COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lincoln Riley flitted around, almost like the late Jim Valvano, desperate for someone to embrace.
Hey, the man needed a hug.
Riley, four days after his 34th birthday, had just whooped up on mighty Ohio State, 31-16, in his very first road game as Oklahoma’s head coach.
A walk-on defensive back. The linebackers coach. A backup defensive end. The defensive line coach. A freshman receiver. The receivers coach. The quarterback. One by one, they all grabbed onto Riley as if they didn’t intend to let go.
How appropriate. Attaching oneself to Lincoln Riley these days seems like a pretty good way to get ahead in life.
Eventually, Riley sprinted over to the northeast corner of Ohio Stadium, exhorting Sooner Nation to cheer more, cheer louder, to fully embrace the moment, high-fiving as many as he could.
“It was emotional,” Riley said. “Games like this are tough. You go on the road against a top-five team and a team that’s as talented and as well coached as Ohio State is, you know, they’re tough. And this team, we’ve been looking forward to this game, there’s no question about it.”
Finally, after a dozen more sweaty hugs, Riley found the one that mattered most: his wife Caitlin. They embraced, then began the walk out of the Horseshoe arm in arm. Only, she stopped to give Dimitri Flowers, the Sooners’ star fullback (how rare are those?), a big hug, and her husband inadvertently plowed on through the humanity to more OU fans in the stands.
He lost her.
Then he realized what happened, and he spun and found Caitlin again, tears in her eyes, and this time they made it out together.
“Yeah, it’s special,” Riley said. “Wins like this, on the road, are the most special to me. There’s no doubt about that. I love playing on the road. I love competing in venues like this. And Ohio State, their fan base is to be applauded. Shoot, it was a great atmosphere, great college football game. So to be able to come in here and win is very special.”
This game was won — dominated, really — by super spy Baker Mayfield, ever evasive, impossible to catch, clever, resourceful and just plain better than you in every way. Mayfield, Double-Oh-Six, wasn’t shaken or stirred against the game’s best defensive front. He kept every play alive, just long enough, it seems, to throw for 386 yards and three touchdowns. It was Mayfield’s finest moment at OU, maybe ever, and legitimately puts him in the argument for greatest OU quarterback ever.
“He’s a guy, we all feed off of him,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “Every one of us, coaches players. Never seen a guy like him. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in America.”
Mayfield lost his top target, Mark Andrews, and then made stars out of guys like Flowers, Mykel Jones, Lee Morris and Trey Sermon.
And yet it was Stoops’ defensive unit that may have stole Mayfield’s spotlight, if only for a bit.
“That’s the story tonight,” Riley said, “is how well our defense played.”
Stoops, that sneaky son of a gun, preached all spring and all offseason and all preseason about how the Sooners were switching back to a more traditional four-man defensive front, and everyone bought it. In last week’s 56-7 warmup victory over UTEP, Stoops lined his players up in what by all accounts was a four-man front.
But then this week against the Buckeyes, the Sooners played a whole lot of three-man front.
“They kind of thrive off of four-man fronts, and we kind of played into their hands a year ago,” Stoops said. “And I appreciate all you guys telling everyone we’d be in a four-man front, so maybe they weren’t quite ready for it.”
Stoops’ defense sacked quarterback J.T. Barrett three times, held him to a .543 completion percentage, and yielded a manageable 167 rushing yards. OU also intercepted Barrett once (first-time starter Parnell Motley nearly got his second pick in the final minutes, but it was ruled incomplete), and didn’t miss many tackles.
Think about it. It was Lincoln Riley’s first road game as a head coach, and he was matching wits with Urban Meyer, owner of three national championships and widely regarded as college football coaching’s silver medalist to Alabama’s Nick Saban. On Meyer’s payroll are former Sooner offensive coordinator and Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano.
And Riley and Stoops and the Sooner staff took them all to the woodshed.
“We did execute well,” Mayfield said, “but that’s 100 percent on those coaches getting us ready.”
Bob Stoops’ retirement in June might have been a significant hurdle, but Saturday’s result could be an indication that Stoops did indeed leave at just the right time — for himself and for everyone in the OU program.
Stoops did make a semi-annual ritual out of beating quality non-conference opponents on the road, from Alabama to Florida State to Notre Dame to Tennessee. Those are all snake pits, and Stoops was unfazed. He built this team’s mindset into what it is: a team that has won 12 consecutive games since losing the Buckeyes last year (longest win streak in the nation) and 12 consecutive road games (Mayfield is now 10-0 on the road as OU’s starting QB).
Riley seems to get the most out of these players. He seems to have an ability to make them believe in themselves and each other.
Maybe OU beats Ohio State if Stoops is still coaching the Sooners. But maybe not. Ohio State was the highest-ranked opponent the Sooners have defeated on the road since beating No. 2 Kansas State during Stoops’ magical Red October run on his way to the 2000 national championship. And Manhattan is no Columbus. Before that, OU’s last road victory over a top-two opponent was 1987 at No. 1 Nebraska.
In non-conference games, OU hadn’t beaten a No. 1- or 2-ranked team in a true road game since 1963, when Bud Wilkinson’s final team took down No. 1 USC.
Not Fairbanks, not Switzer, not Stoops. None of them went on the road in September and defeated a top-two opponent.
But Lincoln Riley did it in his very first try.
“We should have won by a lot more,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield is right. OU’s offense lost two fumbles, missed a field goal and was stopped on fourth down in the first half.
But the second half, Mayfield directed touchdowns on four of the Sooners’ five possessions.
When it was over, it was Mayfield who seized the giant crimson “OU” flag from the Ruf/Neks, unfurled it and sprinted around the edge of the stadium. He eventually planted it in the grass as if he had just beaten Texas in the Cotton Bowl. He said that was only partly premeditated.
“Uh, it was a last-minute decision,” Mayfield said. “I was planning on something, but I didn’t know what it was.”
And when the celebration had abated, Riley continued a perfect night with a perfect comment to his team.
“I told them in there, ‘We’ll be disappointed if this is the highlight of our season,’ ” Riley said.
“We’ve got a long ways to go. We’ve only played two games. We’ve got a long ways to go but, obviously, a great win and one that’s very special to us.”
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.