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‘It hung in the balance for a bit’: What the Sooners’ 48-0 win over Missouri State reveals about OU football in the COVID-19 era

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Lincoln Riley and Spencer Rattler

Head coach Lincoln Riley talks with redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler during the Sooners' season opener against Missouri State on Sept. 12.

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley had an eventful Saturday night.

His redshirt freshman quarterback, Spencer Rattler, threw for 290 yards and four touchdowns in his debut as starter in the Sooners’ 48-0 win over Missouri State, and his defense held the Bears to just 135 yards of total offense.

But his Friday leading up to the game sounded much more dramatic.

That’s when, according to a report from the Springfield, Missouri, News-Leader, Missouri State President Clif Smart thought the game was in “jeopardy” after finding out about the Sooners’ COVID-19 test results. Before the kickoff, The Daily learned from a source inside the program that 29 players would miss Saturday’s game, with 17 players being in quarantine and 11 others in isolation.

“(Being able to play) hung in the balance for a bit,” Riley acknowledged afterward, “but we were able to do it. Thankful we were able to.”

Big 12 rules say teams have to have at least 53 players, one quarterback and seven offensive linemen test negative during game week. Despite so many of his players testing positive, Riley saw it as an opportunity to get more players game action in the first OU sporting event to be held since campus reopened for fall.

“It’s maybe not exactly how you draw it up,” Riley said, “but it’s either one of two things: You either see it as a hindrance and say ‘poor me’ ... or you look at it as an opportunity. An opportunity to see some new players that maybe we wouldn't have seen. An opportunity as coaches to test yourselves and to be able to adjust when things come up. We had a lot of opportunities tonight, and it was fun to see the guys that stepped up and played in those places.”

But through the uncertainty, OU’s season opener answered an important question: What is OU football going to look like on a week-by-week basis in the COVID-19 era?

From a team standpoint, it showcased depth. Junior running back T.J. Pledger was named OU’s starter on Thursday’s first depth chart of the season. By Saturday, Pledger was in quarantine, so redshirt freshman Marcus Major and, more notably, freshman Seth McGowan stepped up.

On the depth chart for left tackle, freshman Anton Harrison and redshirt freshman Stacey Wilkins were out due to quarantine or isolation. So redshirt junior Adrian Ealy moved from right tackle to left tackle, allowing redshirt senior Erik Swenson to fill in the right tackle spot.

“A lot of those guys, especially in the start group, have played a lot of ball,” Riley said. “And so I thought we had to move some guys around to make the night work, and those guys with their experience in the system and game experience were able to do that. So that was a luxury that our experience afforded us tonight for sure.”

Sure, Missouri State is an FCS opponent, but OU still resembled a well-oiled machine able to battle through adversity. Players are tested three times on game week, and the healthy guys are more than capable of filling the gaps.

The fan experience was a different story. While there were many gaps — per COVID-19 requirements — in most of the stadium, fans in the student section often ignored OU’s mask mandate, and on a plethora of seats in the student section, there were stickers that read, “Please leave this seat vacant.” Spectators ripped those off and sat where they pleased. Per an email from a spectator to The Daily, security personnel who tried to enforce mask-wearing and socially distanced seating were ignored and sometimes berated.

Saturday night’s attendance of 22,700 — in a venue that seats 86,112 — experienced a new era of college football. In a sellout game, over 63,000 seats remained empty while cardboard cutouts lined the lower rows behind the team sidelines.

In an interview recorded Friday and played on the radio broadcast at halftime, OU’s Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler listed the necessary safety measures for ensuring the safety of fans watching the game in person.

"The stadium has been laid out with seating that will keep everybody physically distanced," Bratzler said. "We know that your risk of getting this infection is greatest when you’re in close proximity to somebody and you don’t have a mask on. When somebody else is speaking or even breathing, droplets are coming out of your mouth, so that’s why we’re so strongly encouraging the wearing of masks.”

That interview aired as those very precautions were being ignored in multiple areas in the stadium, especially the student section.

OU Athletics Director Joe Castiglione said in an interview with Chris Plank at halftime that “game day has gone as good as we could have hoped.”

Only time — and test results, for both those on the field and in the stands — will tell what is ahead for the rest of the season.

While on the field it was a success, there’s still at least nine more games scheduled. The Sooners host Kansas State on Sept. 26, a two-week gap the athletic department built into the schedule to gauge the aftermath of game one. Next, Sooners face Iowa State for their first road game in the COVID-19 era.

Saturday night was both exciting and flawed, with highlights and worrisome moments. In short, perhaps a glimpse of what to expect the rest of the way.

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Caleb McCourry is the assistant sports editor at The Daily and is a junior at OU majoring in English. He's covered football, basketball and volleyball. 

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