NORMAN — Lincoln Riley clearly remembers one major hangup from his two seasons as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator.
Not coincidentally, the same phenomenon haunted Baker Mayfield in his first two seasons as the Sooners’ starting quarterback.
Two years ago, in what became a 41-3 victory over Akron, OU punted on five of its first six possessions, kicked a field goal on the other and didn’t get into the end zone until the middle of the second quarter. Then the Sooners fell into a 17-3 deficit at Tennessee before pulling off an impossible rally. Then came a painfully sluggish beginning against Texas that led to an inexplicable loss. Things seemed mostly fixed by midseason of what became a Big 12 Conference championship campaign, but it resurfaced again in OU’s College Football Playoff loss to Clemson.
Then last year, OU led 10-3 in the first quarter but tripped all over itself repeatedly in an opening day loss to Houston. That theme continued two weeks later in a 21-point loss to Ohio State. Another slow start nearly doomed OU against TCU, but the Sooners rallied for a dramatic victory. Again, it seemed the problems were solved by midseason, but by then it was too late. Any playoff hope was gone, and the only prize left for Oklahoma was another trophy against a weak Big 12 Conference.
On Saturday, the Sooners opened 2017 by routing UTEP 56-7, and although the defense allowed an easy touchdown drive to start the game, the OU offense scored five touchdowns on their first six drives and ended with eight TDs in 11 possessions.
“Probably the biggest thing is it was fun to see this team get off to a great start, which has been a — not a rallying cry, but has been a very big point of emphasis with this group. We’ve really taken it personally the way we’ve played the last few years, early in the year. We know this is just one game, but it’s a good start.”
That early urgency was paramount for the Sooners, who travel to No. 2-ranked Ohio State this week.
Yeah, that Ohio State.
“We broke from camp and spent a day on UTEP and spent two or three extra days on just Ohio State,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “Going through what we did a year ago, it was, obviously, a poorly played game on our part and poorly coached in a lot of different ways. We’re gonna have to drastically improve against a physical, fast, explosive football team. Every facet of your team is gonna get put on display. We’re gonna have to play a helluva lot better than we played a year ago.”
“It’s definitely probably one that’s been circled on each person’s and each team’s schedule,” said offensive tackle Orlando Brown. “I think Ohio State knows what they have to prove and we know what we have to prove, so it’s really exciting.”
Starting fast against UTEP was on the to-do list all offseason, not just since Bob Stoops unexpectedly announced his retirement on June 7. But with the Buckeyes up next, it became Job One.
“It’s huge,” Mayfield said. “That’s why this week, starting fast was such an emphasis for us. You can build confidence with how many young guys we had playing on the field right now. We did have a lot of leadership, but today was very important for young guys to get that first one under their belt and carry into next week. Obviously, it’s gonna be a big one.”
Kickoff is 6:30 p.m. CT at The Horseshoe in Columbus.
“Big game, man. It’s a big game,” said OU wideout Jeff Badet, the Kentucky transfer. “If you really want to be known and be in the next level, this is a game that you get excited for.
“That’s a game that’s really going to dictate how our season’s going to go and all that. We’ve just got to attack this week.”
Mayfield, who completed 19-of-20 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns against UTEP, might have needed a fast start on Saturday for his own peace of mind. He got off to rough starts in almost each all of the above-mentioned games:
- Against Akron in 2015, on his first six possessions in a Sooner uniform, Mayfield completed just 6-of-12 passes and was sacked twice.
- Through three quarters at Tennessee, Mayfield completed just 8-of-25 passes for 84 with two interceptions.
- In his first Red River Rivalry, Mayfield’s first four drives produced zero points and he hit 4-of-7 passes for 27 yards and was sacked three times.
- Mayfield’s early stats were great last year at Houston. He completed 9-of-9 for 162 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but he admitted to being uncomfortable and impatient early, leaving the pocket too often for ineffective rush attempts (five carries for 14 yards).
- On his first three drives against Ohio State, he completed just 4-of-10 passes and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
- OU trailed TCU 21-7 as Mayfield started 1-for-4 for 7 yards with a sack on the Sooners’ first four possessions.
Of course, doing it against UTEP and doing it against Ohio State are two different things.
In five of those six games, Mayfield was probably too excited to be an efficient quarterback early on, and his team suffered for it: his first start at OU, a road game at Neyland Stadium, his first game against Texas as a Sooner, a home game against playoff contender Ohio State and something of a personal grudge against TCU coach Gary Patterson.
Mayfield is a little older now, a little more mature, and his role is to be a leader and help the younger, less experienced players on his team walk a fine line between embracing how much better this week’s opponent will be than UTEP and not psyching themselves out so much they can’t perform.
“I think the film will speak for itself,” Mayfield said. “We’ve talked so much about the situation. I think during camp we talked so much about how we need to handle situations like the one we’re gonna have next week.
“I think Orlando and I and the coaching staff all hit on it, the fact that, in your big games, the worst thing you want to do is psyche yourself out. You still want to go out there and do your job and play football. Doesn’t matter who’s in front of you, if you’re playing a little league team or if you’re playing the Patriots, you’ve got to go try and do your job and do it at a high level. So that’s the focus and that’s what we’re gonna try to do this week.”
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.