NORMAN — Lincoln Riley insists all of Oklahoma’s goals are still attainable.
He insists that championships are still within this team’s grasp.
But Saturday night’s outcome in Norman showed that these Sooners probably ought to have other priorities.
Forget the College Football Playoff. Forget moving up from No. 9 in last week’s playoff rankings. Forget winning another Heisman Trophy. Forget a fifth straight Big 12 championship. Forget running the table. Forget even going to Waco and beating Baylor next week.
This OU team’s only goal should be to look in the mirror and reflect.
Who are they?
Winning — which is exactly what the Sooners did on Saturday night, holding off Iowa State 42-41 — solves a lot of problems, covers up a lot of flaws.
But winning — especially when the opponent fails at a 2-point conversion in the final seconds instead of trying to play for overtime, especially when you get away with a flagrant defensive penalty in the end zone — can also mask one’s own deficiencies.
“Not real enthused,” Riley said.
“Embarrassing,” said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
“Unnacceptable,” said linebacker Kenneth Murray.
Read those comments and remember, Oklahoma did not lose this game.
“We won the game,” said quarterback Jalen Hurts. “Don’t let this stoic face fool you. I am happy we won the game.
“We’d rather be sitting here obviously with a win, but there’s a lot to learn from this game. It’s a prime example of how much room we have to improve.”
Here’s the summary: The Sooners absolutely dominated the first half, building a 21-point lead, then flattened out in the third quarter. Then, in the fourth quarter, they nearly gift-wrapped Iowa State victory as the Cyclones scored 20 unanswered points. That included an unforgivable interception from Hurts that set up the Cyclones’ final score. Ultimately, after Iowa State coach Matt Campbell decided to win it with a 2-point conversion rather than extend the game in overtime with a PAT kick, Parnell Motley got away with pass interference in the end zone on the 2-pointer and came away with the game-clinching interception.
Oklahoma improved to 8-1 overall and 5-1 in Big 12 play, while Iowa State fell to 5-4 and 3-3.
Riley adamantly said that losses earlier in the day by No. 3 Alabama and No. 4 Penn State and, frankly, anything else that might have happened in college football “doesn’t matter.” Any opportunity to make a statement to the selection committee by not choking out the Cyclones in the third quarter and rising in the CFP rankings “does not matter.”
Everything, he said, is still attainable.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Riley said. “Y’all have been around here the last few years like I have. You gotta win tough games. That’s a good football team. I’m just telling you right now. Listen, I want to play a hell of a lot better. I want to play better in the second half and blow ‘em out worse than anybody in this room, but winning’s winning. And that’s a win.”
It almost wasn’t.
In the fourth quarter, Oklahoma had 10 offensive plays that produced 24 total yards and zero points while Iowa State had 25 plays for 142 yards and three touchdowns.
In the second half, on five possessions, the Sooners had twice as many turnovers (two) as touchdowns (one).
It might not be all that concerning if this was the first time all season such a thing happened.
But just two weeks prior, in a meltdown at Kansas State, in OU’s previous game, it also happened — and that one actually did result in a loss.
“At the end of the day, these last two performances, they haven’t been acceptable at all,” Murray said. “I wake up every morning pissed off. I go to bed uneasy because the side of the ball that I lead didn’t play to the standard that we are capable of playing to. And to me, that is not okay. I take that extremely personally.”
Similary, Hurts — in maybe his most revealing interview of the season so far — expressed disappointment in his own leadership of the offense.
“I touch the ball every play. I distribute the ball every play. It’s in my hands every play,” he said. “People ask me why I carry myself the way that I do, why I handle myself the way I do, why I go about my business the way that I do, why I try to lead the way I do, why I work out after every game. Little things like that. Because I take it personal. I want it so bad for this team.
“As a leader, as a quarterback, I’m willing to lay it all out on the line for them. Me being the player that I am, I know that I can definitely control the outcome of the game and how the game flows and all of that. There’s a lot to learn from. But regardless of how this whole thing went tonight, I look at myself in the mirror and say ‘J, you could have did this and you could have did that, but your brothers had your back.’ So we’re going to build from this.”
Hurts put up brilliant numbers in the first half, but it may have been fool’s gold.
In the Cyclones’ first eight games, they had allowed only one team to rush for more than 170 yards (Louisiana Monroe had 210), and only one team to throw for more than 250 yards (Baylor had 307).
But by halftime, Hurts was 14-of-17 for 232 yards, and OU had 142 yards rushing.
Oklahoma’s 35-14 halftime lead represented the most points allowed all season by Iowa State — in an entire game. It was on the verge of becoming a blowout, and the Sooners’ playoff talk was back on the front burner.
But as good as Hurts was, he was also very lucky: he threw three passes that should have been intercepted, but instead went for a 48-yard touchdown, a 19-yard completion and an incompletion.
He underthrew a deep ball to CeeDee Lamb that was misplayed by the defender as Lamb hauled it in at the 5-yard line and bounded into the end zone for a 7-0 lead; he threw a short out to Lamb that Greg Eisworth could have easily picked off and scored on but instead dropped for an imcompletion to end OU’s third possession; and he threw a short out to Lamb that went through Datrone Young’s hands and bounced into Lamb’s hands for a first down.
Hurts also carried the ball 17 times for 66 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, including a physical 2-yard touchdown run just before halftime. Hurts converted third-and-5 and third-and-11 on a last-second march, and his throw in the end zone to Trejan Bridges was nullified by pass interference. On the next play, Hurts slammed into Eisworth at the 2-yard line, but he reset and drove his legs out of Eisworth’s grip for the score.
In all, Hurts ran or threw it on 34 of OU’s 44 first-half plays.
But in the second half, Hurts completed just 4-of-9 passes for 41 yards and carried the football five times for a total of 2 yards.
His nadir was an interception with 2:43 to play. The Sooners were trying to run out the clock but stalled again. On third-and-7, Hurts rolled to his right, staved off pressure and, rather than throw the ball away or step out of bounds and punt it back to the Cyclones, he let loose an ambitious throw into coverage that Lawrence White snagged at the OU 41-yard line.
Other than a pick-six, it was a worst-case scenario.
The Cyclones needed eight plays to go 35 yards to set up the final drama: Brock Purdy, who finished the night with six total touchdowns, threw to Norman product Charlie Kolar with 24 seconds to play and Campbell, who scored a 38-31 shocker two years ago on the same field, opted for 2.
Purdy’s throw into the end zone hit its target, but not before Motley grabbed the receiver’s arms and contacted his upper body as he tried to bring in the football. Motley eventually pulled away the interception, and the Sooners, unlike Oct. 26 at Kansas State, were on the right side of an onside kick.
“Winning’s hard. It’s hard in November,” Riley said. “And we knew coming in how darn good they were.
“I thought for stretches we played probably the best ball we have all year. Just really as a team, we separated from them, really dominated the game for a large period of time. Disappointed we did not finish it. But it’s still a win, and that’s what it’s got to be.”
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.