NORMAN — So Lincoln Riley doesn’t have record-setting running backs and award-winning receivers to move the football anymore? So what?
Fact is, Riley might actually be a better play-caller without all that NFL talent needing the ball.
He showed that on Saturday night at Ohio State, a monumental 31-16 victory over the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium.
Now it’s the Sooners who are ranked No. 2, taking the Buckeyes’ spot in the polls as well as their spot in the center of The Horseshoe.
Baker Mayfield and his flag-planting antics got all the postgame attention, but it was Riley’s offensive wizardry that was at the center of the upset. He was masterful at calling the plays that made Ohio State’s defense look like chumps, but Riley’s preparation and planning well before kickoff was on display as well.
The Sooners moved the football on all but one of their 11 possessions. Whatever Ohio State did to counter, Oklahoma counter-countered. If not for a handful of early miscues, it would have been a wire-to-wire blowout.
Without a Joe Mixon or Samaje Perine to key on in the backfield, without rolling extra coverage to Dede Westbrook, Ohio State’s defense had no clue who would get the ball and, well, isn’t that what offensive football is supposed to be? Wherever the Buckeye defense was at its weakest, Riley sent some player, any player, with the football.
“We try to,” Riley said. “Wherever there’s a weakness, we’re just try to fit what our personnel can do.”
Riley, for one night at least, made a star out of fullback Dimitri Flowers.
On a running down, with Flowers and a running back in the backfield with him, Baker Mayfield faked handoffs to the right and threw to Flowers on the left. Flowers finished with a career-high seven catches for 98 yards and a touchdown, but the ball literally went everywhere. Seven players carried the football, and nine caught it.
During his weekly press conference on Monday, Riley revealed a couple of offensive secrets that may offer just a tiny peek inside his genius.
For one, Mike Leach’s famously tiny play-sheet, supposedly the size of an index card, is actually a full sheet of 8 x 11 paper that’s been strategically folded.
“It’s a notebook piece of paper,” Riley said. “Everybody always thought his was just that size. Nobody ever realized we always folded it a certain way. He would never tell anybody, too. I think he liked the thought it was only this size. He thought it psyched out people maybe a little bit. I’ve just kind of learned. I do it like he does it. You fold it a certain way so in any situation you kind of know where those are. And you just flip right through it.”
Secondly, while Riley isn’t going to tell what goes on the play sheet, he admitted he does worry about it being too much, and he offered the methodology by which it is constructed.
“When we game-plan, it takes us about 10 minutes to get all of our good ideas up there, and then it takes us about that many hours to get it narrowed down to something we feel like is manageable,” Riley said. “The good ideas aren’t hard. It’s how can you practice it? Whittling it down enough to where you feel comfortable enough that the guys can get it and you can work it. That’s the thing that drives us crazy, but it’s necessary.”
Jordan Smallwood is a little-used senior receiver, but he scored a rushing touchdown on a reverse at Ohio State. Lee Morris is a walk-on wide receiver — “he may not be a walk-on much longer,” Riley said Saturday night — who scored his second TD against the Buckeyes. Trey Sermon, a true freshman, was the Sooners’ fourth running back to start the season, but he caught the clinching touchdown pass from Mayfield inside The ’Shoe. Mykel Jones caught a 43-yard pass on the Sooners’ go-ahead drive in the third quarter. Grant Calcaterra filled in for injured Mark Andrews and, after dropping a ball, bounced back with a 21-yard reception. Backup QB Kyler Murray handed off to Sermon, then trailed him and caught an option pitch from Sermon for a 9-yard gain.
How is any defense supposed to stop that kind of unpredictability?
Riley’s offense has obvious roots in Leach’s Air Raid spread, but he’s also incorporated bits and pieces of concepts he’s picked up from other offenses over the years. Leach never used a fullback or had much time for tight ends.
“We’re definitely open to new ideas,” Riley said. “We look at new things. Sometimes it’s things that we as a staff come up with. Sometimes it’s drawn from something else we saw. But again, you’ve gotta make it fit. You’ve gotta be able to practice it. It’s not as easy as, ‘Oh, we saw this really good play that someone else ran. Let’s put this in.’ Because you’ve gotta know the adjustments. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
One of those adjustments is Flowers.
When Mixon was suspended and Perine was injured last year at Iowa State, Flowers shifted over to the feature back and rushed 22 times for 115 yards. Flowers also steps up to play tight end. And steps out to play H-back. And steps back to play fullback.
“I’m just doing whatever is asked,” Flowers said. “Whatever Coach Riley wants me to do, I’m going to do to the best of my ability.”
Flowers is big enough (6-2, 247) and fast enough, but he’s also nimble-footed and has supple receiving hands.
“He’s huge,” Mayfield said. “It’s good to see Dimitri get that role because like we always say, he’s an unsung hero. Along with the linemen, they don’t get a lot of credit, but it’s good to have him. He’s such a utility guy. He can be in the blocking schemes. We can slip him out because he can catch like a receiver and he runs well. It makes it very dangerous to have that kind of guy who can do that.”
Riley said Flowers had some concerns when Riley got to Norman in 2015 because his offenses at Texas Tech and East Carolina almost never used a fullback.
“Yeah, I think it’s evolved a little bit,” Riley said. “The first part of it was seeing kind of what he could do and then as that’s evolved and the rest of the offense has evolved, we’ve been able to fit it so that it not only fits for him personally, but it fits within the whole system and the whole way that we’re trying to attack people.”
Once Riley saw Flowers’ skill set, instead of a run-of-the-mill fullback, Riley thought outside the box and let Flowers develop into a Swiss Army Knife.
Why don’t more teams use the fullback like that?
“I don’t know,” Riley said. “There’s not a lot of guys like him would probably be the biggest answer for me and that’s, again, a guy that’s got to be able physically to do so many things well. And then the underrated aspect of it is how much mentally a guy like that has to be able to handle. Again, most players are only capable of playing one or maybe one-and-a-half to two positions, most players. For a guy like him, you’re talking about, he’s got to really be ready to play four (positions) and that’s hard to do.
“If we didn’t have a guy like Dimitri Flowers, we wouldn’t be doing a lot of that stuff.”
It’s quite the contrast from an offense that last year featured NFL talent.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.