In a game that too often resembled Oklahoma's blowout Orange Bowl loss just months ago, the Sooners rode a combination of mental mistakes and overmatched linemen to a 33-23 defeat in Houston today. Though several OU players made solid starts, Houston picked on the same handful of unprepared Sooners all day long, demoralizing and ultimately breaking the heavily favored Oklahoma squad.
Before I start criticizing the Sooners, I should make one thing clear: Houston played an incredible game today, exploiting OU's weaknesses with surgical precision and answering all the preseason questions thrown their way. Just as they did in the Peach Bowl, their front seven shut down OU's rushing attack for entire quarters, rendering the Sooners offense one-dimensional and predictable. Houston won the turnover battle and played more physically than OU. They didn't even need Greg Ward's rushing ability--after sacks, he finished with one rushing yard on the day, and his longest scramble was for 11 yards.
Houston's last two victims are Florida State and Oklahoma. Not bad at all.
Oklahoma's weakest links were on defense today. The Sooners were almost entirely unsuccessful in their attempts to pressure Greg Ward with Will Johnson and Obo Okoronkwo, whose starter status may be called into question after today. Early on, OU tried to confuse Houston by shifting Johnson between the slot and the pass rush before the snap, but the Cougars responded with lightning-quick short passes that mitigated the rush and sapped Oklahoma's young defensive backs.
As anticipated, Houston mostly stayed away from experienced corners like Jordan Thomas, instead throwing over Dakota Austin and Parish Cobb over and over again. Austin was called for pass interference twice, both drive-saving third down flags.
Obo made several mental mistakes during his start, leaving Duke Catalon uncovered out of the backfield for an easy second-quarter score. He was also penalized for roughing the passer, reviving a stalled drive that ended with Houston's go-ahead field goal before the half. He did record nine tackles in the contest, the team's second-highest total behind Will Johnson's ten.
The coaching staff did OU few favors during this game. Though Lincoln Riley came out with a well-choreographed series for the game's first touchdown, he eventually abandoned the running attack and led the Sooners down the same hole that got them beat in Dallas and Florida last year. They rushed for a net 70 yards on the day, compared to 67 against Texas and Clemson last season.
The staff also let the Sooners down during Austin Seibert's third-quarter field goal attempt. The players certainly should have noticed Brandon Wilson, but they looked entirely unprepared for the possibility of his return. That's a problem easily solved by some coach going, "Hey, watch that guy."
Luck did not favor the Sooners at all today. Jarvis Baxter was pretty clearly down when the ball popped out of his grip at midfield in the third quarter, but the play was ruled a fumble and there was no replay angle where the ball could be seen. It was a bad call that became impossible to overturn. Predictably, it resulted in a Cougar touchdown.
So what can Oklahoma do?
The Sooners will have no problems with the Warhawks, but Ohio State looms in just two weeks. To win that game, the Sooners will have to commit to a running game even if it doesn't work well in the early going. Riley will just have to decide that he's going to live or die by the run, because his offensive line isn't talented enough to keep a physical front seven away from Baker Mayfield and support a consistent downfield passing game. He should also diversify his short passing attack, as dropoffs to Mixon and Perine actually worked pretty well against the Cougars.
The OU receivers didn't have a horrible day, but they were unable to find daylight consistently when Mayfield needed them the most. That's not a great sign, considering Houston's secondary was widely considered its weakest link. Ohio State's will be better. The receivers must improve their route-running and work on extending plays.
Oklahoma's defense is in a tough spot. It was kind of bizarre hearing it constantly praised by the broadcasters, but they were right--in some respects, it did a good job. It almost entirely contained Greg Ward. Duke Catalon didn't have a big day. And the OU offense didn't help out much, spotting the Cougars good field position and a special-teams touchdown.
OU really has no choice but to push young players like Parrish Cobb, Parnell Motley and Kapri Doucet. If they can grow up quickly, the defense has a chance to be average. Not best-in-the-Big-12 good, or top-20-nationally good, but feasible. Good enough.
If OU can't improve and wise up, it can't beat Ohio State and it can't win the Big 12. Not the way it played today.