Oklahoma fourth quarters — if it is broke, fix it

Lincoln Riley's offense, Alex Grinch's defense share equal blame for team's meltdowns in the fourth quarter, but both say these things can be corrected in practice
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Through the COVID and the marches and the uncertainty that plagues every college football weekend, Oklahoma has made it to its first waypoint of the 2020 season.

Four games in, one-third of the way through the Big 12 Conference schedule, the Sooners are 2-2 — unranked, disappointed, to be sure, but OU goes into the open date on a wave after last week’s coruscating victory over Texas.

The scoreboard, of course, favored Oklahoma, and that can whitewash a lot of ugly. But the problems remain, and as the team looks inward this week before turning its focus to TCU, the self-reflection must examine the following:

  • Why do the Sooners struggle so mightily in the fourth quarter? OU has outscored its opponents 58-3 in the first quarter, but in the fourth, the Sooners have been outscored 45-17.
  • Why is the defense so markedly inconsistent? Alex Grinch’s crew has almost completely dominated all four opponents early, but yet the three Big 12 opponents have scored virtually at will in the second half.

Grinch said he is seeing a consistently upward trend — aka, improvement — at various spots across the defense so far this season.

“But it’s gotta show up on Saturdays,” he said.

“In a lot of ways, you’re talking about inconsistencies across 11 different positions on the defense,” Grinch said. “Then you’re in that mode of, ‘Well OK, this guy only had one issue,’ and, ‘This guy only had one issue.’ But obviously, they add up. And that’s where we found ourselves.”

The Sooner defense gave up just six first-half scoring drives in its first three Big 12 games (three by Iowa State, two of which were field goals). But in the second half of those games — not including the overtimes against Texas — OU gave up 11 scoring drives of 78, 75, 38, 29, 38, 58, 75, 55, 67, 50 and 84 yards.

“The calls aren’t different in the fourth quarter,” Grinch offered, “than they are (earlier in the game) – I guess maybe they should be. I gotta evaluate that.”

He said it’s not been one particular call or one particular alignment or one particular group or even one particular player.

“I don’t know that that makes it better or worse, frankly,” Grinch said. “If it’s one individual player, I guess the easy answer is, ‘OK, let’s get that player out and move on.’ But certainly hasn’t been that simple for us.”

Grinch’s defense has plenty of company at the top of the blame list when examining OU’s fourth-quarter meltdowns. Lincoln Riley’s offense has generated just one scoring drive in the fourth quarter against Big 12 opposition so far this season — a 39-yard possession after an Iowa State fumble.

Riley said it’s possible to actually practice making clutch plays in the fourth quarter.

“You certainly design practice to put (those situations) in there,” Riley said. “Most teams — we’re not much different — do loads of two-minute drill. … It’s a little more difficult to do this in the season. It’s a little more of a (training) camp and spring (practice). But you work four-minute offense and defense, where you’re trying to either run out the clock offensively, use as much as you can; defense is obviously being a little bit more aggressive trying to get stops.

“I think for us, it just comes down to making plays.”

Whether it’s been on offense or defense, Oklahoma simply hasn’t made plays in the fourth quarter. The third-down throw to ice the game against Texas stands as a perfect example: Riley took a risk in calling a pass when a simple handoff would have wound another 45 seconds off the clock. But Spencer Rattler’s throw was a little behind Austin Stogner and should have been thrown better. Stogner got both hands on the football as he slowed down and absorbed contact, but the catch should have been secured.

Instead, the throw wasn’t caught, the clock stopped and Texas got the ball back with enough time to score and force overtime.

“We had a lot of opportunities defensively on the last couple of drives to make plays,” Riley said. “And we didn’t do it. We had a couple of chances offensively, especially on the two third-down plays on the last two drives, that we botched. They should have both been not just first downs but big plays. You have to make those plays then.

“I do think we’ll take a lot of confidence with how we played in the overtime periods. We played some of our best ball on both sides during those overtimes. It’s something we have to grow with. We’ve been in those situations. We certainly have to do better.”

Grinch also knows the plays are there to be made in the game, but he wants to see the improvements show up in practice first.

“I think if you can’t have a consistent Tuesday, it’s going to be very difficult under the bright lights of Saturday on national television to consistently execute over a 60-minute ball game,” Grinch said. “That’s where it starts. We have had, certainly, better practices than we had a year ago. We’re a better practice team. Which is a good thing.

“But nobody wants to hear that, because you’ve got to go do it on Saturday.”

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