NORMAN — It’s surely confounding the Oklahoma coaching staff that players, particularly on defense, slogged through the first half on Saturday’s game at Kansas State.
It must be frustrating that those same players who gave up 202 yards total offense in the first quarter alone to the one-dimensional Wildcats somehow found it in themselves to play with greater energy, more emotion and an amplified ferocity in the second half.
Seven games into the season, on the road, against a familiar conference opponent, the Sooners needed a halftime butt-chewing to get inspired to play hard?
“Halftime for us, it was not a schematic halftime for any of the three sides of the ball,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said Monday during his weekly news conference. “It was a ‘We need to pick up our intensity level, we need to pick up our physicality if we want any chance of winning this game.
“And our coaches did a good job with them and our guys responded.”
If there will be any reason during the next six weeks why Oklahoma won’t play in the College Football Playoff, that’s it right there.
In a nutshell, these Sooners choose when to play hard.
Credit OU coaching staff for making the necessary “halftime adjustments,” which in this case was a lot of screaming.
“Part of it was coach Riley’s speech at halftime,” said quarterback Baker Mayfield. “Part of it was the guys looking each other in the face and saying they were going to leave no doubt and we’re going to come back in here with a victory and that’s the only option. It’s a mentality check at halftime that we had.”
Hey, sometimes that’s what good coaching is, being able to get one’s players to dig down deep inside themselves to find another gear.
Credit also to Mayfield, who provided some of his own locker room inspiration before OU came out and outscored the Wildcats 32-14 in the second half.
“He didn’t have any quit in him at all,” said senior linebacker and co-captain Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. “We knew he was going to give it everything he had. I felt exactly the same way, and the rest of the team followed suit.
“He’s a vocal leader. You can definitely see his emotion. It’s contagious.”
Another co-captain, senior tackle Orlando Brown, said Mayfield’s halftime talk mean “a lot.”
Mayfield didn’t even practice last week because of an injury to his throwing shoulder suffered the week before against Texas. Yet, there he was on Saturday in Manhattan completing 78 percent of his passes for 410 yards and rushing for two touchdowns.
“His words mean a lot to everybody in that locker room,” Brown said. “We’re riding on him. We rely on him for a lot of energy, a lot of our mentality. I think a lot of that comes from him and his dog mentality. What he said just kind of resonated with us as a team.”
After scoring touchdowns on drives of 75, 69 and 80 yards in the first half, K-State mounted just one scoring drive in the second half (KSU’s other score came on a 13-yard drive after a wayward punt snap went through Austin Seibert’s hands for a 32-yard loss on fourth down).
In the second half, K-State netted 86 yards on six possessions.
“We got off blocks,” Riley said. “We said it all week, you’re not going to outnumber them in the box. Mathematically, you can’t do it with all their quarterback run game. When that’s the case, some people have to get off blocks. Even if you don’t get off blocks you have to close gaps and you have to win with push.
“We did not do that in the first half and we did it at an extremely high level in the second half.”
At least this game didn’t continue the trend of OU jumping out to a two- or three-touchdown lead and then giving it all back. This time the Sooners fell behind 21-7 and had to rally, then had to hold off K-State’s comeback.
“I think that’s a little bit of what we are right now,” Riley said. “We’re a team that’s getting better and learning more about ourselves and what it takes to play at a high level, and when we don’t do it, what some of the causes are. I don’t think it’s necessarily been the same thing each week. We’ve sprung different leaks. It’s not always been the same leak.
“It really just becomes a week-to-week deal. It really does. You never get to a point where, ‘OK, we’ve got it now.’ Like you don’t have to coach it and you don’t have to have the pedal down to the floor all the time. I know on the outside we all wish we could get to that point, too, but there’s no eureka! moment. You’ve got to get up and put on your hard hat and go to work every single day. And if you’re just a little bit off, especially against good competition, it’s going to show up.
“To see our team respond was big for us. It was an excited locker room, and they should have been excited. They fought their tails off to get back into that game. We didn’t do everything perfect. We have a lot of things that we’ve got to fix. Certainly, we’re not looking past those. But we have to appreciate what it was — that’s a Big 12 win on the road, and those are all hard.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. 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. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.