Is it pushing the panic button to suggest darkness may have fallen — even if only temporarily — on the Lincoln Riley era?
Oklahoma certainly came out of its 38-35 loss to Kansas State on Saturday in Norman with some real issues.
Not COVID. Not injuries. Not opt-outs.
More germane to winning and losing and the immediate direction of the program: how good are these Sooners?
OU listed 60 players on its pregame depth chart. Only eight are seniors in 2020.
Of those, one (Rhamondre Stevenson) is suspended. Another (LaRon Stokes) is a junior college transfer. Two others (Obi Obialo and Theo Howard) are grad transfers. Only four — Jon-Michael Terry, Bryan Mead, Erik Swenson and Tre Brown — are seniors who have been in this program for the duration.
And Terry is a career backup. Mead is a former walk-on. Swenson started seven games last year but might have just lost his job again. That leaves Brown as the only Sooner senior who’s been a contributor for any sustained period of time — and he got burned for K-State’s first touchdown.
This isn’t a proclamation that Oklahoma’s reign in the Big 12 Conference is over. But Saturday revealed that we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens. There are a lot better teams than Kansas State lying in wait on the OU schedule, and the Sooners — in particular, the OU defense — will be hard pressed to devise ways to beat them.
Iowa State looms this week. The Cyclones have arguably the league’s top pro passing prospect in Brock Purdy and complement him with the running of talented back Breece Hall, who torched TCU for 155 yards and three touchdowns Saturday.
Texas looms the week after that. It’s a known fact that determining favorites and underdogs is a futile exercise in the Red River Rivalry. But it’s just as obvious that Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger is already having a special senior season. And who can forget the now-famous stat:
Since 1990, quarterbacks making their debut in the showdown are now 3-14-1 against counterparts who have previously started or have significant playing time in the rivalry.
Jalen Hurts bucked that trend last year, but Hurts had started national championships, SEC championships and Iron Bowls with Auburn. He didn’t fit the classic definition of inexperienced quarterback.
Which brings us to Spencer Rattler.
Rattler started Saturday looking like the next generation’s Tom Brady, completing 23-of-25 passes to start the game. But he finished more like Marcia Brady, connecting on just 4-of-12 throws in the fourth quarter.
Rattler and the OU offense had four possessions in the final period, but he completed just one of his final six passes for three yards in the final three drives.
That’s hardly all on Rattler. He was sacked twice, pressured once and felt uncomfortable enough to leave the pocket even when there wasn’t a threat. And his third interception of the day was hard to watch.
But Rattler is emblematic of where the Oklahoma program finds itself in 2020: supremely talented, yes, but young, raw and painfully inexperienced.
Remember, Baker Mayfield had a year at Texas Tech and a year as a redshirt at Oklahoma. Kyler Murray had a redshirt year and a backup year before he replaced Mayfield. And Hurts had three very busy seasons in the Alabama pressure-cooker.
Rattler is green, and it showed.
“It definitely will be a learning experience,” Riley said. “He had the one reckless interception in the first half where he just threw the ball up. That was frustrating. Other than that, he was really good in the first half. And then we just couldn’t keep him quite comfortable enough in the pocket. I didn’t think he was very comfortable there the entire day. Moved around, missed a few things, missed a couple throws.
“Made a lot of big plays, had several big plays taken back by penalties. Again there’s going to be several decisions that we are going to want back. That’s kind of the nature of playing that position. He did a lot of good things too. No question – it’s a young guy in his second start. We’re going to continue to build on it. He’ll continue to build and get better. He’ll continue to get coached better as well.”
Riley didn’t have an answer for the offensive line, other than to say the competitions will continue and the best players will play. He didn’t acknowledge the exodus of talent at running back, saying instead that Kansas State “tackled well” — which is a euphemism for OU runners being unable to break those tackles.
And neither Riley nor defensive coordinator Alex Grinch could offer much salve about the stunning defensive breakdowns. It looked like 2018 all over again. Last year, Grinch referenced those players’ scars — a commentary on the trauma they’d suffered — but K-State was able to open the old wounds, and it was alarming.
If the Sooners can make Skylar Thompson look like an All-Pro quarterback twice, what will Purdy and Ehlinger and TCU’s Max Duggan and Texas Tech’s Alan Bowman, et al. look like?
If a moribund Wildcat offense can suddenly strike for 77- and 78-yard pass plays on back-to-back drives and outscore Oklahoma 24-0 down the stretch in Norman, what will the Cyclones, Longhorns, Horned Frogs and Red Raiders do away from the friendly confines of Owen Field?
“Two of the easier things that happened on the day are the things that we messed up, Grinch said. “We say, ‘Wow, how can that be?’ It’s individual guys, making sure that they’re dialed in. … It’s the intensity plus consistency that continues to elude us.
“Why is it that a busted coverage takes place in that moment? Why didn’t that happen in the first half when things were going well? And what is that mental aspect of things that we’re missing on? Are we giving in when things get hard? Are we losing focus in some of those moments? Are we playing the right guys? Obviously, most importantly, though, as we attack the film — what are we missing as coaches that we weren’t able to get across?”
In this broken season, Oklahoma suddenly looks like a broken team. The Sooners’ next home game isn’t until Nov. 7. That’s four games and an open date.
When the 1-1 Sooners kick off that game against Kansas, what will their record be? Will Riley and Grinch and the rest of the team have fixed the issues? Will the young players have grown up? Will OU have won those games, or lost them?
Will this end up being the rebuilding year it looks like now? Or was Saturday simply an inexplicable glitch?
To get the latest OU posts as they happen, join the SI Sooners Community by clicking “Follow” at the top right corner of the page (mobile users can click the notifications bell icon), and follow SI Sooners on Twitter @All_Sooners.