Jenni: What if Lincoln Riley had never left? A tale of two defenses

Jenni: What if Lincoln Riley had never left? A tale of two defenses

Jenni Carlson: On the day Brent Venables’ defense showed out in Dallas, a late game in Los Angeles was a reminder of what OU’s defense could have been.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Oct 10, 2023, 6:18am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Oct 10, 2023, 6:18am CDT

Late Saturday night when many a Sooner was either asleep after an early morning necessitated by the Red River Rivalry or deep into a wild celebration necessitated by an epic OU win, there came a reminder of an unintended silver lining.

Southern Cal was in a dogfight with Arizona.


Yes, Arizona, a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2017 and a team that has shown improvement but barely squeaked by lowly Stanford a few weeks ago, had USC on the ropes. The game eventually went to overtime. Three of them to be exact, in a game ultimately won by a heroic Caleb Williams run on USC’s two-point attempt.

But get this: Arizona had 505 yards of offense a week after USC allowed Colorado 564 yards.

The juxtaposition was rich; about 10 hours earlier, OU beat Texas with a defense that was tough and clutch and more reminiscent of Sooner defenses of yesteryear than we’ve seen in many moons.

And there, my friends, is the silver lining — if Lincoln Riley hadn’t left for USC, Alex Grinch would still be coordinating the OU defense.

Think about it. If Riley turns down USC’s mega millions and Los Angeles’ sun and stays at OU two years ago, that starts a cascade of dominos. Prime among them, Williams stays with Riley and continues quarterbacking the Sooners.

He’d still be the OU quarterback now, and with Riley at the controls and Williams on the field, the Sooner offense would be scoring a bazillion points.

The OU defense? Even if it gave up close to a bazillion points, which it likely would be doing with Grinch still at the helm, Riley would have no reason to change course. The Sooners would still be winning.

Carry on.

There’s a good chance the Sooners would’ve won a bunch of games last season, maybe even made the College Football Playoff, instead of suffering through the indignity of a losing season. There’s a good chance they’d be undefeated this season, too.

But consider the differences in style, an offensive juggernaut covering up many sins of a defense versus a more balanced team with a defense rapidly growing teeth and grit and tenacity.

Consider the difference in where OU would be as it stands on the verge of entering the SEC.

Sooners everywhere shudder to think.

USC’s current defensive debacle is a reminder to OU types that Riley’s departure wasn’t all bad. Yes, he snuck out the side door, at least considering the USC job during OU’s season. Sure, he took a bunch of players with him and gutted the roster that was left behind. Absolutely, he made things difficult on the program that gave him his first chance to be a head coach.

But when he took several coaches to USC, Riley did OU a huge favor by getting Grinch out of its hair.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a new head coach would’ve kept Grinch. Venables certainly wouldn’t have; he’s the OU defensive coordinator even if it isn’t on the plaque on his office door. But even if Joe Castiglione had hired Matt Rhule or Shane Beamer or Josh Heupel or any number of other head coaches, there’s a good chance Grinch wouldn’t be in Norman today.

Had Riley stayed, though, Grinch would’ve, too.

Instead, OU now has a defense that is beginning to look SEC-ready. Saturday was evidence of that. Texas has lots of big-time playmakers on offense. Jonathon Brooks. Xavier Worthy. Adonai Mitchell. Gunnar Helm. Quinn Ewers.

OU limited them to two offensive touchdowns.


That’s big-time defense. And the Sooners did it with toughness and aggression and speed and strength and discipline. Even though they weren’t perfect, they hit hard, came up clutch and caused havoc.

USC isn’t doing any of those things consistently right now.

A week ago after Colorado’s big comeback nearly doomed USC, the defense was questioned. Riley and his players defended Grinch. Safety Bryson Shaw even went so far as to say, “We’re letting him down. … He’s putting us in the right spots. We’re not making plays. We’re missing tackles. We’re not doing our job.”

You’d figure after something like that, the Trojans would come back this past week ready to prove a point.

Instead, USC allowed Arizona to score on its first three possessions of the game — field goal, touchdown, touchdown — and then after the Trojans outscored the Wildcats 28-3 over the next two quarters, the USC defense again got porous. It gave up a touchdown on a 10-play, 75-yard drive, then surrendered a two-point conversion to tie the game and ultimately force overtime.

After the game, USC players were again defending the defense. This time it was Williams, who interjected after a question initially asked of Riley.

“We wouldn’t have won that game without the defense,” Williams said. “We were down 17-0. This whole defense thing, our brothers, the score wouldn’t be 43-41 without them. Put it simply that way.”

Riley, who contended the game turned on a first-half interception by his defense, said, “When you go down 17-0, you get tested internally. Your culture gets tested quick. Defense is what got us going.”

(Should we tell them defense is what got them behind 17-0 in the first place?)

The USC defense just shows no signs of noticeable improvement or intestinal fortitude.

Sooner fans, this could’ve been your reality. The struggles. The excuses. The spinning of wheels.

Saturday was a day of great rejoicing in Sooner Nation, but OU fans should be excited about way more than what happened in the shadow of Big Tex. What happened on a November Sunday two years ago continues to look better and better for the crimson and cream, too.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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