NORMAN — Lincoln Riley thinks he might have the answer to the question that has vexed Oklahoma football fans for the past month.
The question is why have the Sooners been so inconsistent every week since that brisk sunny morning in Manhattan, Kansas? Why were games against Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor and TCU so fraught with extreme highs and extreme lows, when during the first seven games of the season, everything seemed much more orderly — much more consistent.
The answer, unfortunately, isn’t one that Sooner Nation wants to hear. But it might be the truth.
“I don’t think we were very consistent the first seven games,” Riley said Monday at his week press conference. “I think that’s a little bit who we’ve been as a team.”
Empirical evidence suggests merit to Riley’s extension on the team’s inconsistencies.
- Houston isn’t very good. South Dakota is awful. UCLA isn’t good at all.
- Texas Tech is building under a new coaching regime and was missing its quarterback.
- Kansas is … well, Kansas is gaining traction under Les Miles, but not much else.
- Texas is tumbling further into mediocrity with each passing game.
- West Virginia is not a good football team and has benched its quarterback.
The hard truth is the Sooners were inconsistent in those games as well, but their peaks and valleys were masked by the opponents’ lack of talent.
Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor and TCU have the type of talent on the field and elite-level coaching and schematic makeup and play the style of football that allowed them to expose Oklahoma’s inconsistencies.
In essence, Chris Klieman and the Wildcats laid out a blueprint for others to follow: play hard, win your individual battles and don’t be intimidated by Oklahoma’s tradition. The Sooners are young enough and inexperienced enough at positions across the board that they will make mistakes. Capitalize on those mistakes, and you’ll be in a ballgame in the fourth quarter.
Riley said having to overcome inconsistent play is inherent as one of the primary challenges of playing college football.
“Everybody deals with that,” Riley said. “Everybody in the country is fighting the consistency battle in wanting to play your best ball as much as you possibly can. I think in a lot of ways we’re moving forward, especially the last couple weeks. We’ve done some things much better than we could have even dreamt of doing the first seven games. We’ve played, I think, better competition. And then also we have made some critical errors that have held us back from being able to separate in those games. You can’t do that. It’s part of the game.”
Riley said he actually thinks the last few games have brought more improvement, as opposed to more inconsistency.
“I think 90 percent of what we’re doing right now is drastically improved from where we were at any point early or midseason,” he said. “We can’t let that 10 percent just kill us. The 10 percent the last couple of weeks, especially the turnovers, has been so devastating that it’s either put us in a hole like it did against Baylor or kept the game close the other night that, in our opinion, shouldn’t have been very close. We can’t do that. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to play better on that 10 percent. But when you go back and watch the film and we study it, there’s a lot that we’re doing better overall as a football team that makes us pretty excited about these next ones coming up.”
Coming up is Saturday’s season final at Oklahoma State. Riley knows OSU — even without All-American wide receiver Tylan Wallace and dynamic quarterback Spencer Sanders — is a dangerous opponent. OSU ranked third in the Big 12 Conference with 17 takeaways and has three interceptions in each of its last three games before coming away with zero on Saturday at West Virginia.
If Jalen Hurts and the Sooner offense is willing to give the football away this week, the Cowboys are more than willing to take it.
That might mean more keeping the ball on the ground for Hurts, much like he did against TCU when he ran 28 times for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Kennedy Brooks added 149 yards on 25 carries.
In the second half of the Sooners’ 28-24 victory, Hurts completed just 3-of-7 passes for 46 yards.
Are in-game adjustments as simple as recognizing that the passing game isn’t working so it might be better to run the ball more frequently?
“No. Not really,” Riley said. “I always come down to, what’s your formula for winning this game? And sometimes you have an idea going in and that definitely can shift and fluctuate as the game unfolds. There’s a lot of factors in it.
“I will say this: us running the football the way we did the other night had a lot more to do with just how well we were running it as it was to any lack of confidence in our throwing game. I’ll take our quarterback and our receivers against anybody, but when you’re running it like we were, it was hard honestly — I didn’t have much reason to stop. We ran it really well against a team that defends the run very, very well. That was really exciting.”
“Any offensive lineman loves that type of stuff,” said OU center Creed Humphrey. “If they told you they didn’t, they’d be lying. Of course I enjoy running the ball and imposing our will on people. I really enjoy that.”
Two years ago in Stillwater, Oklahoma prevailed by the very Big 12-score of 62-52. The quarterbacks in that game — Mason Rudolph and Baker Mayfield — are now starting in the NFL.
It seems likely that Saturday will more closely resemble last week’s scores — OSU won 17-13 at WVU, OU allowed only 17 offensive points to TCU — than any kind of high-level shootout.
“To me, at the end of the day, winning is winning,” Riley said. “But I do think people that know football, if they take a true look at what a lot of these defenses (in the Big 12) are doing right now they’re going to see really, really quality defenses, quality coordinators. You can just feel it. I just feel like everybody is a little bit better defensively. Challenges are there. You can see scoring is down. I think across the conference there’s been way more low-scoring games.
“I still see a lot of offensive firepower. There’s quite a few new quarterbacks in the league right now, which may be a factor too, but there’s still quite a bit of firepower in the league. More teams are playing quality defense and you just kind of feel that as a whole right now.”
Grinding out another close game by running the football would be just fine with Hurts. For better or worse, that has become Oklahoma’s formula for winning.
“I think it shows the identity of our team from the standpoint of the mental toughness that we have and the ability to find ways to win,” Hurts said. “It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not going to be easy. But we’re battle-tested and we know how to win. We fight. We’re getting better and better every week. We just have to put it together so we can get out there and play how we want all the time.”
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.