(AP) – Oklahoma’s defense has been lights out, especially before halftime.
In their season-opening win against Louisiana Tech, the Sooners allowed three points in the first half – and those came with 4 seconds left in the second quarter. Last Saturday, Oklahoma shut Tulsa out before the break and allowed 95 yards.
The fourth-ranked Sooners have outscored their opponents 62-3 in the first 30 minutes of their two dominant wins. They hope to carry that momentum into their home matchup with SEC member Tennessee on Saturday night.
”Oh yeah,” linebacker Geneo Grissom said. ”It’s a nice SEC matchup. It’s going to be a big game, lot of people there. Hopefully a sellout crowd, so we’re going to come ready.”
The Volunteers’ defense has been impressive as well during a 2-0 start. Tennessee opponents have converted just seven of 31 third-down situations, a remarkable turnaround for a defense that was 90th in the nation (42.5 percent) in that category last season.
”We wanted to be better on third down,” linebacker A.J. Johnson said. ”Pretty much, that’s the money down.”
Vols coach Butch Jones cites the defense’s improved speed and ”the ability to impact the quarterback” as the chief reasons for Tennessee’s third-down turnaround. Although Johnson is the only player on Tennessee’s front seven who started more than three games last season, the Vols are doing a better job of getting to the backfield.
”Our defensive line is getting tremendous pressure up front and just impacting the quarterback,” cornerback Cam Sutton said. ”That makes our jobs easier covering receivers downfield.”
Tennessee has 15 tackles for loss, putting it on pace to shatter last season’s total of 65. It must continue applying that kind of pressure to have a shot against Oklahoma.
”They’re physical,” Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight said. ”Week in and week out, they play in the SEC. They go up against good competition. They have a bunch of guys who can fly around. It’s going to be a challenge for us. We look forward to it.”
Knight and his teammates know the Big 12-vs.-SEC matchup will be a hot topic prior to this game, largely because of his coach’s vocal disdain for the conference that won seven of the last eight BCS titles.
Bob Stoops has criticized the SEC as far back as the spring of 2013, when he called some of the stories about the league’s supremacy ”propaganda.” He had little to go on because his Sooners had lost three straight against SEC opponents and had just been routed by Johnny Manziel and SEC member Texas A&M 41-13 in the Cotton Bowl.
Stoops got some ammunition when Oklahoma stunned Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl and took significant momentum into the offseason. This past summer, Stoops took exception to Alabama coach Nick Saban’s comment that the Sugar Bowl was a consolation game. On Oklahoma’s media day, when asked about his initial response to Saban, he replied: ”Oh, get over it. Again, where am I lying?”
”We all know coach Stoops’ feelings about the SEC,” Grissom said. ”As his guys, we’re 100 percent behind him. We’re going to make sure we help him out there and make a statement in that aspect.”
While Stoops isn’t necessarily a fan of the SEC’s hype, he’s fine with Jones and Tennessee.
”We’ve got respect for the program,” Stoops said. ”The coach is getting in their second season now. They’re a better football team than they were a year ago. They’ve recruited really well in the last couple of years. They’re 2-0, and they’ve looked really good to this point.”
The players know that the game is important because of the matchup of the conferences, but they also say they need to focus on themselves to be at their best so they can make the right impression.
”These are the games that most people are going to sit down and watch,” Grissom said.
All eyes will be on Knight and Sterling Shepard when the Sooners have the ball. The sophomore QB went 21 of 34 for 299 yards in last week’s 52-7 win at Tulsa, throwing one of his two touchdowns to Shepard.
The junior finished with eight catches for 177 yards and seems to be breaking out after producing 14 catches for 175 yards and a score in last season’s final two games, a win at Oklahoma State and the Sugar Bowl stunner of the Crimson Tide.
“I’m really excited about Sterling and what he’s been doing,” Stoops said. “He’s just a really explosive player.”
This is the first regular-season meeting between Tennessee and Oklahoma. The teams have split a pair of Orange Bowls, with the Volunteers winning in 1939 and the Sooners winning in 1968.