Tramel: This OU football team isn't good enough to withstand momentum shift
AMES, Iowa — Momentum wore crimson when Kene Nwangwu caught the kickoff Saturday night. The Sooners had regained the fourth-quarter magic that had been AWOL the week before against Kansas State.
Ten straight OU points, built on the span of 10 snaps, had returned the lead to the Sooners. You thought maybe the Big 12 order had been restored and that OU would get out of Ames with a victory, just as it has every trip up here since the Eisenhower Administration.
Gabe Brkic’s 51-yard field goal into a stiff wind. Isaiah Thomas’ fumble-causing sack of Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy, a precious takeaway that set up a quick touchdown drive.
The Sooners had a 30-23 lead midway through the fourth quarter and had this kooky season back on track.
Then Nwangwu caught the kickoff at the 2-yard line. He ran into a corral of Sooners, found a way out and suddenly seemed to be running faster than any Cyclone ever has.
Nwangwu is a talented football player; he’s a second-team tailback only because Breece Hall is a heck of a runner himself. Nwangwu’s 85-yard return set up the tying touchdown, and here came another fourth-quarter collapse.
Iowa State beat the Sooners 37-30 with 14 points in the final 7½ minutes of the game, and now OU is 0-2 in Big 12 play, sharing the basement with Texas Tech (gulp) and Kansas (yikes).
“It doesn’t matter who has momentum,” said OU center Creed Humphrey. “We have to take the punches and we have to give the punches back out.”
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I don’t know. Momentum seems mighty important. Two straight weeks, Big Mo has shifted and avalanched the Sooners, whose five-year reign as Big 12 champions seems beyond imperiled.
Against K-State, momentum brought a bevy of big plays for the Wildcats and the failure of the OU offense in the clutch. Saturday night, it was those things again, but propelled by a new agent. Nwangwu’s kickoff return.
“That’s the play of the game,” said ISU coach Matt Campbell. “If that doesn’t happen, I don’t know what the outcome is. Huge momentum swing.”
The Cyclones didn’t even need much of a crowd to reverse momentum. Thanks to the coronavirus, Jack Trice Stadium sported just 13,724 fans, less than a quarter of normal capacity.
Packed houses are nice; 85-yard kickoff returns are nicer.
And now this Sooner team, with such lofty expectations only eight or nine days ago, is a part-of-the-pack squad that could win or lose depending on a play or two.
Like a kickoff return.
“Gut-wrenching loss,” Lincoln Riley called it. “Despite the sickening feeling in my stomach right now and how disappointed we all are, we still know there's the makings of a good football team in there.”
That’s the point. The makings. The Sooners aren’t there.
And two games in a row, against teams that lost openers to Sun Belt Conference foes, the Sooners have followed similar scripts.
Four Iowa State plays went for at least 35 yards, including a 65-yard pass play from quarterback Brock Purdy to Xavier Hutchinson, on a simple slant pattern in which OU played for a run and left cornerback Jaden Davis on an island. A 36-yard run by the slippery Hall, who made like fellow Wichita-bred tailback Barry Sanders most of the night, set up the winning touchdown.
Meanwhile, the OU offense didn’t answer. After Iowa State forged a 30-30 tie, the Sooners got the ball twice. The first ended with a punt; the second ended with Isheem Young’s end-zone interception of Spencer Rattler’s deep ball with a minute left .
The big plays allowed is to be expected. Been going on forever. But the lack of offensive production at crunch time is alarming.
Over two Saturdays, Rattler’s offense has trotted onto the field six times in the fourth quarter, either tied or trailing, and has produced one touchdown.
“Obviously didn’t do very good at the end,” Riley said. “I don’t know exactly what it is. I mean, yeah, is it some young guys in key positions? Sure, but that’s not an excuse or a crutch. We feel like we have the players in there to continue to get better.”
Sure, the Sooners can get better. But they’ve got a long way to go. They’ve got little margin for momentum-shifting plays like a kickoff return that ended 60 years of OU success in Ames.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.