Watching the Tulane Green Wave storm back in a near-upset of the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday brought back familiar feelings for OU fans.
OU went into the halftime break with a 37-14 lead, on the verge of cruising to an easy win. About 28 minutes of game time later, Tulane had the ball near midfield with a chance to take the lead. The Sooners pulled out a 40-35 victory, but it seemed eerily reminiscent of a slew of performances from 2020.
For example, OU led Kansas State by three touchdowns in the third quarter of their game last year; the Sooners ended up on the losing end of a 38-35 final. OU coughed up a 14-point lead in the final four minutes of what became an overtime victory against the Texas Longhorns. The Sooners were up by 17 points over the Iowa State Cyclones at halftime of the 2020 Big 12 title game, and ISU still had a chance to win late in the contest.
Although teams squandering leads is far from uncommon in college football, this seems to be happening to the Sooners too often. Explaining why it is happening is tough, but we do know something about the “how.” Put simply, some plays in football are more important than others in influencing the outcome of a game, and the Sooners are ending up on the wrong end of too many of them. Two stood out in the second half.
OU split zone not good pic.twitter.com/dM6qSDGLd3— Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism) September 6, 2021
In the middle of the third quarter, OU is leading by 23 points and facing fourth down and a yard to go at its own 46 yard line. Rolling with 12 personnel, OU lines up with H-back Brayden Willis at tight end to the right side of the line. Quarterback Spencer Rattler sets up in the shotgun with H-back Jeremiah Hall directly to his left and running back Kennedy Brooks directly to his right.
Tulane matches OU’s heavy personnel package with four defensive linemen and three linebackers. The Green Wave essentially put seven defenders in the box, loading up to stop the run.
The play call is split zone: The OU offensive line blocks down to the left, with Hall blocking across the flow of the play to the backside. Unfortunately for the Sooners, Tulane LB Kevin Henry (No. 33) is in a run blitz. From a standup position on Willis’ outside shoulder, Henry builds up a head of steam and jumps the snap call to knife through the gap between Willis and right tackle Tyrese Robinson. Brooks takes the handoff from Rattler and finds Henry, Willis and Hall all in his immediate path, so he bounces right and heads outside into Tulane’s pursuing defenders. The play results in a four-yard loss.
If this call looked familiar at the time, that’s because OU had run the exact same play on a successful fourth-down conversion in the second quarter.
The decision to go for it? Fine. A handoff into a stuffed run box? Not so fine. Calling the same play Tulane just saw? Hubris.
The second example sees OU commit an unforced error that again gifts Tulane the ball in plus territory.
Up 18 near the start of the fourth quarter, the Sooners are looking at third-and-nine from their own 26. Tulane is running its third-down package, bringing a blitzer from depth off the left side of OU’s offensive line and dropping seven players into coverage. RB Eric Gray snuffs out the blitz, giving Rattler a clean pocket. An off-target throw from OU’s QB ends up in the hands of a Tulane DB, however, giving the Green Wave the ball at the OU 46.
Did Rattler sail the throw? Did H-back Austin Stogner blow the route? Was there a miscommunication between the two? Whatever the case may be, an INT is an absolutely unacceptable outcome there. Throwing high in the middle of the field constitutes an unnecessary risk.
It’s also fair to wonder why OU is throwing the ball at all in this situation. A run call admittedly has a lower chance of gaining the first down, but it keeps the clock running. Meanwhile, an OU punt means Tulane likely gets the ball around its own 20 with 13 minutes left needing scores on three possessions.
It’s very easy to sit down days after a game and nitpick every decision a coach makes that didn’t work in the course of the contest. If Riley had the benefit of hindsight, he also would have done things differently.
Nevertheless, OU essentially handed Tulane these two opportunities in plus territory to get back in the game. The Green Wave made the most of them, putting two touchdowns on the board. (It bears mentioning that the Sooners didn’t capitalize on similar Tulane miscues – three Green Wave fumbles in the first half yielded three OU field goals.)
In the end, Tulane looked like a team that was trying to beat Oklahoma. Tulane’s superb coach Willie Fritz and his staff clearly scouted OU well leading up to the game. Meanwhile, Fritz hired a great offensive coordinator in the offseason in Chip Long, who installed a new offensive scheme in time for the matchup. Adding a QB like Will Pratt to the mix made the Green Wave even more formidable.
For their part, the Sooners gave off big “dress rehearsal” energy. The odds are much better than not that they will shape up in the coming weeks. But Riley should still evaluate how he is contributing to the malaise that continues to creep in in these situations for his team.