OU Football: Three Bad Losses Fueled a Monumental 2015 Turnaround


This time last season, OU football was reeling from a gut-wrenching loss that should not have happened to Bedlam archrival Oklahoma State and, although the Sooner fans didn’t realize it yet, things were about to get a whole lot worse.

Oklahoma dropped its regular-season finale last season against Oklahoma State in overtime, a game that the Sooners seemingly had all but locked up with under a minute to go in regulation.

A defensive penalty called against Oklahoma State on a fourth-down OU punt was incredulously declined by the Sooners, who elected to kick again in an attempt to back up the Cowboys closer to their own end zone than the previous kick, which was caught for a fair catch at the OSU 15-yard line.

That part of the ill-advised decision was successful. Jed Barnett’s second punt attempt in the same possession was fielded by the Cowboys’ Tyreek Hill on his own 8-yard line. There was no fair-catch signal this time, as Hill streaked up the sideline, through and, in a flash, by the Oklahoma punt-return coverage, virtually untouched all the way for a game-tying score.

Dec 6, 2014; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys running back Desmond Roland (26) scores a touchdown against the Oklahoma Sooners during the fourth quarter at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma never recovered from that misstep, and Oklahoma State made short work of the Sooners in the overtime session. Michael Hunnicutt, who had been virtually automatic on extra points and short field-goal tries all season long, missed a field-goal attempt wide left in overtime, which left the door wide open, and Oklahoma State cashed in its field-goal try to seize victory from right under the noses of the despondent OU players.

The Sooners never recovered from the way the Bedlam game ended, and they were hammered – honestly, there is no other way to describe it – by a fired up Clemson team, emboldened by a swarming and smothering defense coached by former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Oklahoma was never in its bowl game last season, obviously still suffering from the effects of the loss to Oklahoma State to end the regular season. Clemson jumped on the Sooners for 17 unanswered points in the first quarter and pushed it all the way out to a 40-0 margin before the Sooners managed a meaningless score midway through the final quarter to avoid the shutout. By then, however, the damage had long been administered. It was arguably the worst loss for Oklahoma in 17 seasons under head coach Bob Stoops, and it raised all kinds of questions about the direction in which one of college football’s elite programs was heading.

Some critics were suggesting that Stoops’ time at Oklahoma might be nearing an end and that he no longer had the same passion and drive to keep the Sooners on top that he once had.

Oklahoma began the 2015 season with high aspirations to get back what they had been missing the past couple of years and return to the hunt for the conference championship, which had been relinquished of late to the likes of Baylor and TCU. The problem was, the Sooners didn’t have a lot of believers that they had it in them to make that quick of a turnaround from the trials and tribulations they experienced in the disappointing 2014 season.

Nov 28, 2015; Stillwater, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Joe Mixon (25) celebrates on the sidelines in the fourth quarter against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Boone Pickens Stadium. The Sooners defeated the Cowboys 58-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the offseason after the 2014 campaign, Stoops made some significant changes to the OU coaching staff. Among the changes was the replacement of Josh Heupel, who quarterbacked the 2000 Oklahoma team to the school’s last national championship and had been a Sooner assistant since 2006, and Jay Norvell as co-offensive coordinators. Stoops brought in Lincoln Riley, one of the brightest young offensive minds in the game, and with Riley came a new Air Raid offensive system.

Stoops also brought in a couple of new defensive assistants to coach the D-line and the secondary, and he moved brother Mike, the defensive coordinator, from the sidelines to a new game position in the press box.

OU began the 2015 season with some uncertainty at quarterback, but Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield quickly put that issue to rest when he led the Sooners back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit at Tennessee and a 31-24 win in double overtime in Oklahoma’s second game of the season.

While Mayfield was putting up strong numbers in the rejuvenated Oklahoma passing attack, the Sooners were having some problems integrating the run game, which had been the bread and butter of the OU attack the previous season with freshman bruiser back Samaje Perine, into the new Air Raid system. That deficiency reared its ugly head in an ugly and profound way in this year’s Red River rivalry game with Texas.

The Texas game was an 11 a.m. kickoff, and the Sooners appeared to be still asleep early in the game, falling behind 14-0 by the midpoint of the first quarter as the Longhorns, with just one win and four losses coming into the game, punching across scores in two of their first three possessions.

Oklahoma finally got some things going offensively in this game in the second half, but it was a matter of too little, too late as the Sooners fell 24-17 to the 17-point-underdog Longhorns. OU managed a measly 65 yards rushing in the game while yielding over 300 rushing yards to the Texas offense.

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It was easily low point of the 2015 season for Oklahoma but, as Sooner fans now well know, it was the wakeup call that sparked their demonstrative turnaround over the second half of the season.

The game immediately following the Texas game was a 55-0 demolition of Kansas State in front of a sellout homecoming crowd at K-State. Mayfield threw five touchdown passes and the Sooners amassed 232 rushing yards on the way to 568 yards of total offense. From that point forward over the final six games of the regular season, Oklahoma had no fewer than 518 yards of offense, including three games over 600 yards, and averaged 52 points a game.

Since the Texas game, the Sooners have outscored their opponents by an average score of 52-19 and beaten three ranked teams (five over the full season).

Getting the running game figured out as part of the new offense was a major contributor to the Oklahoma turnaround. Perine had one 100-yard game in the first five games of the season and was averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Over the second half of the 2015 campaign, the bruising running back has four games with over 100 yards on the ground and is averaging 7.4 yards per carry.

So, looking back, the two losses Bob Stoops and the Sooners suffered at the end of last season led to a number of offseason adjustments on and off the field that got the listing OU football ship back upright and moving forward. Then the loss in Game 5 this season to Texas – which at the time appeared to have put a severe crimp in Oklahoma’s chances at championship run in the conference as well as a spot in the College Football Playoff – created the spark that brought out the full force of the power in the OU offensive engine.

There are a number of reasons for a turnaround as dramatic and definitive as the Oklahoma Sooners have experienced this season, but none more telling than the lessons learned from the last three times OU was on the wrong end of the outcome in football.