Whatever margin for error Oklahoma possessed as the Big 12’s defending champion vanished last weekend.
After a soul-crushing 38-35 loss to Kansas State, the Sooners no longer occupy the driver’s seat in the conference. They’re off on entirely the wrong foot, and it doesn’t get any easier in the immediate future. Before they even begin to think about the Oct. 10 tilt with Texas at the Cotton Bowl, the Sooners have to get past a pesky Iowa State team that’s rolling out funeral colors for Saturday’s 6 p.m. kickoff.
The Sooners list just six seniors on their two-deep depth chart, and in a pandemic-afflicted season where experience and depth are all the more vital, that’s a glaring shortcoming for OU. It’s especially concerning given that virtually every other team across the Big 12 has a wealth of mature players.
“Just about everybody has their quarterback back,” said Lincoln Riley. “We’re playing a bunch of guys that have played a lot of ball. You can’t help them any, can’t give them a gift.”
Alex Grinch and the Oklahoma defense will most certainly head into Saturday night’s contest with the express goal of eliminating chunk gains. Iowa State running back Breece Hall is one of the most explosive players in the conference, and tight end Charlie Kolar is among the finest in college football at his position. The Sooners can’t afford to have a weak link on defense against the Cyclones’ group of talented weapons.
“All of us have taken the accountability route,” said nickelback Brendan Radley-Hiles. “We have to hold ourselves accountable. We’re not the pointing-fingers type of group. That’s not us. We take orders, we understand what it is and we respond.”
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma offense is searching for a true go-to guy. Several players have shown flashes (Charleston Rambo, Marvin Mims, Seth McGowan and even Drake Stoops), but no one has emerged as the unquestioned meal ticket for Spencer Rattler and the rest of the unit. It’s not unfamiliar territory for Oklahoma; the lack of a true offensive mismatch within the program reared its head as recently as four seasons ago. But Dede Westbrook soon shot to national prominence for that 2016 team, compiling one of the most prolific seasons from a wideout in recent memory and earning a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
So who will it be in 2020? It’s still too early to tell, but running back T.J. Pledger is confident that all OU needs to thrive offensively is 11 players doing their jobs.
“I would say we definitely understand the standard that is here, and we’ve all been here with guys that were great and put the team on their backs,” Pledger said. “I think everybody’s gonna fall into their own role and understanding that everybody has to play their role and throughout the season, people will continue to fit in their roles and people will blossom, and I think it’ll come out perfect.”
With their chances of a sixth consecutive conference title already severely damaged, the Sooners aren’t taking anything for granted the rest of the way. It’s not often that Oklahoma embraces the role of underdog, at least not in Big 12 play. However, as Bill Parcells infamously put it, “you are what your record says you are,” and the Sooners seem to have come to terms with that reality.
“For us to take this, we have to have a chip on our shoulder,” said defensive end Isaiah Thomas. “We take a great deal of pride in having that sense of urgency of how we have to finish the game and not just come out strong in the game. We take a lot of pride in that.”
The Sooners still have a target on their collective back, but in a different manner than before. They’re no longer the team that the rest of the conference is looking to knock off the pedestal. Kansas State already did that. Now, the rest of the Big 12 is looking to pile on to the Sooners’ misery and send their season spiraling out of control.
“Coach Riley has said to us many times, just because we’ve won previous championships, that doesn’t mean we’re defending champs,” said H-back Jeremiah Hall. “We’re not defending anything. We have a 2020 Big 12 championship to go get. So with that being said, we can lose, we are vulnerable, we are not superheroes in any way. But… we’ve got to go out there, we’ve got to execute better. We’ve been practicing better, I think, these past two days. And we will be better.”
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