NORMAN — It’s always nice to start fast, but maybe the most dubious hallmark of any team is an inability to finish.
Three games in a row now did Oklahoma start fast, and three games in a row were the Sooners unable to widen that lead, or even hold onto it.
Twice, against Baylor and Texas, OU was good enough to make plays in the fourth quarter and win the game. But once, against Iowa State, the Sooners failed to rally after coughing up a 14-0 lead.
That may sound like a fatalistic perspective. But giving up double-digit leads to three straight opponents — only one of which currently has a winning record — can be a fatal trend.
“It’s something we’ve looked at,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said Monday during his weekly news conference.
“Sometimes, there’s runs within games, and we’ve been able to get on ours early and other teams have late,” Riley said. “Certainly, we want to be able to extend those leads and deliver a knockout blow if we can. And I think we’re going to be able to. I think there’s a few things we can do better on all three sides of the ball that we’re going to push on a little bit this week if we do get in that situation again.
“The flip side of it, too, is that those other teams that we play are good teams, too. They’re going to make some runs.”
The No. 9-ranked Sooners (5-1 overall, 2-1 Big 12 Conference) come off an emotionally and physically taxing 29-24 victory over Texas on Saturday in Dallas seemingly primed for this week’s 3 p.m. kickoff at Kansas State (3-3, 1-2).
But what if it happens again? Will the Sooners be able to make winning plays in the fourth quarter like they did against Baylor and Texas? Or will they come up short like they did against Iowa State?
“As long as we can respond the right way,” Riley said, “regardless of what happens, I think we’ll be in good position.”
* Three weeks ago, the Sooners actually did grow their early 14-0 lead in Waco to 28-10. But Baylor struck quickly with a 71-yard touchdown pass, then forced two Sooner punts. The Bears started the third quarter with a 72-yard TD pass to make it 28-25, and as Oklahoma punted again and fumbled on its next two drives, Baylor put field goals on the scoreboard to take a 31-28 lead with 2:45 to play in the third quarter.
Baker Mayfield and Abdul Adams finally got the offense rolling, and Mayfield’s 48-yard TD strike to Jeff Badet put Oklahoma back on top going into the fourth quarter. There, the Sooners got two grinding drives from Trey Sermon and the offensive line to rebuild the lead to 49-31, rendering two late Baylor scores mostly meaningless.
* Another 14-0 lead against Iowa State became 24-10 in the second quarter, but it was all was wasted when the Cyclones got field goals to close the first half and open the second half and the OU offense couldn’t get untracked. The game might have been put away if Mayfield and Sermon hadn’t fumbled an exchange on the Iowa State goal line. The Cyclones responded with a 94-yard touchdown drive and 2-point conversion to tie it at 24 and ISU seized momentum.
That surge continued when Austin Seibert missed a 45-yard field goal, and things got really crazy when ISU popped its second screen pass for a touchdown, a 57-yarder, and a 31-24 lead. Oklahoma responded when Mayfield, seemingly impatient most of the day, put together a resourceful drive to tie it. But the Cyclones answered back with a demoralizing 75-yard touchdown drive with 2:19 to play. When the Sooners’ final drive fizzled, shock began to set in.
* Against Texas, the Sooners got out quickly again, this time 20-0. But two of those promising drives ended with field goals, and that seemed to give the Longhorns a boost. Texas popped a 41-yard kickoff return, was aided by two personal foul penalties and got it to 20-7, then turned Mayfield’s first interception of the year into a field goal on the final play of the half.
Here we go again, right?
OU opened the second half with a field goal to make it 23-10, but Texas answered back by converting four third downs for a touchdown drive that made it a one-score game. Freshman Sam Ehlinger then hit the Sooners with some playground improvisation, and his dive into the end zone gave the ‘Horns a 24-23 lead.
This time, however, Mayfield answered by dropping a perfect throw to Mark Andrews wide open down the sideline for a 59-yard touchdown, and the Sooner defense answered the call twice in the final minutes.
Safe to say, it’s been a stressful three-game stretch in Sooner Nation.
“We’ve had so much emphasis in starting fast, trying to play to a certain expectation, some stuff is going to go wrong in the game,” Mayfield said. “You need to just play the next play. For us, it’s the mentality of each time you get the ball, it’s 0-0. Every time the defense is out there, it needs to be the same mentality. Doesn’t matter what the score is. You’ve got to go do your job at a high level.”
The Sooners have had that mentality early. But they’ve taken their foot off the gas.
It’s gotten to the point that Riley acknowledges exploring the psychology of it.
“We’ve talked about it,” he said, “because I do think there is a little bit — and I felt it more against Iowa State — but a little bit of disappointment when we don’t get it done. I didn’t feel like we had the disappointment the other day (against Texas). We kept fighting. We didn’t play our best, not by any stretch, but our mentality was a lot better. If we can get the mentality right, which I think we made some strides on, and get the execution along with it, then that’s when you start to knock people out.”
Maybe that killer instinct or finishing mentality or knockout blow or whatever it is can be learned over the course of a season.
Or maybe, with a first-year head coach, it’s something that must develop over time. Maybe Riley can be the one to teach it — just like his predecessor did.
Most OU fans will certainly recall the anguish of Bob Stoops’ first season, when Oklahoma jumped out to leads of 30-14 at Notre Dame before losing 34-30 and 17-0 against Texas before losing 38-28. OU also held small leads that season in losses to Colorado, Texas Tech and Ole Miss.
Stoops quickly figured out how to instill in his players whatever characteristics go into putting teams away. Over the next 17 seasons — that’s 226 games — Stoops’ teams failed to hold onto a 14-point lead only twice: at Colorado in 2007 (a 24-7 third-quarter lead became a 27-24 loss) and against Oklahoma State in 2014 (a 28-14 third-quarter lead became a 38-35 overtime loss).
One big difference: Riley inherited a two-time Big 12 Conference champion, while Stoops inherited a team that had never learned how to win under John Blake. Still, the idea that Stoops’ teams learned how to finish off a big lead remains irrefutable.
The guess here is that Riley eventually will establish his own identity, that he will imprint on his players the ability to finish opponents — just like Stoops did.
“We just simply didn’t play as well there for a period of time on really all three sides of the ball,” Riley said. “We’ve got to maintain that, we’ve got to be more consistent, and that’s something that grows throughout the year.”
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.