NORMAN — The greatest superlative of Bob Stoops’ illustrious career at the University of Oklahoma is that in 18 seasons, he won 10 Big 12 Conference championship trophies and yet lost only nine home games.
One of each of those, a crown and a calamity, happened last season. The loss, 45-24, came against the Ohio State Buckeyes, and it was a bad one.
“We’ve never been here for a team to sing their fight song on our field,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said on Monday morning. “Quite frankly, it’s just embarrassing. It’s embarrassing.
“We let down our fans, our coaches and everybody that supports our program to allow them to sing ‘O-H-I-O’ on our field. And their fans were louder than ours, and rightfully so. They had more reason to be louder. But, it’s a different year.”
It is a different year. The Sooners in 2017 seem equipped to start fast than the Sooners in 2016. And at the forefront of that, Mayfield himself seems more in control of his mercurial persona, more mature and more poised.
“He’s in a different place right now,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “… He’s just in a different place mentally than he was at the beginning of the season last year.”
Sooner Nation hopes a different Mayfield and different Sooner squad are enough to manufacture an upset on Saturday night in Columbus. OU opened the week as a 9-point underdog, according to VegasInsider.com, and the line quickly moved to as low as 5 ½. It currently sits at 7 ½.
The game is being billed as Mayfield versus Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett, a memorable matchup of elite senior QBs. But it likely will be decided in the trenches. Oklahoma brings arguably college football’s best offensive line against what might be the game’s best front seven.
“Regardless of how the game turned out last year, regardless of who won or lost, this is one of those games that both teams are gonna be excited to go out and play,” Riley said. “It’s gonna be a great college football environment with both teams going at it.
“We’ll certainly have to go up there and play well, which we expect to do.”
How much of that will be on Mayfield? When he has played in a game with any kind of big buildup or personal grudge, he has frequently hyperventilated in the moment and, well, played poorly.
“I think he was trying to do too much offensively,” Riley said, “and on the leadership side of it, a little bit of the same, kind of taking it all on his shoulders. When you’re a competitor like he is, sometimes that’s not easy to do. But he’s done a good job so far resisting temptation and he’ll have to do the same Saturday.”
Mayfield said last year’s loss to the Buckeyes helped him grow as a player and as a leader. He also said the mindset that drove him to make a post-Ohio State guarantee that the Sooners would win the Big 12 Conference continues to drive him today.
“I think it was a huge learning curve for me, losing that game and watching the film and realizing I didn’t play well at all,” he said. “ … It was a great learning tool for me. That showed with the rest of my play last year. I think I carried that same mindset into this year. I’m not going to change anything up.
“It’s been about having a clear picture, having that focused mindset about doing my job. The best thing that I can do is do my job and push others to keep up their level of execution with what I’m doing. That’s how I’ve been leading. I’ve always been a fiery guy. They’ll see my emotion, there’s no question about that. But the best thing for my teammates to see is I’ve got to do every little detail right. I’ve got to treat it the same way.”
Riley said he can’t remember the last time he felt the need to calm Mayfield down, but said “it’s been a while. … Probably his sophomore year.”
OU fans will remember Mayfield maybe not showing complete trust in his teammates during last year’s season-opening loss at Houston. That carried over to the Ohio State game.
“I think the trust in the guys around him right now is a little bit higher,” Riley said. “I think he learned a lot, not just from this game but the beginning of the last few seasons. I think he’s a little bit more mature and a little bit more ready to handle this.”
OU’s last loss in a true road game happened at TCU in 2014, before Mayfield became the starting quarterback. In his two seasons, Mayfield is 9-0 on the road, including wins at Tennessee, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia.
Saturday will feel more like that raucous night in Knoxville than the others, although these Buckeyes are way better than those Volunteers. How will Mayfield respond? Will he bear the weight of Sooner Nation on his shoulder pads, or will he just handle his own business and let his teammates handle theirs?
“That’s the thing in big games like this,” Mayfield said. “You get on a big stage and you think you have to do too much. In reality, you have to trust the guy next to you to do his job and you’ve got to do yours. Everybody’s counting on each other to do that and executing.
“Yeah, it’s a big game. It’s one of the bigger ones in the year for us. But you can’t treat it any differently. That’s going to help me, my mindset, treating it like any other game and realizing I’ve just gotta do my job.”
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.