MANHATTAN, Kansas — When he was offensive coordinator at East Carolina, Lincoln Riley thought a fast-paced offense was all he needed to succeed.
Tempo was king, he figured back then. Fast, fast, fast. Go, go, go.
And Riley’s ECU offense did finish in the top 12 nationally in plays per game four times in his five seasons. The year before Riley was hired to call plays at Oklahoma, the Pirates ranked fourth nationally at 85.5 plays per game.
But at OU, and particularly as the Sooners’ head coach, Riley has gradually gained an appreciation for slowing things down and taking it easy.
In each of Riley’s five seasons in Norman, the Sooner offense has gotten slower.
- In 2015, OU averaged 77.9 plays per game, 14th nationally.
- In 2016, OU averaged 73.6 plays per game, 44th nationally.
- In 2017, OU averaged 69.9 plays per game, 68th nationally.
- In 2018, OU averaged 66.3 plays per game, 104th nationally.
- And so far in 2019, OU averages 64.1 plays per game, 109th nationally.
A couple of things also factor into this.
First, Riley’s offenses have been historically efficient. Big plays are the norm now, and the Sooners lead the nation in yards per play for the third year in a row. Longer plays mean quicker drives.
And second, opposing offenses are slowing themselves down to try to minimize the number of drives Riley gets to call plays.
But Riley is slowing things down, too. He is now making a concerted effort to be more deliberate with when he chooses to use tempo.
Last week against West Virginia, the Sooners snapped the football a season-low 59 times. Last season, including the outlier against Army (40 snaps), OU ran less than 60 plays three times (54 against Baylor, 58 against Texas). And in 2017, Riley’s offense came in under 60 plays twice (59 against Baylor, 54 against West Virginia).
There were numerous times during last week’s 52-14 victory that Oklahoma got to the offensive line, then just kind of stood around, waiting. It wasn’t the old “check-with-me” scheme OU employed under Landry Jones and others, where the offense would hurry to the line, get ready for the snap, and then all stand up and look at the sideline. It was just … slow. Unhurried. Almost laid back.
“Our snap numbers have been low,” Riley said Saturday. “Most teams have tried to slow down their offenses against us, to try to shorten the game. That’s kind of been the flavor of the month, and we’ve still been making a few big plays.”
It’s likely the Sooners will have a low number this week as they seek their 22nd consecutive road win in a Big 12 game at Kansas State. Chris Klieman’s Wildcats lead the Big 12 Conference in time of possession (34 minutes, 11 seconds).
But the bottom line is clear: Riley is no longer going fast just to go fast. Probably the single greatest consideration for that shift in thinking is his own defense.
If Riley speeds things up offensively, that means more possessions, which means more possessions for the opponent, which means the defense also will face more plays. And a tired defense is an ineffective defense.
Now that Riley has hired his own defensive coordinator in Alex Grinch, he is likely more empathetic to the defense’s cause than he ever was an offensive coordinator.
Last year, Cale Gundy was asked if the Sooners’ quick drives were creating a problem for the defense.
“Well, if you ask Mike Stoops, probably,” Gundy said then. “There’s some times that we score fast and, being in the press box, he just kind of gives us that eye. And it is challenging, obviously, for a defense to go back out there after you have some long drives, when the offense is out there quick, whether you score or whether you go three-and-out. You’ve got to get ready to go again.”
OU hasn’t had more than 80 plays in a game since the 2017-18 Rose Bowl, when the Sooners went double overtime and snapped it 81 times. They also had 81 snaps that season against Texas Tech.
The season-high this year is 69. In 2018, six games exceeded 70 snaps, with a high of 79.
Tempo isn’t dead. But it’s clearly a novelty now, rather than the backbone of the offense.
“Within each game, there are different opportunities for that,” Riley said. “It’s something that crosses my mind. There are times when you need to go fast, too. I’ve just always believed you’ve got to be able to do both. Snap numbers are what they are. We’re still getting plenty of opportunities.”
Bob Stoops and Kevin Wilson changed the landscape in 2008. With Sam Bradford and an offense loaded with future NFL players back from an explosive 2007 season, Stoops in 2008 gave Wilson the green light to go as fast as he possibly could.
Wilson catapulted the Sooner offense from 69.6 plays per game in 2007 (96th in the nation) to 79.5 in 2008 (third nationally).
With Landry Jones as his quarterback in 2009 and 2010, Wilson’s tempo only got faster, averaging 77.2 plays per game in 2009 (sixth nationally) and 86.5 in 2010 (first nationally).
Josh Heupel took over the offense in 2011, and with Jones behind center, OU averaged 80.9 plays per game in 2011 (second nationally) and 77.3 in 2012 (29th nationally).
Things really slowed down in Heupel’s final two years — mediocre quarterback play and an offensive scheme that became amorphously undefined — and the Sooners averaged just 72.5 plays in 2013 (63rd nationally) and 72.5 plays in 2014 (68th).
Then Riley arrived from East Carolina and the tempo returned.
OU ranked 14th in the nation at 81.1 plays per game in 2015, but as Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and now Jalen Hurts have redefined quarterbacking efficiency, OU’s yards-per-game has increased while the Sooners’ plays-per-game has decreased.
Great QBs with big-play threats like Dede Westbrook, Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb, Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Rodney Anderson, Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks have helped limit the Sooners’ number of plays — because guys are getting in the end zone from anywhere on the field.
“Slowing things down only works if you’re doing it well,” Riley said in 2017. “You still, at the end of the day, we’ve still got to move the ball and score points and put our defense in good position offensively. And defensively, we’ve got to get stops, and we’ve got to keep ‘em out of the end zone and we’ve got to limit their big plays.
“So all the strategies in the world, whether it’s going fast or going slow, they all work if you play good.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. 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. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.