Danny Stutsman could be seen front and center of OU’s huddle preceding the start of the fourth quarter.
Clinging to a seven-point lead with Texas having completed a 15-yard pass inside OU’s 35-yard line and a dormant offense showing no signs of helping them out, the Sooners’ defense needed to take matters into their own hands. Doing so has been a struggle for OU in years past, from the defense that surrendered 54 points to Georgia in the 2018 Rose Bowl to last season’s unit which allowed Texas to march 585 yards en route to a 49-0 blowout loss.
Stutsman was a part of that defense, one that constantly let close games slip out of reach in the fourth quarter, and saw a moment to instill a new mindset in the Sooners’ 2023 unit.
“This is our moment, fourth quarter, let’s go dominate,” freshman Peyton Bowen on what Stutsman said in the huddle. “Let’s take this game over.”
For head coach Brent Venables, the player leadership will define the remainder of OU’s season.
“Leadership is going to drive this football team at the end of the day,” Venables said after No. 12 Oklahoma’s (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) 34-30 win over No. 3 Texas (5-1, 2-1). “Coaches can’t play. Players decide on whether or not they want to be successful and whether or not they’re willing to do what it takes. I know what they’re capable of, but what are they willing to do? And they’ve been the example.”
“… They’re not a satisfied football team. I love the competitiveness of this team, but also the maturity and the humility that it takes to be a great program (and) what it’s going to take moving forward.”
Ultimately, the Sooners’ defense allowed Texas to position themselves with first and goal from the one before stuffing the Longhorns on three straight run plays and making a goal line stand on fourth down.
It was the shining moment in a game where OU’s defense proved their improvement to be more than just a fluke against weak offenses, but a strength leading an unrecognizable team compared to 2022.
“If you look back to us last year, we got scarred up,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “You learn from those scars and then hopefully you apply and find solutions to help you grow from that and our guys have.”
After Texas tied the game on their ensuing drive and OU’s offense showed no signs of life during a three-and-out, the Longhorns had full control with possession and under five minutes to play.
Texas coach Steve Sarkisian was thinking touchdown the entire way, and didn’t change his plans until redshirt senior Jacob Lacey sacked UT quarterback Quinn Ewers on first down and the Longhorns weren’t able to make up much ground on second down, forcing a third and long.
“We were trying to make sure we had the last possession,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We had called a (run pass option), we were blocking the run, Quinn was getting ready to throw an RPO and the guy made the sack. At that point, it put us in a third and long with about a minute left. I wanted to ensure we were in good field goal range … So we ran the ball there on third down.”
“ … The mindset shifted on one play.”
Not only did the stand hold the Longhorns to a field goal, it gave the Sooners’ offense over a minute to execute their game-winning drive.
“Those are the plays we need,” Bowen said. “It was a statement from the defense saying, ‘We’re not going to give it to y’all, we’re gonna make y’all earn this.’”
As a unit, OU’s defensive line tallied a season-high five sacks and 10 tackles for loss. The same unit was the lone recipient of criticism after the Sooners’ 73-0 blowout win over Arkansas State for its lackluster pass rush and continued hearing complaints in the coming weeks.
The Sooners didn’t take the feedback to heart. Instead, they waited for inevitable opportunities to arise, which happened to be during the biggest game of the season.
“Sometimes criticism can be misinformed or it can be misinterpreted,” junior defensive lineman Ethan Downs said. “We try not to latch on to the negative things. We saw that if we keep doing our job, the plays are going to run into us. A lot of those offenses in early games were getting the ball out really fast so we weren’t looking real flashy, not a lot of (tackles for loss), not a lot of sacks, but being gap sound, being a sound defense is what it’s all about. That’s what wins. So even if we don’t look flashy, we’re confident and we’ll keep playing.”
Similarly to its 50-20 win over Iowa State, OU’s defense set the tone early with an interception. When junior Billy Bowman returned his interception for a touchdown against the Cyclones, what followed was a quarter-and-a-half of allowing big play touchdowns, third down conversions and being bullied by Iowa State’s rushing attack.
What followed sophomore Gentry Williams’ opening-drive interception against Texas was another interception from junior defensive back Kendel Dolby and a showing limiting the Longhorns to 10 points on offense in the half.
“Last week, we had that pick six and got over-excited,” Stutsman said. “This week, we really settled down after Gentry had that really great interception. We kept our poise, we said, ‘That’s just one drive. We have a lot of game left. We gotta keep attacking.’ I think our guys did a tremendous job (of) focusing (and being) physical all day.”
The improvement, leadership and, most notably, camaraderie the Sooners’ defense displayed Saturday reminds coach Brent Venables of the 2000 defense he led to a national championship as OU’s defensive coordinator. Then, the Sooners were fresh off a 7-5 campaign. Venables remembers their defense “not knowing how good we could be” as well as the bond they formed throughout the season, ultimately leading to a 13-0 campaign.
“This is a team that has grown incredibly close over the last several months,” Venables said. “But these guys have worked hard at that yet. That didn’t just happen. There’s got to be a lot of intentionality. Relationships take a lot of work.
We’ve challenged them, we’ve nurtured that, but for us to realize our potential and have an opportunity to be a great team, we have to be a team that knows each other, that loves each other, that understands the culture and the defensive standard of excellence that this program has represented. And these guys have been amazing.”