Carlson: OU football is headed back to Big 12 title game — and is taking some fight with it
NORMAN — Isaiah Thomas ended up on the Owen Field turf just like the Baylor quarterback on the last play of the game.
But when the OU defensive lineman punctuated Saturday night’s game with a sack, he popped onto his knees and raised his hands to the sky. He was grateful for another sack and another Sooner victory.
He was grateful, too, the whole thing was over.
OU 27, Baylor 14.
After a couple weeks where nothing was easy — a game was postponed, the football facility was closed, and the availability of players and coaches was as unpredictable as the Oklahoma weather — maybe it figured the Sooners had a night that was similarly difficult.
But in a year that has been pitted and pockmarked by coronavirus shutdowns and slowdowns, in a season that could have been derailed by back-to-back losses, the Sooners forged ahead. They got themselves back in the Big 12 hunt a month or so ago, and Saturday, they got themselves back in the conference championship game.
It'll be OU vs. Iowa State in Arlington.
So perhaps it figured, too, that the Sooners found a way to triumph against the Bears.
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“I learned that these guys have a will to fight no matter what the odds are, no matter what the circumstances are,” Thomas said, who showed plenty of fight himself with a six-tackle, two-and-a-half sack performance. “We play to our standard. We play to our bottom line.
“So, each and every play, that’s what we’re thinking — ‘Play with relentless effort.’”
Hard to fault that Saturday night.
But the product?
It wasn’t always exactly the best, especially on offense. For the first time in 60 games, OU failed to score at least 28 points. That’s a streak that goes all the way back to September 2016 when Ohio State held OU to 24 points.
“Obviously, offensively, not very pleased with the way we played,” Sooner coach Lincoln Riley said. “And honestly, I don’t think our guys were coached worth a damn this week.”
Riley wasn’t pointing fingers; he’s the offensive coordinator, too.
“Not going to get too much in the weeds with it,” he said, “but I don’t think us as offensive coaches did a very good good job putting our guys in position to succeed, just the way we set up practice.”
Riley might not have wanted to go into much detail, but you can imagine some of the issues he was dealing with. Coronavirus quarantines from positive tests and contract tracing left him without several of his defensive coaches, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, as well as a sizable chunk of his defensive players.
As the head coach, Riley was no doubt trying to monitor duties on the defensive side more than he normally would. But as offensive coordinator, that likely left other areas lacking.
The result was a game in which the Sooners managed only 269 yards of offense, the lowest single-game total since Riley arrived on campus.
“We had a lot of mental errors. We had a lot of bad play calls,” he said. “More than any specific play, just did a bad job of getting the offense ready to play this game.”
And still, OU won by two scores.
Sooner center Creed Humphrey said the players talked before the game about the test they were about to face.
“This was a game that was really going to show our true character about who we are as a team and what we can accomplish,” Humphrey said.
And what they have a chance to accomplish now is winning another Big 12 title — the Sooners will meet the Cyclones in two weeks, a rematch of a regular-season game won by Iowa State.
Some might worry about OU’s chances based on recent results. The Cyclones steamrolled the Mountaineers on Saturday while the Sooners struggled to put away the two-win Bears. But there’s no reason to believe that these teams are headed in different directions. It wasn’t that long ago Iowa State was struggling against Texas and OU was walloping Oklahoma State.
This season was bound to have rough patches.
The Sooners had one Saturday night.
But good news for them, they showed some maturity and some tenacity. You’d think any team playing — and winning — during a pandemic would have all that in abundance, but it’s always good to verify with a gut check like this.
“As a group, we fought hard,” Sooner quarterback Spencer Rattler said. “This was a weird week. It’s been an odd season, as everybody knows. We just gotta keep going at it, keep fighting.”
They found a way. Whether it was the defensive front getting pressure to alleviate work for a secondary hit hard by quarantines or the offense finding just enough passing lanes in the third quarter to put Baylor at arm’s length, OU did what it had to do.
On a tough night at the end of a tough couple weeks near the end of a tough season, there’s a lot to be said for that.
“I think it says a lot about the culture of this program,” Riley said. “This team’s been able to uphold the fighting spirit that OU football is, that was put in by so many coaches and players before all of us.
“When you come to OU, that’s just part of the deal. Expectations are always going to be to win and to win championships, and those things aren’t easy, year in and year out. There’s always different challenges. This year, there have been plenty.”
But the Sooners have a chance for a championship.
If OU wins that title in a few weeks and runs its streak to six consecutive crowns, few may remember the Baylor game. It wasn’t a marquee matchup or a turning point, but make no mistake — it was a test of the Sooners’ mettle.
They passed inspection.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.