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'You’ve gotta trust us on this': How OU's tackling problems last week could loom even larger vs. Texas

Ryan Aber
Oklahoman

NORMAN — Isaiah Thomas had a chance to blow the play up.

In the first quarter of OU's 37-31 win at Kansas State on Saturday, the Sooners defensive lineman came unblocked off the edge and met Wildcats receiver Malik Knowles just after quarterback Skylar Thompson handed him the ball.

Thomas dove. Thomas missed. Knowles turned upfield, where two more Sooners had a chance to bring him down before linebacker Shane Whitter finally did.

Instead of third-and-12, or even third-and-short, Kansas State picked up 16 yards and a first down on the play.

A play later, a pair of OU defenders took less-than-ideal angles to go after Landry Weber after a Thompson short pass to the sideline, and Weber wound up picking up 25 yards.

Tackling was a bit of an issue for the Sooners in their season-opening win over Tulane, but hadn’t been much of a problem since, until OU struggled against the Wildcats.

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Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn had a big game against OU on Saturday. Now, the Sooners will face perhaps an even bigger challenge at running back in Texas' Bijan Robinson, who has turned into one of the toughest players to tackle in college football.

About three hours earlier in Fort Worth, Texas’ Bijan Robinson made the normally sure-tackling TCU defense look silly on a 27-yard touchdown run that put the Longhorns ahead for the first time.

Robinson has made plenty of defenders look silly this season. Saturday alone, he forced 15 missed tackles by the Horned Frogs on runs, the most in college football last week. Robinson finished with a career-high 216 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

With Robinson and the Longhorns next up for the Sooners, in Saturday’s Red River Showdown at the Cotton Bowl (11 a.m., ABC), OU’s defense better get that issue fixed quickly.

Texas hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since D’Onta Foreman’s monster 2016 season (2,028 yards, 15 touchdowns), but if he stays healthy, Robinson almost surely will break that streak.

The sophomore enters the game second nationally with 652 rushing yards, and has scored seven times on the ground and twice more receiving

“We know we’ve got to be better there,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said of his defense. “We didn’t tackle very well in the open field. Made way too many very simple mistakes that frankly we haven’t been having. Got to play more complete there.”

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Robinson is a different kind of back than Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn, who made plenty of Sooners miss Saturday in racking up 10 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown and 15 carries for 51 yards.

But Robinson has become a much more complete back this season, developing into more of a pass-catching threat and continuing the hard running that led to massive games in the last two to end last season.

“You’ve gotta make a decision how much respect you give a running back in the pass game. How involved is he?” Sooners defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said, talking specifically about Vaughn.

“Obviously in some of the empty sets, they use him obviously out of the backfield and then late in the game, we’ve got two guys on him and we both decide to leave him, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me as you go through it.”

Grinch has surely spent the past couple days making sense of it and figures to harp on it plenty Tuesday and Wednesday especially as the Sooners go through their toughest two practice days of the week. How well his emphasis on tackling works figures to be evident against Robinson and the Longhorns.

“We need to rebuild trust as coaches on the defensive side of the ball from the standpoint of one of the things we’re telling you to do — it’s gonna work, man,” Grinch said after the game.

“You’ve gotta trust us on this. You’re a click away. You’re a strain play away. So I think what it allows us to do is just that. We have very honest conversations, and you and I are having one right now. It was good enough to win this football game. I don’t know if it was good enough moving forward. So that’s what we have to attack this week, and we have to get better, primarily as coaches.”