NORMAN — The lack of handoffs this season was probably going to catch up to Lincoln Riley anyway.
It just happened to bite him last Saturday in Manhattan, Kansas.
Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks are two talented running backs who just have not gotten the football enough for Oklahoma in 2019.
That their season nadir happened in OU’s first road loss in five years coincided with several other factors that likely knocked the Sooners out of the College Football Playoff picture: two extremely random turnovers that Kansas State cashed into touchdowns, the team’s worst defensive performance of the season, a blown officiating call at the end, and, to be sure, a herculean effort from the 24-point underdog Wildcats.
It was all a perfect storm that sunk OU’s grand voyage.
With the Sooners on an open date this weekend, Riley said Tuesday that the 48-41 loss to K-State featured an unusually high number of individual plays that, had only one gone the other way, it might have meant victory for OU.
“We hadn’t had many losses here, but I’d say this one we probably had more difference-making plays in the game (that) we didn’t make,” Riley said. “You say that every time you don’t win, but this one has more than I can remember, where, if we make one more on one side — and we had so many golden opportunities to make it.”
It wasn’t a single play, but Riley had ample opportunity to potentially change the outcome of the game by committing to giving the football more to his dynamic running backs.
Instead, Sermon and Brooks, who rushed for 2,003 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, finished the day with a combined total of just 11 yards on six carries, an average of just 1.83 yards per carry. Brooks ran three times for 2 yards and Sermon three times for 10 yards. That’s almost inconceivable for guys who came in averaging 8.5 and 7.2 yards per carry, respectively.
On the season, two guys who — along with an NFL-ready offensive line — dominated the line of scrimmage in 2018, have yet to get going in 2019. Sermon has just 53 carries (6.6 per game), Brooks has 48 (6.9).
Riley cited a handful of factors: In its last two games, OU has run 59 and 53 offensive snaps. Against K-State the Sooners fell way behind in the third quarter and needed to throw the football to get back in it. And, again, Riley’s quarterback was the leading rusher — Jalen Hurts had 19 carries on various options, designed keepers and scrambles.
“You hope you can come up with a few more plays to get it done,” Riley said. “Then obviously, don’t want to be in situations there at the end where you gotta play catch-up. We’ve got some really good backs that we want to continue to get involved. We’ve got several players that we want to continue to get involved. But when you’re popping off 50 plays a game and you’ve got a quarterback that’s the kind of runner that we have right now, the carries are going to take a little bit of a hit. It’s just a matter of numbers.”
Here’s the bottom line: Oklahoma came into the game leading the nation at 7.4 yards per rush. The OU offense operates at a much higher level when a balance exists between not only Brooks and Sermon but junior college transfer Rhamondre Stevenson (he leads the team at 9.2 yards per carry, and at 357 rushing yards, he’s right behind Brooks’ 383 and Sermon’s 372; but Stevenson didn’t get any offensive snaps at K-State).
I asked Riley this week if there are mechanisms in place by which he can consciously insert more running plays into the game plan during the week, or if there were ways he could be reminded on gameday to give the football to his 1,000-yard runners.
“We’re aware of what’s going on during the game,” he said.
The question probably sounds like an insult to a coach of Riley’s brilliance, but it is based on past OU offensive coordinator performances:
- In 2011, in a 44-10 loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater, with Josh Heupel calling plays, OU ran the football 10 times and passed in 38 in the first half — and trailed 24-3 at halftime. Afterward, Bob Stoops publicly criticized Heupel’s playcalling.
“It’s not a very good job on our part as coaches,” Stoops said then.
- And in 2014, in a 42-30 victory over Texas Tech in Lubbock, Heupel called for third-string QB Cody Thomas to throw 17 passes in the first half — and he was intercepted three times as OU trailed 14-7. Stoops reminded Heupel again at halftime that he had Samaje Perine in the backfield, and Perine dominated the second half as OU pulled away.
“Some of that was more passes than we wanted in the first half,” Heupel said after the game.
Riley hasn’t had games quite that drastic, but he no longer has Stoops around for halftime reminders.
The Texas game in 2015 — Riley’s first year as offensive coordinator — stands out for its run-pass disparity in the first half. With Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in the backfield, Riley called their number on just 10 of 32 first-half plays and OU trailed 14-3. OU went on to lose that game 24-17, but Riley — a devout Air Raid disciple directly from the Mike Leach coaching tree — soon learned that talented running backs and a punishing ground game can complement a big-play passing attack and is the surest way to victory.
This season, maybe Riley has fallen under the spell of Hurts’ captivating talents. Maybe this season, Riley has lost his way a little.
To be fair, one major reason OU didn’t have the football much on Saturday at Kansas State was because on the few plays Riley did give it to Sermon and Brooks, they went nowhere. Oklahoma’s offensive line was overwhelmed at the point of attack by a K-State defensive front that not only played harder but was fundamentally sound and made few mistakes.
It’s possible Riley realized that the run game would not be productive — that his offensive line would be ineffective — and he chose to turn the game over to Hurts.
Offering up fewer plays and a third-quarter deficit doesn’t make the fan base happy, but it’s better than throwing a young o-line under the bus.
And when Riley did opt for the pass, Hurts was throwing the football into the Big 12’s No. 1-ranked pass defense.
Still, it’s not hard to defend Hurts’ productivity: he rushed for 96 yards and three touchdowns and threw for 395 yards and a score. The loss certainly can’t be blamed on Hurts.
Riley’s insistence that the Sooners must have the football more and need more snaps to get it to the running backs does overlook his role in making sure they get it. The play disparity can’t be ignored:
- Hurts either ran or threw the football on all five plays of the Sooners’ first possession, four of five plays on the second possession, and four of six plays on the third possession.
- In the second quarter, Hurts had the football on six of eight plays on the first possession, both plays of the second possession, and both plays of the third possession.
In the first half, that’s 21 plays for Hurts, and only five for Brooks and Sermon.
“There’s no doubt, we’d like to get it to those guys more,” Riley said. “Part of the issue though is, I think we had (27) plays in the first half, then we had six plays in the third quarter. (Two third-quarter possessions both went three-and-out, with Hurts getting the ball on four of the six plays and Brooks getting it just once.)
“By the time we get the ball again (to start the fourth quarter), we’re down multiple scores (41-23) with not a lot of time remaining. Some of it was dictated by the game. Some of it was dictated by we just did not have very many plays offensively. It’s not like we were not running. Quarterback — Jalen has taken up some of those carries and done very well with those.
“But there’s no question. We would love to get those guys the ball more. I’d like to throw it to our receivers more. I’d like to hand it off more and I’d like to be able to continue to run Jalen. You want to do all those things. But we scored fast in a lot of ‘em, which is mostly — well, hell, which is all positive. We had a few key 3-and-outs that were huge. And obviously the two turnovers were the difference in the game.
“You want to stay on the field longer, have more plays. If you do that, everybody gets the ball more. … But yeah, we didn’t run the ball the way that we’re accustomed to running it from the tailback position.”
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.