinator bent over at the waist. For several seconds, he didn’t move, and when he stood, you could see he had been moved.
There were tears in his eyes.
Sooner Nation feels every bit as emotional about Grinch.
On a day OU beat Baylor 30-23 in overtime, won its fifth consecutive Big 12 title and almost certainly punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff, the Sooners were delivered by defense. They don’t rally after that loss at Kansas State without the defense. Don’t beat Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State down the stretch without the defense.
And the Sooners certainly don’t beat the Bears in the Big 12 Championship Game without the defense.
Who’d have thought a year ago we’d be saying that this season?
Grinch credits the players — “Very proud of those guys,” he said — but many of the Sooners on this defense were the very same ones who couldn’t play dead the past few seasons. The biggest variable that changed is Grinch.
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“The impact he’s had on us as individuals, no matter how much we talk about it, it can never get the appreciation that it should,” Sooner safety Pat Fields said. “A lot of us after we’re done playing, we’re going to realize how great of a man Coach Grinch is.”
But we’re all realizing now how great a coach he is.
You can take the broad view and see it. OU held Baylor to only 265 yards, the third time this season the Sooner defense has kept an opponent under 300 yards of total offense. Opponents reached the 300-yard mark in plenty of halves the past few years.
You can see the improvement in smaller windows, too.
Saturday during a rough patch in the fourth quarter, third-string quarterback Jacob Zeno followed up an 81-yard touchdown pass with a 78-yard pass. But that play it would’ve been 95-yard touchdown if not for Tre Brown.
The Sooner defensive back ended up behind Chris Platt when the Bear receiver caught the ball, nearly taken out by Fields who dove at Platt and missed. Brown kept his feet. Kept the faith, too. He pursued Platt for 20 or 30 yards before finally catching him from behind and bringing him down at the Sooner 17-yard line.
“Huge,” Grinch said. “I’ll say it — (letting a receiver get loose) shouldn’t happen.”
Grinch admitted he was to blame for both of the long passes. He called them products of bad calls and coaching points.
“Thankfully, Tre tackles big on the second one to kind of save the day,” Grinch said. “It’s everything we talk about as a defense. Find a way. If that referee doesn’t throw two hands in the air, then we’ve got a shot to get a takeaway, to hold ‘em to three.”
That’s what the Sooners ended up doing. The Bears were forced to settle for a field goal, and even though it tied the game and ultimately forced overtime, that long pass didn’t beat the Sooners because Brown didn’t give up.
That kind of effort wasn’t always evident these past few seasons.
But there were several times we saw it Saturday. At one point in the third quarter, Fields even brought down a Baylor ballcarrier by the dreadlocks hanging out the back of his helmet.
“I feel bad because I have dreads,” Fields said sheepishly. “I was just trying to get him on the ground. When you’re on the field, it’s by any means necessary.”
Was it the most conventional tackle? Was it how Grinch would’ve taught it?
Yes and no.
“Whatever it takes,” Grinch said. “We coach that.”
And his Sooners have bought it. They are a huge reason why OU goes into Selection Sunday with a 12-1 record and a Big 12 crown. A huge reason why the selection committee likes OU; “complete teams” hold favor with that bunch. Grinch and Co. may even be a reason why you would give the Sooners a fighting chance no matter what No. 1 seed they draw in the national semifinal.
“He’s relentless,” Sooner linebacker Nik Bonitto said. “He actually got on me Tuesday or Wednesday. We do a pursuit drill, and I was caught jogging. He holds that standard that we can’t go back, we always gotta keep going forward.”
It hasn’t been easy for Grinch to install a new scheme and instill a new mindset. There was stress. Strain. Struggle.
You could see as much in those moments with his family on the field after the game.
“When you take a job at a place like Oklahoma, you understand that the expectations are through the roof,” he said. “You know that the standard here … it’s the New York Yankees. You don’t come in here and tell them what the standard is. They tell you what it is, and you’ve got to live up to it.”
Grinch hasn’t been perfect. Not this season. Not Saturday. But he and his Sooners have been so much better so much faster than anyone could’ve reasonably expected.
“At some point,” Grinch said of those moments on the field, “you’ve got to exhale.”
He smiled ever so slightly.
“And I took that opportunity.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.