Saturday was a great game for second-guessers, sportswriters and idiots with Cheetos all over the front of their shirts.
And it was a bad game for Lincoln Riley who gave a voice to the slobs on the couch and a mountaintop to shout from.
Saturday wasn’t Riley’s best effort, even the uninformed realized that. The Sooners lost 48-41 and while it wasn’t a referendum on his abilities as a coach, the upset did show Riley, considered a star, a savant and a special mind, can be completely overwhelmed by the moment.
And it appeared Riley certainly was against the Wildcats.
The gameplan didn’t seem sharp and the Riley offense wasn’t particularly special against the Wildcats, despite getting 41 points. Maybe the Sooners just weren’t sharp. Maybe it was because OU abandoned the running game way too early and only gave the ball to a running back six times all game. But try to distance yourself from all that for now. Even with all of the Xs and Os hand-wringing, Riley could have made things better on himself and overcome the poor planning and still won the game.
Riley’s offense relied on the trick play in the first half, kicked field goals instead of being aggressive and still nearly got away with it, trailing by just one at halftime.
More on the first half later, let’s work backward.
While the onside kick and the (bad) call is the subject dujour, Riley’s lack of awareness on the Sooners’ last drive of the game absolutely limited and pinched his team. Riley’s mistakes forced OU’s team to kicking an onside when it likely wouldn’t have had to otherwise. And the kind of errors he made can either be attributed to youth, inexperience or panic. The first two don’t really apply, considering he’s not a first-year coach, so that leaves only the latter, and that’s not something Sooner fans are used to seeing from Riley.
Down by 10 with 4:15 to play, OU had two timeouts left and the ball at its own 28-yard line. Obviously, the Sooners needed two scores, but what it couldn’t afford to do was call a timeout. It’s a death move. OU called two of them on the drive, and the first came after inexplicably burning valuable seconds. OU snapped the ball with 4:05 left on a first-and-10. Hurts got sacked and the timeout was called at the 3:42 mark.
Then, on a third-and-15 play where Hurts scrambled and eventually completed a pass to CeeDee Lamb which left OU with a fourth-and-3. The Sooners called another timeout. If you know you’re going to be kicking a field goal, have the team ready and set to come in, but it almost, and we’ll never know for sure, looked as though Riley didn’t understand or realize his team should kick there. Hard to believe there was that level of confusion, but here we are.
The result of that possession, time wasting and timeout calling was OU had no choice but to kick an onside, a low-percentage play. Now, there’s no guarantee the Sooners get a stop by kicking it deep, but if you score with 2-plus minutes left, kick the ball deep and use your timeouts on first and second down when the Cats run the ball up the middle you’ve saved time and kept yourself in the game. Then, defend third down, either a K-State run which will burn off time, or maybe get an incomplete pass that would stop the clock, and you still have a chance.
Having to kick an onside leaves you only one option. The game is over if it’s not recovered. That’s what happened. Kicking deep keeps you on life support. Not recovering an onside pulls the plug.
The Sooners have coaches for everything, including nutrition, academic advisors, quality control analysts and everything in between. There should have been someone in Riley’s ear telling him an offensive timeout on the last possession severely limits OU’s options. At the very least there should have been someone in his ear telling him not to call one before the field goal try.
Meanwhile, in the first half, twice, including once inside the 10-yard line, Riley decided not to try get a first down, despite both fourth downs requiring less than 5 yards. Oklahoma has the best offense in the country, a high-powered running game, more-than-capable receivers and a quarterback with plenty of skill. Instead of burying Kansas State at 14-0, or 21-7, Riley went conservative when he didn’t need to, especially considering his defense wasn’t playing well. When your defense is scuffling, three points don’t help. You need to gather all the points you can get, not settle and take just three. Even if OU was successful on just one of those two fourth downs, it’s worth the risk. Worst case is K-State takes over inside its own 10-yard line. Best case, you get a pair of touchdowns and boost your point total by eight.
Riley’s mistakes were novice-level, so bad in fact, they allowed those of us, including myself, who don’t know the difference between a Cover 2 and a coverlet, spitting Cheeto dust at the TV, a reason to think we know as much as he does.
It’s clearly not the case, but when you can’t seem to figure out when to call a timeout or when to kick a field goal, it looks like disorganized panic and it ultimately cost the Sooners the game.