NORMAN — So, how to lose to your rival and fire a Stoops and pick up the pieces and move forward and play your next football game?
Believe it or not, it sounds like Lincoln Riley and the Oklahoma Sooners have all the answers. At least, they’re certainly working on them.
At the halfway point of the college football season, after losing 48-45 to Texas, OU got a perfectly-timed open date, got a few days off, got a few players healthy, and hey, got a new defensive coordinator in Ruffin McNeill — and, presumably, that “different voice” and “little spark” that Riley wanted when he fired Mike Stoops.
“Yeah, (the players) had a good mentality all week,” Riley said. “Where does that stem from? Probably a little bit of all of it. I think for us it’s just about kind of chasing and fighting to get a point where we know we’re capable of and doing it more consistently. I think everybody’s got that sense of urgency. Does a new voice help? Probably some. Is part of it just having not played to the level we want to play defensively? The challenge of putting in the work to get to that point? I think there’s some inner challenges happening, too, and there better be.
“I thought we responded great. I thought the staff came together with a little bit different setup now, and really organized, really working well together. Our players had a good week of practice. So it’s just a start. It’s going to be a process. Obviously, a very important part of it this week against TCU to gain some momentum. But I think our players have had a good mindset and they’ve rallied behind the staff and behind our leaders.”
The Sooners visit the Horned Frogs this Saturday in Fort Worth. With two weeks between games, Riley’s message to the players has been one of reflection.
“I told the guys in the locker room after the Texas game that we all had to look in the mirror, that we all had to be willing to do whatever (is) necessary to play the way we’re capable of, and that starts with me,” he said. “If I’m not willing to do that, whether it’s end of the season (or) mid-season, then I’m not doing my job.”
The reality is that No. 9-ranked Oklahoma (5-1) is still in the hunt for a Big 12 championship, still in the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff (though the Sooners likely will need a little help with the latter). Riley said last week that with so much still in front of them, he wanted to maximize the team’s potential over the next 6-7 weeks. That’s why the change became necessary.
And, Riley said, whether Sooner Nation believes it or not, there is good reason for hope. Remember OU’s last two playoff teams unexpectedly lost as well and got their act together and persevered.
“There’s so many things that we have done well,” Riley said. “It’s not like the sky is falling. We’re not far off. We weren’t far off with Mike running it. I don’t think we’re far off with the changes we made now. But we’re all fighting to just kind of get over that hump right now. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s very clear to all of us within those walls. And very clear that if we can just make strides in a few key areas, we can be a very good defense and be a championship defense like we’ve been the last several years.”
It starts with accountability on everyone’s part. Cornerback Tre Norwood, for instance, said he agrees “100 percent” with the notion that players were responsible for Stoops’ firing.
“People can point fingers all they want to,” Norwood said, “but at the end of the day, you have to look at yourself and fix the mistakes you made. That’s where accountability does come into play. It’s solely more on us because we’re the ones that have to make the plays and are on the field. We have to take advantage of the opportunities that are there and capitalize on everything. I do feel like that it is important for everybody to take accountability for everything. It’s a whole thing, not just one person.”
So does having a different defensive coordinator automatically mean players will suddenly tackle better and cover better and play better defense?
“Honestly, the answer to that question is no,” Norwood said. “Those are things that come from within the players, so that’s on us. I mean, the coaches can make the calls and put us in position, but when it comes down to it, the 11 that are on the field at that time have to make those plays. We have to cover better. We have to tackle better. … We know that we play a big role in it as well and we have to advance and get better as well.”
This week, Oklahoma ranks 98th nationally in total defense, 65th in rushing defense, 106th in passing defense, 85th in pass efficiency defense, 101st in third-down defense, tied for 119th in turnovers forced, and 129th — dead last in the country — in red zone defense, with 21 scores allowed (18 touchdowns) in 21 possessions inside the red zone.
Still, Riley is not discouraged. Half the season is behind him. The other half lies ahead.
“I think we can play a lot better. I do,” Riley said. “I think we’ve seen, the last several years, we’ve seen bits and pieces. We’ve seen flashes. We’ve had some outstanding individual games. I want us to get to the level where we can play like that more consistently. So, yeah, like we said last week, it was a tough decision. But it’s done. It’s past. Our players have moved past. We’ve moved on. We’re excited about this week.
“I don’t think there’s anything that this team can’t accomplish.”
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.