Lincoln Riley, a 34-year-old offensive genius in just his second season as a head coach, showed Friday how much he’s grown in a year’s time.
When Riley, up 59-56, ordered Kyler Murray to stay on the field on fourth down late in a tense game at West Virginia, he showed that the painful lessons learned from last season have stayed with him.
Kudos to Riley for bucking convention, for not punting with the game on the line, for recognizing that it was Murray, his superman quarterback, who was more likely to beat the Mountaineers than it was his struggling defense.
It’s a lesson Riley learned the hard way in last year’s Rose Bowl, a 54-48 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Georgia.
Last year, instead of putting the game in Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield’s hands, Riley leaned on a hundred years of football tradition — punt the football away on fourth down and let your defense make a stop — and it blew up in his face.
This time, Riley never hesitated.
The trust he put in Murray was the same trust he should have (and no doubt wishes he would have) put in Mayfield last year in Pasadena.
This time, on fourth down from the WVU 40, with 2:36 to play in the game, Riley was bold, daring — and not about to make the same mistake twice.
“At that point, I’m right there with him,” Murray said Friday night in Morgantown. “Can’t play hesitant, can’t play scared. He had the trust in me to call the play, and I’m really confident in myself. I think that showed. I can’t ask for much more. It was fun.”
“Just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Riley said. “There was enough time, and with us having three timeouts, just the way the game’s going, I just didn’t want to give ‘em the ball back. And I felt like we had a great chance to get it.
“And then also thinking, if for some reason we don’t get it, we’ve got some timeouts to use. If we hold ‘em, we’re good, if they score, we can use some timeouts throughout the drive to give us some time to get the ball back.
“I wanted us to be the last ones with the ball, either way, and that was the only way to guarantee it.”
The play, of course, will go down in Sooner lore: Murray took a short dropback, surveyed the field, patted the ball, bounced in the pocket, then scrambled to his left. There, he found that CeeDee Lamb had created just enough separation, and Murray zipped a low ball for which Lamb made a sliding catch on the sideline.
Eight-yard gain, first down Sooners, and game over.
“We knew it was either gonna be drop eight (defenders in coverage) or they were gonna bring the house (on a blitz),” Murray said. “The look, they ended up dropping eight. So I kinda knew, if my first read wasn’t there, we knew we were gonna have to make a play.
“Coach Riley had the trust in me and the trust in the guys to go for it and win the game. We knew the situation: you make a first down, the game is over. First read wasn’t there, it just comes down to making a play, and luckily we ended up making a play. CeeDee made a great catch.”
Said Riley, “He was awesome. Big moment, big atmosphere.”
It wasn’t bigger than the Rose Bowl, of course. On that night, nursing a 45-38 lead after Steven Parker’s fumble return touchdown, Riley got conservative late in the game.
Taking over at the OU 23 with 5:16 left, Riley called for a handoff to Rodney Anderson. On second-and-5 from the 28, he called a no-risk Baker Mayfield option pass, on which Mayfield kept for 2 yards. And on third-and-3 from the 30, he called for another handoff to Anderson that was stuffed for no gain. Then, on fourth-and-5 — again, from his own 30, so quite a different situation than the one in Morgantown, even with as bad as last year’s defense was — Riley opted to punt.
Georgia went 59 yards in seven plays to tie the game with just 59 seconds to play.
On OU’s next possession, starting at his own 25 and with time running out, Riley was just a bit less conservative but still played it safe, opting for runs and low-risk throws and settling for overtime.
Then in the first overtime, Riley called for a ultra-safe end around handoff to Jordan Smallwood on third-and-2, and then, on fourth-and-1, settled for a field goal.
A couple more conservative (and curious) plays in the second overtime set up a fourth-and-5, and Austin Seibert’s field goal attempt was blocked, setting up Georgia’s win two plays later.
The lessons Riley learned in last year’s Rose Bowl were clear, though he is wisely careful to avoid the topic: instead of trusting his defense to get a stop, he now trusts his quarterback to make a play.
Maybe that will come to bear this week at AT&T Stadium when the Sooners rematch with Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Riley’s confidence — in his offense and in his quarterback — is one of this team’s greatest strengths. The Sooner defense did produce two touchdowns on Friday night, but they also gave up 704 yards, 33 first downs and 56 points.
On Oct. 6 in Dallas, the same defense — albeit under its previous coordinator, Mike Stoops — gave up 501 yards, 27 first downs and 48 points, including the game-winning field goal with nine seconds left in a 48-45 Texas win.
To change that outcome in Arlington, Riley may have to be bold once more.
As disappointing as that day was for the Sooners, they have shown more than just elite offensive talent in the weeks since. They’ve shown some grit, some toughness, and yes, some confidence. Because of that, a fourth consecutive Big 12 Conference championship is on the table.
“The setback we had a few weeks ago,” Riley said, “all that we’ve gone through, to fight, scratch and claw to get back to this point, to be sitting here 11-1, just beating a really good team on their senior night, with every goal still in front of us — what more could you ask for?
“One huge goal we set out was we want to be the only team ever to win four of these in a row, and even with all the other great OU teams, nobody’s ever done that (in the Big 12 era; Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson’s teams won 14 straight Big Six and Big Seven titles from 1946-59, and Chuck Fairbanks and Barry Switzer won nine straight Big Eight crowns from 1972-80 and later won four in a row from 1984-87.)
“There’s a lot of history on the line, things that are meaningful to us because the history of our program is important to us. When you have a chance to make history around here, then you’re doing something pretty special.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. 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 also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.