We now know why there were so many Oklahoma football players out of action for Saturday’s game with Missouri State.
COVID was the culprit, and it came close to forcing a postponement of the Sooners’ home season opener.
During Oklahoma’s 48-0 manhandling of Missouri State it became obvious that something was going on because of the number of players on the team’s first and second unit that were expected to see action but instead were not even suited up for the game.
Twenty-two players saw their first game action in an Oklahoma uniform on Saturday night, and 15 of those were first-year players. Part of that was because of the ease with which the Sooners romped over a seriously less-talented team, enabling greater participation deeper into the roster. But we now know there was much more to it than that.
Just 36 hours ahead of the scheduled kickoff against Missouri State, Oklahoma was not certain it would meet the minimum player requirements to host the game. It wasn’t until the last round of game-week COVID testing that the Sooners were able to confirm that the game could go forward as scheduled.
“It’s not exactly the way you draw it up,” Lincoln Riley mused in his postgame comments.
Oklahoma was already depleted at running back because of a transfer (Trey Sermon), an opt-out (Kennedy Brooks) and a suspension (Rhamondre Stevenson). On top of that, the player thought to be the team’s No. 1 running back, T.J. Pledger, was not available for Saturday’s game.
Riley was without a number of key players for the Sooners’ season opener, including placekicker Gabe Brkic, who was perfect on 17 field-goal attempts last season and all 53 of his extra points. Also absent were wide receivers Obi Obialo and Drake Stoops, both expected to be prime contributors this season, as well as starting offensive lineman Anton Harrison and his backup, Stacey Wilkins.
The Sooners also were without the services of four defensive backs: Justin Broiles, Bryson Washington, D.J. Graham and Kendall Dennis.
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Riley did not specify which players had tested positive for COVID-19 and which ones were unavailable because of contract tracing. Either way, multiple players were not active for the game on Saturday.
This is a prime reason Riley wanted an extra week off between games early in the season to address potential COVID issues and schedule disruption.
During voluntary workouts and preseason training camp, Oklahoma had one of the best COVID testing records in college football. When Oklahoma opened campus facilities on July 1 for voluntary workouts, 16 players tested positive. Following that round of testing, however, OU went four consecutive weeks without a positive test.
When Riley paused training camp for a week the first week in August because of revised scheduling and allowed players to return home, nine players tested positive upon their return to Norman. Now school is in session, which increases the probability for COVID exposure, despite all the protocols and safety measures that are in place to protect the players from a COVID outbreak like what threatened to cancel or postpone the game with Missouri State.
Earlier this month, the Big 12 established game-cancellation thresholds on how many players must be available to avoid postponing or cancelling a game because of a COVID outbreak. Teams must have a minimum of 53 players, including one quarterback, seven offensive linemen and four defensive linemen.
Three Big 12 teams have already had to postpone their season-opening games because of COVID exposure.
TCU had to push its regularly scheduled game with SMU back a week because of a multiple COVID cases within the TCU program. The game between Baylor and Louisiana Tech was postponed because of 38 COVID cases among Louisiana Tech players, and Oklahoma State and Tulsa will begin the season a week later than originally scheduled because of disruptions in preseason practice at Tulsa caused by the COVID pandemic.
“You’ve got these situations right now, it’s either one of two things,” Riley told reporters, including Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman, “you see it as a hindrance and say ‘poor me’ and you’re mad you’re in the situation and frustrated, or you look at it as an opportunity to see new players that maybe we wouldn’t have seen, an opportunity to test yourselves and be able to adjust when things come up.”
More than anything else, flexibility and versatility are the name of the game in the “new normal” world we are adjusting because of the threat imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riley, his coaches and the Sooner players have 13 days off before their second game of the 2020 season, a home contest against Kansas State.