Lincoln Riley doesn’t think Oklahoma’s 3-0 start has been perfect.
In his weekly press conference on Tuesday, the head coach didn’t shy away from the Sooners’ rocky nonconference performances. In its first three games, OU needed a fourth-down stop to escape Tulane, looked unstoppable in a 76-point win over Western Carolina, then avoided a late surge by Nebraska.
The Sooners’ offense, which finished ranked No. 11 in total offense in 2020, has fallen to No. 23 in the same category this season. While OU’s passing offense is the Big 12’s best at 291.7 yards per game, the team’s rushing attack currently ranks fifth in the conference at 195.7 yards per game.
Additionally, Oklahoma — which had only eight possessions Saturday — scored its fewest in a game under Riley in its 23-16 win over the Cornhuskers. For OU to find its offensive groove, Riley believes it’ll take a team effort.
“We need to play more consistently across the board,” Riley said. “I would say it's pretty symptomatic at every position. Every position level is playing pretty decent, we don't need anybody to be a lot better. We just need everybody to be a little better.
“I mean, we’ve all just kind of been OK. We’ve kind of all taken our turns. We had some periods where we played phenomenal against Tulane in the first half, we played pretty phenomenal the entire second game (against Western Carolina) and in the beginning (versus Nebraska) we played excellent against a pretty good group. So, we’ve had our periods, we’ve got to be able to sustain it.”
Oklahoma held a 37-14 lead at halftime over the Green Wave, but was outscored 21-3 in the second half before defeating Tulane 40-35. Against Nebraska, the Sooners held a 23-9 advantage and a one-handed interception by sophomore cornerback D.J Graham gave the ball back to OU with 8:16 left in the game.
The Sooners subsequently went three-and-out, and Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez found receiver Omar Manning for a 21-yard score three plays later. Given the ball back with under six minutes to go, OU embarked on a nine-play, 44-yard drive that lasted 4:41. However, Oklahoma was still forced to punt for its fourth time, setting up the Sooner defense’s game-winning stop.
“We’ve had a couple opportunities to separate,” Riley said. “As a team, that’s something we’ve got to be able to do a better job. Play a little bit more quality ball and take advantage of those leads. … We've played a couple close games, we'll play more close games going forward. That's the nature of it right now. And for us to show that ability and have that confidence in those critical moments is a great thing.”
Although OU’s defense ranks seventh overall in the Big 12, the unit’s late-game heroics is mainly why the Sooners aren’t 1-2 on the season, as they were a year ago.
Under Riley, who holds a 48-8 head coaching record in five years, Oklahoma’s offense is often credited for the Sooners’ wins. With the team appearing to now have a defense that could be the best since Riley’s arrival, its offense is focused on improvement.
“We didn’t score as much as we planned on, but sometimes it happens like that,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler said after OU-Nebraska. “It’s college football. Every game is going to be a battle, no matter what people say on the outside. … We should’ve had 40-plus (points), but we’ve gotta finish. With the defense, it’s great to have those guys on the same sideline with you. If we don’t convert on a third down, they’re going to go out there and shut them down.”
Riley also believes Oklahoma isn’t the only top team not playing to its full potential this season. The Sooners dropped to No. 4 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll on Tuesday, and the poll’s top three — outside of their records — haven’t played flawlessly.
No. 3 Oregon opened its season with a narrow 31-24 win over No. 22 Fresno State, No. 2 Georgia didn’t score an offensive touchdown in a 10-3 victory over No. 9 Clemson and No. 1 Alabama escaped No. 11 Florida 32-29 last Saturday.
Riley said alongside the continued monitoring of the COVID-19 delta variant, the return of full capacity to stadiums across the country could play a role in college football’s uncharacteristic start. In particular, he noted half his team hadn’t played in a full stadium until Sept. 11 against the Catamounts.
“There’s just a lot new right now,” Riley said. “The preparation has still been very unusual, although way more normal. … I mean, is that symptomatic nationwide? Hard for me to say. But I do know, execution wise, maybe offenses are just a shade behind where most people typically were at this point (in years prior). That’s certainly not an excuse and I don’t want to speak for everybody, but it’s still all a little unique right now.
“I think we feel like we’ve got the makings of a really good group. And I think there's a pretty general consensus around our program that we feel like we're pretty close and probably a little bit closer than a lot of people think.”