With four games down and six to go in the tumultuous 2020 season, the second open date of the year comes at a pivotal point for Lincoln Riley's Sooners.
After a 2-2 start that featured plenty of good, bad and ugly from his team, Riley took stock of the situation Tuesday in his weekly Zoom press conference.
“We had a very productive bye week," said Riley. "It’s been certainly, I think, a positive for our team and the development of all of our players. … It’ll be a good challenge [against TCU]. Always is, whether we’re playing these guys in Norman or Fort Worth.”
The Sooners travel to Amon G. Carter Stadium on Saturday for an 11 a.m. kickoff with Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs, who are coming off a hard-fought 21-14 loss to Kansas State. Riley has stated that he has more respect for Patterson as a defensive mind than any other coach in the country, and one doesn't have to look any further than last season to understand why Patterson commands that respect. TCU held Oklahoma to a season-low 28 points and came within a whisper of pulling off an upset victory in Norman.
Given the constantly unpredictable nature of the Sooners' defense, it stands to reason that Riley would like to see his team put more than 28 points on the board this time around. And if the Oklahoma offense is to do that, the effort begins with the recently improved rushing attack.
“It certainly wasn’t very good the first two games, I think, on anybody’s account," Riley remarked. "But I thought we took some steps last week, had some more explosive runs. I think backs are starting to get a bit more comfortable.”
There's a definite chance that the Sooners will get Rhamondre Stevenson back from suspension for Saturday's contest. But even if Stevenson doesn't play, T.J. Pledger is coming off a career-high 131 yards against Texas, and Marcus Major scored his first career touchdown in that game.
Another breakout performer in the Sooners' four-overtime victory over the Longhorns was Drake Stoops, who's shot from relative obscurity to a starting role in the Oklahoma offense.
“I think he’s very reliable, another guy that our quarterbacks have a lot of trust in," Riley said of Stoops. "He’s going to run the route the way it’s supposed to be run; he’s going to make the tough catch in traffic.”
Stoops' emergence has provided a much-needed lift for Oklahoma, and another huge lift may be on the way. Though Trejan Bridges' status is still unclear, Riley indicated that Jadon Haselwood may be close to returning to the field. Haselwood, who suffered a lower body injury while working out at home in the offseason, was expected to be one of Spencer Rattler's primary targets in the passing game this year.
“He’s doing very well; he’s well ahead of schedule," Riley said of Haselwood. "I don’t want to promise anything right now, but we’re optimistic.”
A true game-breaker hasn't yet emerged in the young Oklahoma offense, and Haselwood has the capacity to rise to that level upon his return. In the meantime, however, the Sooners have found consistent success in the intermediate passing game. Redshirt junior H-back Jeremiah Hall has been a key cog, regularly finding holes in the defense to pick up chunk yardage.
“Jeremiah’s done a great job. He has. He’s been very dependable for us," Riley remarked. "That’s an important position, and that combination of him and Stog right now has been very productive. He’s a lot like Dimitri Flowers was, in that he knows our offense so well.”
Hall has split time at H-back with Austin Stogner thus far, and the two have arguably been Rattler's most dependable targets, particularly in the red zone. Stogner leads the Sooners in both receptions (17) and receiving yards (230).
“Stog’s done a good job," said Riley. "I think the guy makes a lot of plays, and so I think our quarterbacks have a tremendous amount of confidence in him.”
With Marvin Mims and Mikey Henderson headlining a crop of talented youngsters, the healthy competition across the entire offensive unit is a phenomenal sign as Oklahoma hits the second half of the season. UCLA transfer Chris Murray could start at offensive guard as soon as this weekend, and Stoops appears to have supplanted Obi Obialo for starting duties at wideout.
"Guys have got to go play well and earn their time," Riley said. "Now you're starting to see progress on both sides of the ball by younger players that maybe would have had a chance to compete and play earlier."
Oklahoma's depth is a desirable quality in the chaos of 2020, and it's their primary edge in a conference full of relatively inexperienced teams. Can their strength in numbers catalyze a run for the Big 12 championship? Perhaps, but first things first - the Sooners have to dispatch Max Duggan and the Horned Frogs on the road this weekend.
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.