OU football: Lincoln Riley is certain of one thing about Sooner defense — it's sure to cause an overreaction
NORMAN — Lincoln Riley doesn’t know how the defense will play in Oklahoma’s opener.
Will it be remarkable, stirring the ghosts of glories past, Selmon and Casillas, Shoate and Superman? Or will it be repugnant, resurrecting ghosts that have haunted the Sooners in recent seasons?
Riley isn’t sure, even though he has seen behind the curtain more than most.
But when it comes to this revamped defense, the Sooner coach is certain of this: “Game 1, it doesn’t matter if (things) go well or they don’t … it’s going to be complete overreaction by the public on every part of it.”
That’s not the nature of Sooner Nation.
That’s human nature.
After an offseason spent trying to fix what has ailed the Sooners for lo these many seasons — OK, it’s only been the past three or four years, but man, it seems a lot longer — everyone wants to see what has changed. Jalen Hurts’ Sooner debut is a big deal, but his background would lead you to believe he will be OK. This defense? We’ll believe nothing until we see it.
And Sunday will be the first time we see Alex Grinch and Co. for the first time in a real, live game, so of course, everything we see will carry extra weight. The great moments will seem better. The bad ones will seem worse.
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A small sample size will magnify the result.
“One way or another, regardless of what happens, it’s one game,” Riley said. “You’ve gotta be careful not reading too much into it.”
He speaks from experience on this.
Riley was brought to OU in 2015 to fix an offense that seemed to have the requisite talent but that had lost its way. Recent years have made us forget what struggles had befallen the Sooner offense before Riley’s arrival, but he inherited a tough situation.
The fix was not immediate.
In Riley’s first game as offensive coordinator, a home opener against mid-major Akron, the Sooners had a first quarter to forget. Four punts. Three points. Two first downs.
The offense improved as the evening progressed — OU won 41-3 — but the next week at Tennessee, there were more struggles. Through three quarters, the Sooners had almost as many turnovers (two) as points (three).
But then in a fourth quarter as dramatic as any for OU in the past decade, Baker Mayfield started to build his legend and Riley’s offense started to find its stride. The Sooners won in double overtime in Knoxville, and while there would be lulls after that — even a loss to Texas — you knew the Air Raid would soar again in Norman.
“Our first few games here in 2015, we certainly didn’t light the world on fire offensively by any stretch,” Riley said. “We weren’t very good. Then I thought by the end of that season, if we weren’t the best offense in the country, we were pretty darn close.
“You just gotta make constant improvement.”
That’s what Riley will be focused on with this defense. Getting better week to week. Fixing what went wrong. Building on what went right.
Now, don’t misunderstand — Riley isn’t giving his defense a pass Sunday against Houston. Not at all.
“I expect us to play well,” he said of the defense.
This test counts, so the defense is going to be graded.
Riley is just using a curve.
I asked Monday during Riley’s weekly press conference what he wants to see out of the defense, what he will be measuring. He ticked off three hallmarks: communicating effectively, tackling well and creating turnovers.
“We know how important that is in this day and age of football,” Riley said. “We need to do those things. I’m not going to say we’re going to do them at an end-of-season level, but we expect to do them at a high level on Sunday.”
He will analyze and scrutinize those results just like everyone else. But on Sunday night, don’t expect Riley to offer a verdict the big question. He won't be proclaiming the defense unbreakable or inoperable, remarkable or repugnant.
But even without his ruling, he figures college football’s court of public opinion will have plenty to offer.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
NO. 4 OKLAHOMA VS. HOUSTON
When: 6:30 p.m., Sunday
Where: Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman
TV: ABC (Cox 8/HD 705, Dish 5, DirecTV 5, U-verse 5/HD 1005)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7