NORMAN â€” The reasons for a late-season surge by the Oklahoma defense are many.
Better focus. Better tackling. Better health.
But right up there with any of those is the return of a healthy Austin Box, who has given the Sooner defense a shot in the arm with his play at middle linebacker going into Saturday's Big 12 Championship bout with Nebraska.
â€œI really feel like he's part of the reason we've started hitting our stride on defense,â€ said All-American safety Quinton Carter. â€œHe's played a huge factor on the defense. He's bringing a whole of energy. ... he's everywhere making plays.â€
Since regaining his starting spot three games ago, Box has been everywhere for Brent Venables' defense.
In OU's 45-7 win over Texas Tech, he made seven tackles.
In the first quarter at Baylor, Box stuffed running back Jay Finley on fourth-and-1 to set up a short field for the offense and ignite the Sooners' 53-24 rout.
Then last weekend, Box saved what might have been the finest performance of his career for Oklahoma State. He collected a team-high eight tackles, unloaded a couple of big hits on quarterback Brandon Weeden, then came up with a diving interception off a tipped ball in the fourth quarter that put the Sooners up by two scores.
â€œHe was one of the players of the game, that says it all,â€ said linebacker Travis Lewis. â€œThe guy is huge. He's a playmaker, and when he's healthy and on the field, he's one of the best players on our defense.â€
Getting on the field, and then sticking there, has always been the biggest hurdle for the former Enid High School standout. Knee and elbow injuries plagued his first two seasons. Then this preseason, when it seemed like he'd finally overcome them, Box endured another setback, this time a back pain that wouldn't subside without rest, forcing him to sit out the first five games of the season while thrusting inexperienced freshman Tom Wort in the starting lineup.