NORMAN — As he walked off Owen Field two years ago having tasted defeat for the first time as a head coach, Lincoln Riley was changed.
Riley won his first four games in his debut season replacing Bob Stoops. OU crushed UTEP, then stunned Ohio State in Columbus, then demolished Tulane. In Big 12 Conference play, Baylor put a 48-41 scare into the Sooners.
Then came Iowa State: a 38-31 defeat. Las Vegas oddsmakers favored Oklahoma to win by 30 points, but second-year Cyclones coach Matt Campbell shocked the world by ending OU’s 14-game winning streak and beating the Sooners in Norman for just the second time in 58 years.
In the aftermath, Riley took time for some self-reflection.
“Yeah,” Riley said Monday, “it was a different experience.”
Riley said last week after losing at Kansas State that losing is not something anyone at Oklahoma will ever get used to.
“Every loss at OU is shocking,” he said again this week. “It hits you different. It hits you hard.”
As the Cyclones come to Norman again this week, it’s important the Sooners to remember recent history. Riley got his team to bounce back that season by winning their last seven games, securing a third consecutive Big 12 championship and earning their second berth in the College Football Playoff.
The same thing happened last season: a midseason loss to Texas didn’t do much to diminish a six-game winning streak to end the regular season, a fourth straight Big 12 title and a third CFP trip in four years.
“If you judge by that team that year, we handled it pretty darn good, as we have,” Riley said. “We haven’t had many losses around here in the last few years, but we’ve handled most of ‘em pretty well, I think.”
What’s different this year is that November is already here. The best OU can do this year is a four-game winning streak and another Big 12 title, then hope for chaos elsewhere to return to the playoff.
Riley isn’t the same coach he was going into that Iowa State game two years ago.
“Just have gone through a lot more. A lot more experiences,” he said. “There’s not as much new. Every team is new in a sense, but you can relate these situations back to other ones that you’ve been in.”
What was new that day was Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s defensive scheme. The Cyclones rushed three linemen, dropped eight players into coverage and made Baker Mayfield hesitate and second-guess himself. Mayfield wasn’t necessarily confused, but he frequently didn’t know where to go with the football. Mayfield finished 24-of-33 for 306 yards and two touchdowns.
OU jumped out to a 14-0 lead, led 24-13 at halftime and scored only one touchdown in the second half. The Sooner defense, meanwhile, made fifth-year journeyman quarterback Kyle Kempt look like a Pro Bowler. Kempt actually outdueled his Heisman-winning counterpart, completing 18-of-24 for 343 yards and three TDs.
What came later was fine, but what happened that day was eye-opening.
Now the Sooners are trying to rally again after a shocking loss at Kansas State. OU was a 24-point favorite on Oct. 26 in Manhattan but lost 48-41.
Even the scores aren’t much different.
“The opportunities after it are no different either,” Riley said. “It’s a chance for us to really rally as a team. We know the opportunities that are in front of us. We know what we can do if we play our style of ball and play to the level that we expect regardless of what the expectations are on the outside.
“But you can’t get caught up in — like I told the team — just because we’ve done this before, rallied from a loss and had championship seasons, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It means we know it’s possible. We know what the blueprint is to do it. But we have to go put it in action.
“The things we didn’t do well a week ago, the areas we have to improve, everybody’s got to make a conscious effort to do that. And then we’ve got to be able to sustain that throughout the rest of this run.”
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.