In a career full of defining moments, Nik Bonitto’s biggest play came in 2019.
After trailing Baylor by 25 points in the first half, the Sooners had fought back to take a 34-31 late in the fourth quarter. Baylor got the ball with 1:45 left in the game to tie or win the game, and the Bears quickly drove down the field into OU territory.
Instead of rushing Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer, Bonitto dropped back into coverage and nearly intercepted Brewer’s pass.
“I was kind of like, ‘Damn, I really dropped the ball on the play before,’” Bonitto said Wednesday. “ (Baylor) was already kind of driving, so I was like ‘Damn, I hope this doesn’t cost us the game.’
Bonitto got his shot at redemption on the next play.
Bonitto faked a blitz again and dropped back into coverage, jumping Brewer’s pass to a receiver near the sidelines. This time he came down with it, sealing the Sooners’ biggest comeback in school history.
For Bonitto, it was a play that helped him feel he belonged in college football.
“It definitely gave me a lot of confidence,” Bonitto said. “Prior to that, I didn’t really make a lot of plays. With that having been a big play in an important moment in an important game, it really helped my confidence that I can really play college football with the best of the best, especially in these big games. I just tried to build off that game and tried to keep going.
“I would definitely say that game is a huge reason why I’m as confident as I am today.”
By that point in the 2019 season, Bonitto had become a regular contributor to the Sooners’ defense, but hadn’t yet developed into one of the best pass rushers in college football. OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said Bonitto’s interception was a key indicator that he could be a playmaker defensively.
“There’s only certain parts of that game where you even want to talk about. That’s one of them,” Grinch said. “I think at that stage in his career, obviously [a] young player, redshirt freshman, rotational guy, [he] was really positioning himself to in some ways be an every-down guy. But as much as anything, [he] was someone that continued to build trust with his teammates... and the coaching staff.
“[It] was not a career-defining play, because he’s made so many since then. But in that moment, that’s exactly what it was.”
The Sooners may need those types of plays on Saturday.
This year’s Baylor squad has committed just nine turnovers, which ranks second in the Big 12. Five of those have come from interceptions, which also ranks second in the conference behind Iowa State.
The Sooners have struggled to force interceptions this season. But they were able to force two in their last outing against Texas Tech, and forcing turnovers will be key against Baylor.
“I think it’s a program-defining stat as we go through the month of November,” Grinch said. “It’s got to be in our favor. The one thing about the bye week and watching college football and the NFL where you’re not wrapped up in your own game, you see how it further emphasizes how critical turnover margin is. As it applies to defense we only have one side of that thing in terms of impact. That’s a major number moving forward.”
Bonitto said he felt a difference in the defense’s energy against Texas Tech, and that’s something they’ll need to continue against Baylor.
“You could just tell that the energy was kind of different that game with the defense,” Bonitto said. “Guys were just flying around and trying to make plays and follow the bottom line. It was just kind of a different feel and a different type of energy that we walked out with.”