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Oklahoma Sooners Football: The Playcalling Problem

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Lincoln Riley was considered one of the game’s best coordinators. Is he losing his edge?

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

When Lincoln Riley arrived in Norman before last season, he had one major thing going for him: he wasn’t Josh Heupel. Heupel had just overseen one of the more lackluster offenses in recent memory, was notoriously hit-or-miss and had worn out his welcome. Riley was a fresh face with an old solution: the Air Raid.

Boy, did he deliver. In his first season, Riley rode a gunslinger quarterback, a star receiver and two talented backs all the way to the Playoff. A star was made, and Riley was considered one of the game’s best assistants.

But now he’s been in town long enough to oversee four OU losses and a growing discontent. The verdict was the same after the first three—the Sooners had abandoned the running game. They rushed for just 67 yards when they got upset in Dallas. Ditto for the Orange Bowl letdown, 67 yards. In Houston? 70.

And then they went and rushed for 177 yards against Ohio State and still got the ever-loving crap beat out of them. I mean, 177 yards isn’t amazing, but against that defense? It definitely blew up the theory that, for Riley, handoffs were equivalent to wins.

Statistically, OU hasn’t had a bad offense this season. It’s averaging 6.9 yards per play and has the nation’s 24th-ranked pass offense. So what gives?

Well, a few things. Riley is struggling this year because of an over-reliance on Baker Mayfield and Samaje Perine, costly turnovers and poor execution.

There was a lot of talk during the offseason about how Baker was progressing in Riley’s system. He bulked up a little and, with no QB competition to win, really had time to dive into the nuances of the Air Raid. Baker used the word “comfortable” a lot in the preseason, implying that he understood the offense in a way that would take him from the Heisman fringe to the New York stage this year.

Unfortunately, that just hasn’t panned out against tough competition. Not only is Baker no better than last year, but the early returns show a significant step back. He’s holding the ball too long, taking silly sacks, throwing picks and his legs are a total nonfactor, negating the QB running game Riley wanted to use.

So Baker’s not doing Riley any favors, but he’s also been put in some tough situations. OU faced a lot of second- and third-and-longs against Ohio State because Perine wasn’t moving the ball on first down, especially after Cody Ford went out. No one can blame Riley for wanting to feed Perine the rock, but at a certain point it becomes frustrating—it seemed like Riley was the last person to realize that Joe Mixon needed more touches. That’s probably not a mistake he’ll make again this Saturday.

Some of the trouble, too, has come from sloppy play and poor execution. Mixon dropped a second-down pass over the middle with lots of grass in front of him against the Buckeyes. Mark Andrews had a ball go through his hands at the goal line. And Dede Westbrook missed a wide-open Dimitri Flowers on a fourth-quarter trick play against Houston. Again, none of that helps Riley out.

The areas where Riley could really improve are red zone and fourth-down playcalling. OU has yet to convert a fourth down this year on four tries, which is not a trend they can keep up and still win the Big 12. Also, a big chunk of OU’s touchdowns this year are coming from big plays—like the 35-yard pass to A.D. Miller, or Mark Andrews’s 64-yard grab. In the red zone, OU is settling for too many field goals (or field goal attempts, I should say). Riley will have to use his weapons and win more battles on the short field.

Fundamentally, I think a big problem for Riley is the dynamic between the offense he runs (the Air Raid) and the best weapons he has (Mixon and Perine). There’s always been tension there because Riley knows it would be dumb to throw the ball as much as he wants to. In an ideal world, Riley would have two stellar receivers and adequate running backs instead of the other way around. As long as Riley, Mixon and Perine are on campus together, Riley won’t be running the offense he’s most comfortable with.

Riley really misses Sterling Shepard right now, a superb route-runner who extended plays and drives for Baker and allowed OU to win games (like Tennessee) it really shouldn’t have. He’s also missing Ty Darlington, a guy whose knowledge and leadership made up for whatever size problems he may have had.

But Riley’s known all along what he had to work with this year. In Fort Worth, it’s time to put up (points) or shut up.