Every team is entitled to a bad day, but for the highly ranked OU football contingent it was a monumentally bad day at NRG Stadium on Saturday.
Sep 3, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) runs with the ball on a keeper during the second quarter against the Houston Cougars at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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Not that the Sooners haven’t played this poorly before. They clearly had been there, done that before. But with several weeks, even months, to prepare for what everyone in college football knew would be a challenging opening game, Oklahoma’s performance for most of the game against 15th-ranked and underdog Houston resembled something more like the opening day of fall training camp.
O.K., that might seem a bit too harsh, but the fact remains that Sooners were totally outplayed and out-prepared and ultimately became easy prey for a more physical, determined band of Cougars who played with much more heart and purpose than Oklahoma did on this opening weekend of the 2016 college season.
It might be a little less painful if we could point to just one or two things that went recklessly off the rails on Saturday, but that would be an ingenuous sidestep of the myriad of problems that this highly-ranked Sooner team put on public display in Week 1 of the new season.
To begin with, head coach Bob Stoops said, in a pregame interview with ESPN’s Tom Luginbill, that his team was excited for the game and ready to play with the sense of urgency that this game demanded. That may have been true during the Sooners opening drive, which resulted in a go-ahead touchdown, but it seemingly dissipated after about 20 minutes.
Sep 3, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Samaje Perine (32) makes a reception during the first quarter against the Houston Cougars at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The real truth came in Stoops postgame interview comments: “They out-executed us. They made some big plays overall and great plays on third down, and we couldn’t. That’s the bottom line.”
Here are the problems that trouble me the most in a 20-20 retrospective examination of this game:
The Oklahoma offensive line and the defensive secondary, both heralded as strengths of this year’s squad coming into the new season, failed to live up to that expectation against Houston.
Houston scored in each of its five first-half possessions, resulting in four field goals and a touchdown. The Sooners were fortunate the score wasn’t 35-17 at the half.
Five of the six penalties assessed against the Sooners were on the defense: a couple of roughing the passer calls that came in critical situations and a couple of questionable pass interference calls that were somewhat suspect.
The Sooner defense appeared to be adequately prepared for the dangerous running ability of Greg Ward Jr., but the Houston quarterback adjusted by continually torching the OU secondary with his arm making backbreaking completions on critical third downs to keep drives alive and advance the chains.
Baker Mayfield, who began the game completing his first nine pass attempts, held on to the ball far too long on multiple occasions in the second half, presumably waiting for coverages to break down and receivers to get open. Or perhaps he didn’t have the same trust in the receivers that he once had with sure-handed Sterling Shepard. Mayfield also sailed several passes high out of the reach of open receivers late in the game, including one targeted for fullback Dimitri Flowers who was open with nothing but open field in front of him for what have been a sure touchdown. One of many missed OU opportunities in the game.
The Oklahoma running game, with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, was working very well in the opening parts of the game, picking up nice yardage in early downs, leaving short yardage on second and third downs. The Sooner offense got away from that in the second half, becoming more one dimensional. “We were staying ahead of the chains, when you do that you have success on offense,” said Baker Mayfieldin the postgame interview session. “I think in the second half, we got a little greedy and tried to do too much and we got off track.”
The Sooners were not successful stopping Greg Ward Jr. and Houston on third downs, allowing the Cougars to sustain drives and control the ball, which also kept the Sooner offense on the sidelines. Houston possessed the ball for over 10 minutes longer the Oklahoma in this game, time that the Sooners could have desperately used.
Finally, the controversial decision to attempt a 53-yard field goal proved to be the turning point in the game. A likely miss by Austin Seibert, given that this would have been a career long for him at OU, would have set up the fired-up Houston offense with a short field. What happened, however, was even worse. The field goal attempt predictably was short and was fielded very near the back line of the end zone by the Cougars’ Brandon Wilson. That left the Sooners in a high-risk predicament because the coverage guys who were on the field to provide protection for the field goal attempt are not the same as the kick coverage team on kickoffs. ESPN sideline reporter Tom Luginbill, part of the ABC broadcast team covering this game, described the scene as “elephants on ice vs. jackrabbits.” Wilson took the missed kick back 109 yards for a touchdown and a 10-point swing on the scoreboard. A terrible decision that ended up shifting momentum in a big way and sucking what life was left in the Oklahoma comeback attempt.
Sports columnist Berry Tramel of the Oklahoma City Oklahoman summed up the game as well as anybody, in my opinion:
“Early, things were going quite well for OU,” Tramel wrote. “The Sooners scored touchdowns. Houston settled for field goals. Samaje Perine looked great. Joe Mixon looked better, and Baker Mayfield looked even more magical (completing his first nine passes in the game) than his fairy-tale season of 2015.
“You know the rest. OU’s defense wilted under an avalanche of big plays. OU’s offense stagnated.”
And here are the words from Tramel’s game commentary that hit me the hardest:
“The Sooners gave up a 109-yard field goal return that will live in the kind of infamy reserved for Boise State’s trick plays and the Sooner Schooner’s Orange Bowl penalty.”
Now the Sooners need to regroup and somehow put the opening-game loss behind them. Not the easiest thing to do, but they’ve got another opponent to get ready for next Saturday in Louisiana-Monroe, and a number of issues to get corrected before No. 6-ranked Ohio State comes rolling into Norman.
After what the Buckeyes will get to see of Oklahoma’s game with Houston, they will probably come in licking their chops. All Ohio State did on Saturday was demolish Bowling Green 77-10.