NORMAN — Oklahoma heard the chatter all week.
Kansas State is coming to town.
The Wildcats play big boy football.
Bill Snyder’s squad is gonna physically punish you guys come Saturday.
But when Saturday arrived, any such notion lasted about two minutes.
The No. 8-ranked Sooners beat K-State at its own game on a sunny afternoon at Memorial Stadium, physically beating up the Wildcats all day, reestablishing the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football and coming away with a 51-14 victory that wasn’t nearly that close.
In the realm of physical football, this Oklahoma team was supposed to be inferior to Kansas State, which had talked all week of their desire to do to OU what Army did: wind down the clock by possessing the football on offense and owning the line of scrimmage.
“Yeah, I don’t know if it motivated us, but we knew it was key,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “Our players did hear that all week.”
That’s why things were chippy from the jump, with pushing and shoving and trash-talking after almost each play on the Sooners’ first possession. Once, K-State defenders hit running back Trey Sermon after he was down, and that incited a pushback from right tackle Cody Ford. On the next play, the Wildcats bumped Sermon again while he was on the ground, and left tackle Bobby Evans stepped in — this time with a 15-yard penalty.
“We prided ourselves on being the most physical team on the field every time we step on,” Riley said, “and being the most physical team in this conference. So, every week’s a challenge that way. Kansas State certainly is one.”
Game officials settled things down a bit, but after Kyler Murray’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Grant Calcaterra put OU up 7-0, the Sooner defense took the field and kept things up.
On the first play, the Wildcats’ big, strong, talented and experienced offensive line was overwhelmed, and Alex Barnes, the Big 12’s most physical and most prolific running back, was thrown for a one-yard loss by Kenneth Murray and Curtis Bolton.
“Obviously, we heard the chirping and talking about how they were going to be physical,” said Kenneth Murray. “I think that really set the (tone of the) game from the jump.
“All three phases of the ball came out on edge, ready to fight.”
The Sooners finished with 702 yards of total offense, spurred by Murray’s big-play efficiency. He completed 19-of-24 passses for 352 yards and long TDs to Calcaterra and CeeDee Lamb (82 and 57 yards). OU also got another long TD (86 yards) from running back Kennedy Brooks.
“Yeah, we did hit some big ones,” Riley said. “Just had a few at the right time when guys made some great plays. I think it started with our physicality though, with us being able to run the ball.”
The Sooners rushed for 332 yards on 8.3 yards per carry. That end of the box score almost looked like one of Barry Switzer’s old OU teams wishboning up and down the field against some of K-State’s lousiest squads.
As bad a mismatch as it was when the Sooners had the ball, it was just as bad when the Wildcats had it.
KSU quarterback Skylar Thompson completed 13-of-21 passes, but only gained 108 yards through the air. Barnes came in averaging 140 rushing yards per game in Big 12 play, but the Sooners held him to 28 yards.
“He’s been tremendous against everybody,” Riley said. “Of all the stats in the game, that’s the one I’m most proud of.”
New defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said the team’s tackling issue has obviously improved.
“It should be getting better each week,” McNeill said. “We emphasize it a great deal.”
Coaches would never admit to drawing motivation from outside noise. But the players?
“The millennials, I’m sure they do,” McNeill said. “Me, I don’t. Some say that but I really don’t. … Two things. Lincoln does a great job. He knew this week was a big game for physicality. And then you have to make sure you drown out the noise. Positive or negative, to me, both of them are imposters.”
“Obviously, us as players, we heard chirping,” Kenneth Murray said. “We heard what was put out there, how they wanted to come in and control the ball and try to play physical and stuff like that, so I mean, for me and the rest of the guys – especially the guys up front – as soon as we heard that, we were extremely happy and excited on the idea. That’s just how we bought it. That physical side of the ball was preached to us all week and I feel we did a great job of it today.”
McNeill’s second game as defensive coordinator following the firing of Mike Stoops went very much like the first: after holding TCU to 275 yards and 27 points last week, the Sooners held K-State to 245 yards and 14 points.
“We were out there flying around,” said safety Robert Barnes. “Like I was telling the guys after, if we missed a tackle you really couldn’t tell just because everybody was full-speed to the ball. It felt like we were one unit and ultimately having fun with the game. I think that changed a lot of the way we’re playing right now.”
Sure, TCU and KSU are one-dimensional offenses that are having a bad year. The Horned Frogs came into Saturday ranked seventh in the Big 12 in total yards, while K-State was ninth. In points, TCU was seventh, the Wildcats were 10th.
But anyone who thinks that’s the only reason OU is playing better defense under McNeill is missing the point: this Sooner team had given up big numbers to plenty of bad offensive teams the last 4-5 years. With a small, two-week sample size, this group seems to be playing a different brand of football — a physical brand of football.
And, Kyler Murray said, this game was about more than just tackling or hitting. It was a mindset.
“Coach Riley wasn’t just preaching it to the defense, he was preaching it to the whole team,” Murray said. Players took personally the suggestion that K-State could do what Army did, Murray added.
“I think there’s a lot of talk about what we can do,” he said, “ … we put it in the back of our minds and allow it to motivate us. But at the end of the day, it’s about us. It’s about us playing for each other and I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve built on these last few weeks.”
“It was important,” Riley said. “We talked about the physicality all week. We knew the quality of offensive line that was coming in here, how good their back is. Our guys probably got sick of hearing that all week. But we took some more good steps there this week. I thought some of the things defensively we targeted on that we needed to improve on from the TCU game, we did that. Guys are playing confident with a lot of energy, a lot of excitement. Tackling well. Just doing a lot of good things right now.”
Of course, none of that matters much for the Sooners’ next game a week from now in Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech lost at Iowa State on Saturday, but everyone knows the Red Raiders are still putting up huge offensive numbers.
Count on OU’s offense matching whatever Tech can muster. But any proof that the Sooners’ defense has truly improved will be unveiled next Saturday in West Texas.
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.