Oklahoma has enough experience against TCU that the Sooners realize this week’s game in Fort Worth could come down to the final minutes.
This year, especially, that could be a problem for the Sooners — or, at least, it could make for some extremely compelling football.
“Our coaches put some emphasis on that, for sure,” said center and team captain Creed Humphrey. “We have to finish these games better. No doubt in my mind we have to finish these games better than what we have.”
The Sooners’ three Big 12 Conference games so far have all come down to the wire. Two of those were losses. One was a four-overtime win.
“You've still, whatever the mindset is in that moment, you still have to do it well,” said coach Lincoln Riley. “That’s probably been the thing for us, is we’re putting ourselves in some decent situations and we’ve gotta execute in those situations much better and we’ve gotta coach better in those situations.”
Of Riley’s six games against TCU, three came down to the final possession. In 2015, OU led by 17 but had to deflect a 2-point conversion pass to win 30-29. In 2016, the Sooners fell behind, then came back, then held on at the end, 52-46. And last year in Norman, Oklahoma raced to a 21-0 lead, but again had to hold off the Horned Frogs in the finale minutes, 28-24.
That certainly fits with the methodology of 2020 — for both Oklahoma and TCU. The Horned Frogs are 1-2 after a tight win over Texas and two very close losses to Iowa State and Kansas State. OU has held double-digit leads in all three conference games, only to watch the opponent crawl all the way back and take a late lead. At least they made enough plays in overtime against Texas to turn defeat into victory.
“I think it’s really just about figuring out how to win,” Humphrey said. “How to end those crunch times. Stay focused, stay ready, things like that. Keep playing sharp. I think we took a lot of steps with that in the Texas game because we stayed mentally focused throughout all those overtimes. It was exciting to see.
“I’ve played in a lot of close games around here in my career. A lot of times, we’ve come out on the winning side of those games. Obviously the two games before Texas we didn’t come out on top.”
Players and coaches have been asked multiple times over the past three weeks, but there’s never a definitive answer for why it’s happening. The team’s youth is probably the biggest culprit. Like Humphrey said, learning to win is something that must be mastered. But it can also come down to finer points, like play-calling (both Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch have acknowledged that) and the team’s fitness.
“I don’t think it's a conditioning issue, but I think we could get in a little more shape,” said cornerback Woodi Washington. “We try to emphasize finishing in the fourth-quarter. It’s a thing that, obviously, the last few games, we didn’t do a good job of doing, but the coaches are definitely putting that on us and we’re trying to get better at that.”
“I don’t think it’s a strength and conditioning issue,” Riley said. “I think the only game that we were really tired at the end, I thought our front got pretty worn down, (was) against Texas. But I think every football player on the field was pretty worn down — with the intensity, it was a pretty hot day in Dallas, both teams missing several guys. I thought that showed up there.
“No, haven’t been able to attribute to anything strength and conditioning wise. I think it’s us maintaining our focus.”
That’s a broad-spectrum fix, like an antibiotic that’s supposed to kill the all germs we know about. But how does “focus” address the issues that aren’t easily identifiable?
Play better, Riley says.
“I think we’ve had some opportunities to close out games and, at times, your mentality does shift a little bit to — whether it’s running the football offensively, whether it’s trying to get to the point where you don’t just give up a huge play defensively because you start to play the percentages a little bit.
“We’ve had some major errors in some of these fourth quarters that have kept us from winning ball games or being able to separate even further,” he said. “That’s obviously hurt us as a team and it’s been something that we’re trying to push forward. Because, like many of you, we see moments of some really promising football on all sides, and putting that together is the hardest thing in football. It just is. So we see it. We’re addressing it, emphasizing it as much as we can. But it just comes down to, we’ve got to play cleaner football and our brand of football at the end.”
Said defensive end Isaiah Thomas, “I just know that as a defense and as a team in general, we can’t have that mindset to be like, ‘Well, we slow it down in the fourth quarter.’ We have that mindset to be like, ‘We’re looking at the clock and it’s late and we’re mentally tired, but like physically, we have more in the tank.’ And I think that's more so what it is.
“The game goes on for so long and it was so hot in the Texas game, mentally everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I’m so tired,’ but physically out there, everybody’s still making plays and flying around.
“I think we found out (against Texas) that we can push our limits, like we have more in the tank than what we think we have.”
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