Despite a hard-fought win against the Texas Longhorns in last week’s Red River Rivalry, the 2020 Oklahoma Sooners have struggled more than any of the Lincoln Riley-led teams in his tenure. Through three conference games, Oklahoma has been unable to play a full 60 minutes, leading to a 1-2 conference record. With the Big 12 not looking like a candidate to have a representative in the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2016, one has to wonder: Why is this year’s squad different from the teams led by Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts? Here are three of the biggest reasons why Oklahoma has not lived up to expectations:
1. Spencer Rattler is making more mistakes than previous OU QBs
One of the biggest differences for Oklahoma is the fact they are starting a non-transfer QB for the first time since 2014. Instead, OU is starting redshirt freshman QB Spencer Rattler. Even though Rattler is oozing with potential, he has made his fair share of mistakes — which is expected for somebody with as little experience as he has. Through four games this season, Rattler has already thrown five interceptions. All five of his interceptions have come in conference play. Moreover, 60% of Rattler’s interceptions this year came in a loss to Kansas State in Week 4.
Many of these interceptions came at crucial times. For example, Oklahoma ended both the game against Kansas State and the game against Iowa State on interceptions by Rattler. These two crucial picks happened because Rattler was trying to do too much. Against Kansas State, Rattler simply airmailed what should have been an easy first down with about 39 seconds left. Against Iowa State, Rattler threw an interception into double coverage that could have been avoided since it was only first down and there was over a minute left on the clock. This sealed the upset victory over the Sooners for Iowa State. Rattler’s lone interception against Texas may have not been in the most dire of circumstances, but it still spoke to Rattler’s inexperience, as he eyed his receiver the whole time and a Texas linebacker knew exactly where the ball was going to intercept the pass. Rattler has also fumbled the ball three total times in conference play with only one being lost.
Currently, Rattler leads the Big 12 in interceptions with five and in sacks taken with 10. The pressure that Oklahoma has given up has been key in Rattler turning the ball over at such a high rate. It may be unfair to compare Rattler to the QBs that came before him, but the numbers are clear: Through four games, Mayfield, Murray, and Jalen Hurts had interception numbers of 0, 2 and 1, respectively. Sure, these three quarterbacks may have had better offenses to work with, but this Oklahoma team is still averaging the most total yards in the Big 12 with 502 per game, the most passing yards in the Big 12 with 358 per game and the second most points in the conference with 41.5 per game. Turnovers are always detrimental to a team’s success, and Rattler will have to keep these numbers down if Oklahoma wants to be even better on the offensive side of the ball.
2. Inability to hold onto big leads
In every conference game this season, Oklahoma has led by 10 or more points at some juncture. This is great and all, but a big lead is nothing if a team cannot figure out a way to hold onto it. Oklahoma has only suffered two losses in which they held a big lead, but Oklahoma was extremely lucky to not add a third such loss. Against Kansas State, the Sooners held a 35-14 lead over the Wildcats late in the third quarter; however, the Sooners did not score a single point in the fourth quarter and gave up 24 unanswered points in about the last 17 minutes of gametime to lose by a margin of 38-35.
In the Iowa State game, the Sooners held a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter before giving up 14 unanswered points to lose 37-30. The Sooners held a 17-6 lead early in this game before they were outscored 31-13 the rest of the way. The Sooners got complacent on offense and did not play disciplined football in these games.
Against Texas, things did not get better as Oklahoma led 10-0 to start the game before it blew that lead, and the Sooners led 31-17 from the end of the third to about three minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Sooners were unable to hold this lead, either, as the Longhorns were able to send the game to overtime. Oklahoma would go on to win, but this is really not the formula for success, especially with teams like Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State still looming on the schedule.
3. Giving up too many explosive plays
The defensive side of the ball has given Oklahoma fits for years, but it seemed like Oklahoma had turned a corner, somewhat, after the job that Alex Grinch did last season as the defensive coordinator. Despite completely revamping the defense from one of the worst units in 2018 to a much better defense in 2019, Oklahoma has continually shown an inability to prevent big plays.
This was especially evident in the last two games of the 2019 season, when Baylor and LSU were able to either stick with OU or run past the Sooners. Currently, Oklahoma’s defense isn’t down as much as these games would indicate. Oklahoma is giving up 96.5 rushing yards per game, and the passing defense has improved from last season, allowing 246 passing yards per game compared to 357.1 last season. Oklahoma has indeed shown glimpses of playing sound football on the defensive side of the ball. The issues are still with the big plays, however, that has allowed opponents to climb back from double-digit deficits. In the Kansas State game, three of the Wildcats’ last five scoring drives took three or fewer plays to get a touchdown. Against Iowa State, Oklahoma gave up a 65-yard touchdown through the air to give ISU a 23-20 lead along with a huge kickoff return that took Iowa State all the way to Oklahoma’s 3-yard line to set up the tying score. Oklahoma also gave up some big plays to ISU tight end Charlie Kolar that made it difficult to hold onto a big lead.
Oklahoma made some adjustments last week that forced Texas to use a more methodical approach to get down the field, but QB Sam Ehlinger was still able to pull off a 20-yard scramble late in the game to get Texas in position to only be down by one touchdown.
Overall, despite the metrics being friendly to Oklahoma, the team will have a hard time winning a lot of games if it is not able to stop other teams from getting huge plays that build a lot of momentum.