NORMAN — Coaches today preach about the importance of making steady improvements.
In all sports, on all levels, getting better every day seems a routine goal in contemporary sports. Be better today than you were yesterday. Improve steadily, whether it’s weekly in football or daily in basketball or baseball, or however many soccer games you might have over the course of a given season, if you grow and improve progressively, then special things can happen.
So is Oklahoma showing improvement?
Is coach Lincoln Riley happy with the Sooners’ progress every week? Have they gotten better since opening the season against Houston way back on Sept. 1? Were there improvements made during the open date after the Sooners lost to Kansas State?
Was the team that nearly lost at home to Iowa State on Saturday night any better than the one that lost to the Wildcats?
“There’s ebbs and flows,” Riley said Monday during his weekly press conference. “Coaching is kind of like, you plug one leak and another one springs. You just don’t ever get to the point where you plug them all. That’s like a player trying to play perfect. It never happens that way. So you’re constantly trying to work on your weaknesses, whether it’s you as a player, you as a coach, the team in general. What are going to be the focus points and what are you going to do to take steps to accomplish that, to get better at those?”
That’s a reasonable answer, but also a bit of the company line. Can Riley offer any specific examples of where the team has definitely improved, and maybe some areas where obvious growth needs to happen?
“There’s a lot. Geez,” he said. “That can go a lot of different directions.
“Our understanding of what we’re doing. We’re so new/young, one or the other, on both sides of the ball. And our overall understanding of what we’re doing and handling all the different things that are being thrown at us. There’s a lot of examples. We’re doing some things I don’t think we would have been ready for early in the season at all.
“Then obviously, there’s some things fundamentally and then kind of with the momentum with games that we’ve got to handle better collectively as a team, and that’s going to be a big focus this week.”
OK, let’s call it what it is: Oklahoma wasn’t any good at all at tackling on Saturday night. The team has regressed, for sure, since it swarmed Texas into oblivion back on Oct. 12. The Sooners might have missed more tackles against Iowa State than they did all season — combined.
There’s also the running game on offense. Blocking at the point of attack hasn’t seemed nearly as physical as it was previously.
So some areas, Oklahoma has shown improvements. Other areas have backslid.
Bet that those improvements are on Riley’s to-do list this week as the Sooners visit undefeated Baylor in Waco, Texas.
“As the season’s went on, we’ve been challenged different ways,” Riley said. “We’ve done different things well. There’s a lot of things we’re doing better than at any point in the season. We did some things two nights ago that you just look back and say, ‘Man!’ You start to see the ceiling of this team and how good we can be.
“Then the flipside of it is, there are points that are disappointing because we know we can play so much better. You leave that game excited about some of the great things that we’re doing that were much better than at any other point in the season, then also determined that if we’re going to be the team that we want and have the run that we think we can have here, we gotta get some of these leaks plugged and we gotta get ‘em plugged now.”
One area that hasn’t improved is defensive takeaways. OU has now officially played five games without logging either an interception or a fumble (although Parnell Motley’s interception at the end of the game was a winning play, it wasn’t an official interception because it was a 2-point play and not a regular play from scrimmage).
Two more interceptions were dropped on Saturday night. Riley said some players are simply pressing too much.
“I think we’ve got definitely some guys doing that,” Riley said. “I think that’s very fair to say. With a team, sometimes it’s hard to say it’s one thing. We’ve got a big team. A hundred and something guys, a lot of guys that play. So what is one player’s issue is not always this player’s issue. So we’ve got some guys, I think, that are trying too hard and at times get out of the context of what we are doing schematically. We’ve got some guys that are kind of young and still trying to figure all this out. We’ve got guys that are learning what it takes at this level to be great, especially at this time of the year.
“So yeah, we’ve got guys that are learning what it takes to focus each and every play, because it’s really difficult. I know it sounds easy on the outside, but the level of focus you have to have, it’s really, really hard to do.”
Riley said Oklahoma’s defensive performances against Kansas State and Iowa State are definitely not steps in the right direction, but it’s not proof yet that the defense has reverted back to how bad things got last year. Not yet.
“That will be defined at the end of the year,” he said. “… The fact that we haven’t played our best the last two weeks happened. And how are we going to respond? And if it is different and it is better, and we believe it is, then it will show up here the rest of the season. That’s our challenge.”
One other area that also showed decline on Saturday had little to do with the team itself.
Sooner Nation showed up, but then tuned out. When the lead grew to 21 points at the end of the third quarter and the fourth quarter began, the student section and upper decks thinned out, and a lot of fans in general decided it was over.
The Sooners noticed. Riley certainly did.
“It’s our job as coaches and players that we gotta play to our level no matter what,” Riley said after a long, contemplative pause. “That is certainly our job, and I would never put that on our fans — or anybody else’s fans or any atmosphere or any stadium.
“Now, the flipside of that, like I’ve said up here many times, we have one of the great stadiums in America, we have one of the great fan bases in America, and when it’s rocking in there, does our team feel that? Hell yeah, they do. And when it’s not, do they feel that? Hell yeah, they do.
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.