OU football: How interceptions set the tone of Cotton Bowl — and beyond — for Sooners
ARLINGTON, Texas — Isaiah Thomas extended his left arm in the air and extended his index finger.
Less than three minutes into Wednesday’s Cotton Bowl, as the OU defensive lineman escorted Tre Norwood into the end zone to put the Sooners up two scores, the game felt over.
It wasn’t, at least not quite, but OU set the tone with its second defensive play and things mostly went swimmingly from there.
In a 55-20 win over Florida, the Sooners quarterback confounded Kyle Trask and the Gators.
Trask had piled up touchdown passes and avoided bad decisions during the regular season, with 43 touchdowns and just five interceptions heading into AT&T Stadium.
He’d thrown multiple interceptions just once all year and had never — dating back to his high school career and probably before — thrown three interceptions in a game.
But the Sooners picked Trask off three times in the Heisman Trophy finalist’s first 10 passes, turning the rest of the game into a virtual exhibition.
Sure, the Gators came back to make it 17-13 at one point before the Sooners once again turned on the gas. Sure, Florida was missing not only Trask’s four favorite receiving targets but a handful of other players, leaving Gators coach Dan Mullen to say — after the game — that the number of players available for Florida could’ve allowed his team to back out.
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But the Sooners’ still delivered defensively, showing what made Alex Grinch’s defense in Year 2 much more formidable.
They only had one sack, but had Trask scrambling around much of the game.
Before the Big 12 Championship Game, the Sooners hadn’t picked off three passes since 2015. Now, they’ve done it in back-to-back games. And defense, that after a 1-2 start this season had forced just 13 turnovers in Alex Grinch’s first 17 games as defensive coordinator, has 14 in its last six games.
Norwood alone has five interceptions in that span, becoming the first OU defender with five interceptions in a season since Zack Sanchez had seven in 2015.
“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 of his pick, where he jumped underneath Florida receiver Rick Wells and didn’t have to worry about anything other than tripping over his own feet as he cruised in for a 45-yard touchdown return.
By the time the first quarter had ended, linebacker Brian Asamoah and cornerback Woodi Washington had also picked off Trask.
“Got the energy going on all three sides of the ball,” Norwood said.
It took a bit to get going, but the difference in OU’s defense compared to when Grinch arrived is undeniable.
“Coach Grinch came in here and he changed the culture and he changed the standard and the guys behind him, Coach Tibbs (Calvin Thibodeaux), (Roy) Manning, (Brian) Odom, and then Coach (Jamar) Cain, they follow suit, ” Thomas said.
“And us players, we put it out there on film. Especially after that Iowa State loss the first time. Every 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.”
While the bowl win — their first since the Sugar Bowl following the 2016 season — is a feather in the caps of the 2020 defense, they way the Sooners’ defense performed, especially with the three interceptions early, also shows the promise that lies ahead in 2021.
“One game against Florida doesn’t change the narrative of what we have going on and brewing here in Norman,” Asamoah said. “But we are here to play defensive football here, and you guys see that and now it’s time for the whole world to take notice as well.”