OU football: Lincoln Riley says Sooners need to ditch cruise-control mentality after taking big leads
NORMAN — In the locker room, his team leading 21-7 at halftime Saturday, OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch talked to his team about the way the Sooners’ last two Big 12 home games finished.
“Wish now I wouldn’t have,” Grinch said after the Sooners’ 38-35 loss to Kansas State. “Unfortunately, we’ve got to continue to learn the same lessons because we’re not learning them.”
It’s impossible to quantify if Grinch’s bringing it up had any psychological effect on his defense, but the second half was even more disastrous than those two games.
Against Iowa State and TCU last season, at least the Sooners were able to hold on for dear life and pull out the victory. Saturday, they couldn’t do that, losing 38-35 after leading 35-14 late in the third quarter.
It’s not just Grinch’s unit, though certainly they’ve played a big role in the inability of the Sooners to finish off games.
The offense hasn’t been bailing out the defense in those games like they’d done so often since Lincoln Riley’s arrival.
In those three games, the Sooners have been outscored 34-0 in the fourth quarter after leading by a collective 77-31 at halftime. That first number doesn't even account for the start of Saturday's meltdown, when the Wildcats scored two touchdowns in the last five minutes of the third quarter with the aid of plays of 77 and 78 yards.
The Sooners haven’t scored a fourth-quarter touchdown at home against a Big 12 opponent in more than a year, the last coming last Sept. 28 against Texas Tech.
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“I think we’ve gotten too results-oriented,” Riley said Monday.
“You get playing well against a team and you think you got a chance to separate, and whether you put it on cruise control because you think you’ve got the thing wrapped up or you start to panic (at) the first sign of something not going right and not going to plan. I think we got a little bit of both.
“But either one, you’re reacting to game situations as opposed to just reacting to your standard of play.”
Riley’s answer was a bit more complex than the one he offered Saturday for the closing issues.
“Play better football — don’t turn the ball over, get turnovers, don’t get punts blocked, don’t have a bunch of penalties on explosive plays,” Riley said then.
Riley did take some of the blame himself, though, saying he’d made some bad calls late that were costly.
“It’s just a combination of everything,” Riley said. “I can’t point to ... one thing and say, ‘Man, we were great at everything, but just really bad at this.’”
Instead, the Sooners have been bad at virtually everything late in games at times in recent years.
The offense that has been mostly brilliant has ground to a halt, the defense has melted away and Saturday, the late-game debacle included a blocked punt where the two players with a chance to pick up the player who got the block instead blocked a player who was already being blocked.
“I think it’s a culture. I think it’s a mentality. I think it’s a mindset in how we all approach the game,” Riley said. “Just like you change anything else, you go to work, you bust your tail on it, you live it yourself and then you trust the players to follow suit.”
Riley can preach it until he’s blue in the face but unless things change, it’s going to be difficult for the Sooners to extend their run of Big 12 championships, much less College Football Playoff appearances.
If it’s an issue that is isolated to home games, the good news for the Sooners is they have a while to get that sorted out.
Beginning with Saturday’s game at Iowa State (6:30 p.m., ABC), OU plays four consecutive games away from Norman, the first time they’ve had such a stretch since 1987.