Three weeks into conference play, the first break is over.
OU is 2-2 overall, 1-2 in league play, and has a long way to go to get back in the race for a sixth consecutive Big 12 Conference championship. A lot has to happen — starting with the Sooners winning their final seven games — but in this season of unprecedented oddities, it’s certainly on the table.
Oklahoma now faces another stretch of Big 12 games on three successive weekends — that’s the plan, anyway — so it’s a good time to offer a midterm report card.
Let’s face it: Spencer Rattler has posted similar numbers (and in some cases better) than Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts did through their first four games over the previous three seasons. And he’s put up way better numbers than those guys did during their freshmen season.
Rattler (71.3 completion percentage, 13 TDs, 5 INTs) has been mostly spectacular and ranks second in the Big 12 behind Sam Ehlinger in total offense (313 yards per game) and passing (296.5) and passing touchdowns (13). He also leads the Big 12 in passer efficiency rating (174.0).
But he’s also had his freshman moments. When OU needed first downs late to preserve leads against Kansas State and Iowa State, he didn’t deliver. When the Sooners needed touchdowns in those games, he threw interceptions instead. In his three fourth quarters in Big 12 play, Rattler has completed just 45 percent of his passes (14-of-30) for 105 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions, a fumble and has been sacked four times.
But Rattler did show great poise in crunch time against Texas, and in doing show, he showed growth and progress. That’s encouraging.
And although Tanner Mordecai’s results on three possessions against the Longhorns were uneven, it was important for him to get that experience.
Expectations here weren’t high after Trey Sermon hit the transfer portal, Kennedy Brooks opted out and Rhamondre Stevenson remained suspended. Those are three really talented backs.
That left T.J. Pledger, Marcus Major and true freshman Seth McGowan, whose college careers encompassed all of 50 carries. That inexperience showed as Pledger and Major struggled to hit holes, struggled to break tackles and struggled to make anybody miss.
McGowan (60.3 yards per game, 5.3 per carry) quickly emerged as the Sooners’ most versatile and dynamic runner, but when McGowan missed Texas with a concussion after a rough outing at Iowa State, it was Pledger (73 yards per game, 4.8 per carry) who finally stepped up and delivered his team’s biggest rushing performance of the year (131 yards, two TDs) in the Red River Rivalry. Major has 23 carries but is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.
Ball security also has been a liability (six fumbles, three lost), but that should improve with game action.
And it’s been suggested (injured DB Justin Harrington posted it on social media, then quickly deleted it) that Stevenson is returning for the TCU game this week — and that those suspensions have been fulfilled. (Official word could come this week, though Lincoln Riley has been coy about revealing such personnel issues.) Stevenson, a 2,000-yard runner in junior college in 2018 who averaged 8.0 yards per carry last year, is an instant upgrade at this position.
Both Pledger (seven catches, 78 yards) and McGowan (four for 79) have been dynamic in the passing game and may need to be used more.
Through four games, Oklahoma is one of three Big 12 teams without a wide receiver in the league’s top 10 in catches per game, and is one of four without a wideout in the top 10 in receiving yards per game.
There have been plenty of promising moments from Charleston Rambo (15 catches for 187 yards) and Marvin Mims (15 catches, 196 yards) and others (Drake Stoops leads the team with 20.3 yards per catch but only has six catches), and there is obviously prodigious talent, but one player just hasn’t stood out yet.
Grad transfer Theo Howard (eight catches, 105 yards) is still trying to make an impact, and grad transfer Obi Obialo is still trying to get on the field.
Jadon Haselwood is coming off an offseason knee injury and might be able to help if he’s fully healthy, and Trejan Bridges could provide a boost if his suspension is lifted. But right now, Mims (team-best four TD catches) is the team’s best receiver as a true freshman. There’s a lot of room for this group to get better.
OU averaged 15.89, 16.50 and 16.39 yards per catch the last three years, ranking No. 5 nationally in each season. This year’s group is averaging only 12.67, which ranks 32nd.
It can be suggested that H-back has been the Sooners’ most dangerous position so far — and that’s probably not a good thing.
Austin Stogner is a more traditional tight end, and he leads the team with 17 catches for 230 yards. He’s the only Sooner that appears in the Big 12’s top 10 in both receptions and receiving yards per game. He’s been terrific, even though he had a couple of crucial drops against Texas.
Jeremiah Hall is fifth on the team with 10 receptions and has plied that into three touchdowns. He’s the perfect option on short-yardage play-action, bootleg designs, and he’s a punishing blocker.
Brayden Willis, arguably the most physically gifted player at this spot, has played in just one game because of COVID testing. And true freshman Mikey Henderson (five catches, 52 yards) is versatile and has shown he’s able to contribute in multiple situations.
Although the o-line is coming off its best game of the season, this is without a doubt the biggest mystery of the season so far.
With five starters back, Oklahoma is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and has given up 11 quarterback sacks so far.
Lincoln Riley is right — running backs have to see holes better, receivers have to get better separation, Spencer Rattler has to have better pocket presence — but those two statistics are always strong indicators for how an offensive line is playing as a group.
Creed Humphrey hasn’t been the dominant force he was in his first two seasons, guard play from Tyrese Robinson and Marquis Hayes has been just OK, and Erik Swenson has struggled at times as he’s moved between left tackle and right tackle. Anton Harrison has shown a ton of promise at left tackle. Right tackle Adrian Ealy looks like the Sooners’ best offensive lineman through four games. Young players have also stepped up.
This is the area where group chemistry and time on task can be diminished during a pandemic. Still, every other team went through the same thing, and not many can say they returned all five starters. This group needs to be better, and that could happen if UCLA transfer Chris Murray finds his way into the rotation after finally being declared eligible last week.
This group has been the most pleasant surprise on the team — and they haven’t even had their best player.
First-year starter Isaiah Thomas (1 1/2 quarterback sacks, 3 1/2 tackles for loss) at defensive end is among the Big 12’s top 10 d-linemen in both categories. And juco transfers Perrion Winfrey (2 1/2 tackles for loss) at noseguard and Josh Ellison at defensive tackle have both delivered impactful plays (particularly against Texas).
LaRon Stokes, who was Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year in 2019, hasn’t been as dynamic yet this year, although he has delivered 1 1/2 tackles for loss. DT Kori Roberson, DT Jordan Kelley and DE Marcus Stripling have been solid.
This group could get a significant lift this week if All-Big 12 DE Ronnie Perkins returns from suspension. Perkins’ ability and non-stop motor impact offensive game plans, but finding a good ratio at the position for him and Thomas — or possibly playing both at the same time — needs to happen.
Another position that has been good and could be getting better. Middle linebacker DaShaun White leads the Sooners with 4.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 quarterback sacks, and rush linebacker is right behind with 3.5 and 2.0.
Weakside linebacker Brian Asamoah, a first-year starter, leads the Sooners with 27 tackles, including 2.0 TFL, and has made plays all over the field.
Rush linebacker Jon-Michael Terry also has been good in his first year as a major contributor with 10 tackles, 1 1/2 TFLs and a sack.
But the real promise may be from sophomore David Ugwoegbu, who switched to middle linebacker, could still play the rush linebacker, or could even play weakside if needed, and showed against Texas how disruptive he can be with a sack and a blocked punt.
Others like Robert Barnes and Jamal Morris are waiting in the wings after switching positions, but there’s so much front-end talent, coaches might want to slim down the rotation some.
Easily the most disappointing position on the field, making one wonder if there has been some carryover from the burn marks left by LSU.
Free safety Delarrin Turner-Yell has been by far the most consistent (he did miss the Peach Bowl due to injury) and is second on the team with 22 tackles to go with two tackles for loss. But he’s also suffered periods of inconsistency as well.
Captain Pat Fields also has made 22 tackles at strong safety, but he has struggled with coverage (particularly with penalties) and with missed tackles.
Senior cornerback Tre Brown is a three-year starter who has delivered plenty of big plays in his career, but also has struggled with penalties and was picked on frequently before his game-clinching interception against Texas.
First-year starter Jaden Davis has had ups and downs, too, but has been mostly consistent and reliable in coverage, especially in the win over Texas.
And nobody has struggled as much as nickel back Brendan Radley-Hiles, who has given up plays in coverage, committed big penalties and missed tackles. Radley-Hiles plays with confidence and energy, but offenses have isolated his physical shortcomings.
What’s interesting in this group is the amount of new faces the coaches brought out versus Texas. Woodi Washington moved from safety to corner and looked confident and aware in coverage (two PBUs and an end zone interception). Jeremiah Criddell got some snaps at both nickel and deep safety. And true freshmen like Bryson Washington, D.J. Graham and Joshua Eaton all got time in crucial moments against Texas.
It’s been feast or famine so far this season, which could be another reflection of time on task during the COVID era.
Allowing blocked punt was critical in the loss to Kansas State. Giving up an 85-yard kickoff return contributed directly to the loss to Iowa State. And an inexplicable missed field goal (hey, they happen) could have ended the Texas game.
But a blocked field goal and a blocked punt against Texas (first for that two-fer since the 1999 opener) were quite simply the difference between winning and losing.
Reeves Mundschau has been solid but with only a 38.4-yard average, which ranks last among all Big 12 punters. Gabe Brkic only has the one miss after sitting out the season opener (when Stephen Johnson came in and went 2-for-2) and has 11 touchbacks on 19 kickoffs.
Kickoff returns have been largely pedestrian (Rambo averages 25.5 yards), but punt returns have been great (Mims is averaging 16.8 yards per return, with big ones in the opener against Missouri State and in the most recent game against Texas).
Lincoln Riley’s game management has been called into question, especially in late situations against Texas. Those critical situations might have turned out in OU’s favor if players had caught the football or made better throws or converted easy kicks.
But the more appropriate questions might be about Riley’s enthusiasm to trust young players to come through in win-or-lose situations. So far, they haven’t. Riley might be better served to coach by the book rather than trust young players, but how will those young players ever grow up if their coach doesn’t lean on them in important times of the game?
The craziness of 2020 has allowed Riley to shine in how he handles crises and how he relates to his players. Unprecedented dilemmas in the realms of COVID and social injustice show Riley has an innate feel for contemporary leadership.
Sports Illustrated called him the coach of the future for a reason.
Riley has also had to break in a young coach (DeMarco Murray) and another new coach (Jamar Cain).
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, meanwhile, has become frustrated by unnecessary penalties, technique breakdowns in coverage and the team’s continued lack of takeaways — although Grinch was happy after the latter turned around in the late stages of the Red River Rivalry.
Grinch’s magical turnaround last year seems to have leveled out in 2020, but as he’s begun to integrate young DBs into the scheme, there may yet be time for Grinch’s defense to recapture that magic.
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