You saw many of the same issues that dogged OU in its previous 11 games – the kinds of things 6-6 teams do. An 18-point lead melted away during a stretch in the final seven minutes of the first half in which the Sooners had two possessions that lasted a total of 93 seconds. Defenders missed countless tackles. Receivers dropped passes that would have produced big gains. Veterans committed poorly timed penalties. There were gaffes on special teams.
And that’s only a partial list. Once again, the Sooners looked hell-bent on sabotaging themselves. The end result was another frustrating defeat in an easily winnable game. It capped off a campaign that even OU’s first-year head coach Brent Venables would have to admit qualified as an unequivocal failure by the program’s historical standards.
Interestingly, though, nothing about the way Venables approached this season betrayed a sense of urgency or desperation over a lackluster start to his tenure. He coached like someone who believes he has plenty of rope with the OU administration.
Take a look at the starting lineups and personnel rotations, for example. Unless a player went down with an injury, they rarely changed. Even after goals like a conference championship went down in flames, the coaching staff stayed the course with holdovers from the previous regime instead of going with a youth movement.
This is much to the chagrin of fans who were ready for a head start on the future. Yet, no one could accuse Venables of casting off the players left in the lurch by Lincoln Riley’s abrupt departure last year. It also gave newcomers and young players more time to develop without pressing them into early service.
Meanwhile, Venables avoided shortcuts when it came to game-planning. OU’s coaches didn’t try to mold schemes to fit the squad’s personnel, especially on defense. The Sooners schemed to their opponents instead and used multiple alignments.
That approach produced some ugly outings, such as the Baylor offensive line making mincemeat out of OU’s undersized defensive front. On the flip side, it gave the coaches a more thorough evaluation of the players they inherited without sacrificing the process of teaching the newcomers who will make up the core of the program in the future.
That all sounds more like a coach focused on trying to set up the program for the long haul than one worried about his team’s record in year one.
So how should we grade the performance of Venables and his coaching staff this season?
If we’re talking about winning games, they clearly don’t deserve high marks. The Sooners are going bowling for something like the billionth consecutive year, but that’s a low bar for OU. All things being equal, this team had enough quality players to win more than six games.
In fact, a record of 0-4 in matchups decided by seven points or fewer speaks to just how close this edition of the Sooners came to a much prettier season. It also suggests that Venables himself made enough critical mistakes on the margins in his first season as a head coach to flip some games away from OU. That warrants thorough self-evaluation – and some outside feedback on his performance – in the offseason. (Every coach should do that anyway.)
When it comes to Venables’ performance as a program builder, we don’t have the same kind of hard performance data at our fingertips. But there’s reason for optimism about what’s to come under his leadership. The Big 12 got better all around the Sooners as they were starting over with new schemes on both sides of the ball. For his part, Venables held fast to implementing his vision for the program. And even if it felt that way at times to fans, the team didn’t completely fall apart.
That’s cold comfort to people who want wins now, but Venables is charting a different course to sustainable success for OU’s program. We’ll know in a few seasons if it worked. Settle in for the long haul.