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‘A completely different team’: No. 4 Oklahoma’s win over TCU wakes offense, shakes defense as Sooners begin College Football Playoff push

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Caleb Williams and Lincoln Riley

Freshman quarterback Caleb Williams (left) talks to head coach Lincoln Riley (right) during the homecoming game against TCU on Oct. 16.

The #Sooners conquered TCU on Saturday in a 52-31 homecoming win. Watch our highlights from the game:

Filmed by Georgia Bomar and Justin Jayne

Edited by Georgia Bomar

Three weeks ago, Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler were watching an Oklahoma squad still looking for its stride.

The ABC/ESPN hosts were in Norman when fans rained boos Sept. 25 on the OU offense during its sluggish 17-14 win over West Virginia. That night they also heard the shouts of “We Want Caleb,” as the student section beckoned freshman quarterback Caleb Williams to supplant incumbent redshirt sophomore starter Spencer Rattler, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.

Two weeks later, they watched Williams do that and more, leading the Sooners to a legendary comeback victory over Texas in the Red River Showdown. That win brought them back to Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, as students got what they’d called for, and a national story bore itself out: Williams earned his first career start, and the broadcasting duo who call ABC’s evening national game got its third OU game in four weeks.

Behind Williams, a revamped running game, an emerging receiving corps and a defense that was again not great, but good enough, No. 4 OU (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) pulled away for a 52-31 victory over the TCU Horned Frogs (3-3, 1-2) before 84,391 supporters. Fans exploded when Williams was announced as the starter minutes before kickoff. Their energies only grew throughout the night as head coach Lincoln Riley’s team began to model the prolific offense and sufficient defense it has exhibited each year since he came to OU in 2015 — the early portions of this season notwithstanding — and putting the nation on notice.

“It’s a different energy, man,” Herbstreit said on the ABC broadcast. “We’ve been around this team three times in the last few weeks. A completely different team — not offense, team — in the second half last week, tonight for four quarters.”

The Sooners’ offensive resurgence begins with Williams, who threw for 295 yards and four touchdowns on 18-of-23 passing against TCU. He also rushed for 66 yards and another score on nine carries, giving OU a duality it lacked with Rattler, who hasn’t run for more than 35 yards in a game this fall and did not enter the game Saturday.

OU’s offense was averaging 6.4 yards per play through its three initial conference games, all Rattler starts, but averaged eight against Texas thanks in part to Williams. With Williams at the helm against Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs, typically known for stout defense, the Sooners racked up a whopping 9.1 yards per play.

“I think with Spencer Rattler in there they were still effective, but it was almost like they were just stuck,” Herbstreit said during the game. “They didn’t quite play as good as they could as a team, and I feel like what we’ve seen with Caleb Williams in there, we’ve seen a very different team.”

Williams’ supporting cast was headlined by redshirt junior running back Kennedy Brooks, whose 153 yards and touchdown on 20 carries accounted for two-thirds of OU’s 230 team rushing yards. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jadon Haselwood also shined, snagging a team-high six catches for 56 yards and three touchdowns while emerging as a dominant red zone weapon.

OU’s 525 yards were its second-most against an FBS opponent this season, and TCU responded with 529 of its own, extending a unique Riley-era trend. Since 2017 when Riley became head coach, the Sooners have secured an NCAA-leading eight victories in games where they produced and allowed 500 or more yards.

Oklahoma’s weakness against TCU was its defense, which was ironically and unusually its strength through its first four games. The unit known as Speed D did recover a fumble forced by freshman cornerback Latrell McCutchin and scooped by senior linebacker DaShaun White, but he proceeded to fumble it out the end zone, failing to convert it to points. As defensive coordinator Alex Grinch put it, mistakes have “snowballed” in recent games, leading to OU allowing 420 and 516 yards against Kansas State and Texas, respectively, then a season high against TCU.

“There's not a lot of teams in the country that are 7-0, and obviously our expectation is a whole lot higher — in terms of our performance — a whole lot higher than what we've been putting on film over the last couple of weeks,” Grinch said. “And so there's a pattern forming, and that's the first thing you think about, what are the things you have to fix.

“You have two options as a coach. You enhance things that are good or you fix things that are bad, and there's a lot of fixes right now. But certainly, to be a 7-0 football team and not play your best football, and then still find a way to make enough plays, to get enough stops, to find yourself in the win category is certainly exciting.”

Not all defensive struggles are coaching related, though. Starting safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, cornerback Woodi Washington and defensive lineman Jalen Redmond were out with injuries Saturday. Starting cornerback D.J. Graham exited with a potential concussion, and starting linebacker Brian Asamoah was also shaken up.

Fortunately for the Sooners, they’ll finish the month termed in OU lore as “Red October” with a lighter load than usual. Oklahoma next faces Kansas at 11 a.m. on Oct. 23 in Lawrence and Texas Tech on Oct. 31 at home. The Jayhawks (1-5, 0-3) and Red Raiders (5-2, 2-2) are among the lesser threats in the Big 12.

OU will hit its bye the week after Halloween, when the first College Football Playoff rankings will be released, but faces a tough finish in November. To claim its seventh-straight Big 12 title and make a push for the playoff, it’ll have to defeat currently one-loss Baylor, 2020 conference runner-up Iowa State and undefeated No. 12 Oklahoma State.

“The stretch run for OU is no joke,” Fowler said on-air. “They always wear a big target. I mean, you probably gotta lose a couple not to get to the Big 12 Championship Game, but if they’re going for perfection, for a playoff bid and all that stuff, they’ll be pressurized.”

However the CFP door is again open for the Sooners after No. 2 Iowa fell to unranked Purdue Saturday and the rest of college football aside from No. 1 Georgia appears volatile. Despite the mounting challenges and pressure, there’s growing confidence in the Sooners’ locker room that they will be ready for another Championship November.

“This team is getting better as we go,” Riley told ESPN’s Holly Rowe after Saturday’s win as Williams patted him on the back. “Hopefully we can keep getting a little better, get a few guys healthy and try to make our late run in the season.”

Sports editor

Mason Young is the OU Daily's sports editor and covers OU football. He was previously assistant sports editor and has covered women's gym, wrestling and former Sooners in the NFL. Email Mason at masyoung@ou.edu and follow him on Twitter @Mason_Young_0

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