By Alaa Abdeldaiem | @Abdeldaiem_Alaa
Sports Capital Journalism Program
LOS ANGELES –– Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is tired of hearing it.
The senior defensive end is facing a Southeastern Conference opponent in a bowl game for the second straight year, and as his Oklahoma Sooners prepare to take on Georgia at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual on New Year’s Day, Okoronkwo knows.
He knows what’s being said about his defense’s ability to play. Oklahoma has gone a perfect 4-0 in games against an SEC opponent since 2014, but he knows that some believe they can’t hold their own, that the Sooners can’t handle an SEC powerhouse.
And after talking to reporters Thursday morning, it’s clear Okoronkwo knows this weekend’s Rose Bowl is his defense’s best chance.
Knows this is the perfect time to defend their pride and put the noise to rest.
“We’re done talking,” Okoronkwo said. “We’ve been hearing this every year. We play SEC teams every year, and we beat them. By a lot. We’ve done it time and time again. I don’t know why it’s still a topic of conversation that we aren’t physical enough. We’re ready to play.”
Such confidence is one Okoronkwo and his defense had to regain throughout a shaky season. After stifling opposing offenses to just 12.3 points per game through their first three games, Oklahoma’s defense suffered a mid-season collapse, giving up a whopping 36.1 points per game between Sept. 23 and Nov. 4, including 52 points to rival Oklahoma State.
“We got a little lapse in who we are and didn’t do a lot of the little things that you need to do to play at this level that we’re expected to play at and we should play at,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “That was, I think, disheartening to all of us. That’s not our style here at Oklahoma, to rely on our offense, and that really hurt our pride.”
But as the season’s end drew closer, the Sooners quickly flipped the switch. Practices were more physical. Leadership began to emerge.
Oklahoma put together a strong defensive run through its last four games. The Sooners held TCU to 20 points, Kansas to 3 and West Virginia to 10 in the first half of a convincing victory. The Sooners then limited TCU to 17 in a Big 12 title-game win that punched their ticket to the Rose Bowl.
Pride, Stoops said, was restored.
“It got down to our disciplines,” Stoops said. “Not being complacent. You better have some pride in who you are as a player or you’re not going to amount to much in this game. I’ve always told our players, we know what good defense is. Statistics can be misleading in a lot of ways, whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
The only one that does now is a win, and while Stoops believes his defense is prepared for Monday’s matchup, he knows Georgia still presents this Oklahoma defense with unique challenges.
Georgia averages 34.9 points per game, relying on running backs Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift to carry the load. The Bulldogs are sixth nationally in total rushing yardage and 10th in yards per attempt.
It doesn’t end with the backfield, either. Senior safety Steven Parker believes Georgia’s receivers can do just as much damage on the field, forcing defenses to cover a lot of space.
“Their receivers can stretch ot the field a lot, especially when they’ve got 6-4 receivers and some nice receivers to add on to it in the slot, so we’re going to have our hands full right there,” Parker said. “It’s just kind of unique how they window dress and hide everything as far as the routes that they’re going to give us.”
If they can contain the run and force Georgia into long-yardage situations, however, Okoronkwo, Stoops and Parker believe the Sooners will have the chance to once again defend their pride. Some may say they aren’t ready.
All three believe the Sooners are prepared to make their statement.
“A lot of people aren’t expecting us to go out there and play and be physical with Georgia,” Parker said. “We’re ready to prove them wrong.”
On Monday afternoon, they’ll get their chance.