Guerin Emig: Kenneth Murray must withstand Georgia run game for OU to win Rose Bowl

December 31, 2017

LOS ANGELES – With so much focus on how Roquan Smith does against Baker Mayfield, we’re forgetting another matchup critical to Monday’s Rose Bowl – how Kenneth Murray does against Nick Chubb.

How Murray, Oklahoma’s freshman middle linebacker, does against Georgia’ vaunted running game.

“I can guarantee you this,” OU linebackers coach Tim Kish said. “For a month we’ve been talking about how there’s no mystery to what’s going to happen Monday.”

“It’s not a secret that they’re going to try to run the ball,” Murray said.

The Bulldogs are going to feed Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift and target one of the youngest players in the College Football Playoff semifinal. They are going to see if Murray can hold up. Whether he does will help determine the fate of OU’s defense.

So how’s it going to be?

“I mean, I have no worry,” said Emmanuel Beal, OU’s weakside linebacker. “There’s a lot ‘K-9’ can do against this team.”

Asked if he was concerned about Murray, All-American edge defender Ogbonnia Okoronkwo flipped the question by saying: “He should be a big concern for Georgia.”

“People aren’t going to mention him as much (as Smith, Georgia’s Butkus Award-winning linebacker) because he’s a freshman,” Okoronkwo said. “But what Kenny does for our defense is big. He’s sideline to sideline. He’s physical. He makes you feel him in the gaps.”

That combination of running and hitting helped Murray become co-Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. It will really help Monday, assuming the moment doesn’t overwhelm him like it did during the season opener four months ago.

“I was way too hyped. ‘Lessgo! Lessgo! Lessgo!’” Murray said. “I go back and watch that game and I’m like, ‘Bro, all the stuff you learned in camp you didn’t even do because you were so excited.’ It was a learning experience.

“I realized I have to calm down, that I’ve gotta make the checks, I’ve gotta make the calls. There’s a lot of people depending on me to do my job.”

This became Murray’s pregame routine the following Saturday at Ohio State: Take the usual Kish-issued quiz, snap on head phones, listen to rap music or some speech by favorite player Ray Lewis, pray and think about the job at hand.

“I know the preparation I do to get there,” Murray said. “Just relax and let the preparation take over.”

Preparation helped Murray get this far. It helped him transition from outside to inside linebacker, a position he never played, last spring after initial options Curtis Bolton (moved to strongside ’backer) and Jon-Michael Terry (got hurt) didn’t pan out.

It helped him become a starter from day one, something even Smith couldn’t pull off at Georgia.

“It’s pretty crazy, stepping into college football right out of high school, 18 years old,” he said when I asked him about Murray the other day. “It’s a huge stage, but prepare yourself the right way and anything is possible.”

Smith said he respects Murray. It is a mutual admiration.

“I watched a couple of Roquan’s games,” Murray said. “I like his game. I look to see if I can get something I can use to get better. I appreciate him a lot.”

For all of the comparison here, the Sooners don’t need Murray to be Smith in the Rose Bowl. He can’t be, for one thing, as Smith is a weakside linebacker, not a middle. Murray playing out of position means he is vacating gaps, taking poor angles and being undisciplined, things OU can’t afford to have happen.

“He just needs to be solid,” Kish said.

“Solid” will take Murray and his defense far against Georgia. And that could take the Sooners into a national championship game.

No pressure, kid.

“I’ve said this a bunch of times,” Murray said. “I’ve got 10 guys on the field that keep me going and keep me in line. When you’ve got 10 around you that can play ball, who you can look to and communicate with, it makes everything easier.

“They’re not asking me to do anything extra, nothing like that. Everything’s the same. Just go out and play great defense, be a leader. That’s what I’m gonna do.”