Midway through the fourth quarter of Oklahoma football’s annual October shootout with Texas it appeared the Sooners were well on their way to a win.
Until they weren’t.
That’s been the uncanny deja vu associated with three of the four OU games this strange season.
Squandering double-digit second-half leads has become more than an aberration for the Sooners this season. It has advanced to a troubling trend, and in last Saturday’s Red River rivalry game it nearly cost Oklahoma a third consecutive loss, something that hasn’t happened since the 1998 season.
Playing in close games is not a new trend for Oklahoma Despite winning a program-best 36 games in Lincoln Riley’s first three seasons as head coach, the Sooners have played in multiple games decided by one-score margins.
The common denominator in all of those close encounters has been a bend-and-break Sooner defense. Although Oklahoma has been one of the country’s best teams in recent years putting points on the scoreboard, an uncomplimentary defensive effort has been nearly as good giving up points to the Sooners’ opponents.
In 2017, after losing by seven points at home to Iowa State, the Sooners won by five over Texas, seven over Kansas State and by 10 over Oklahoma State.
In 2018, Oklahoma hung on to beat Army by seven in overtime. Later that season, the Sooners lost by three to Texas, won by five over Texas Tech and by a single point over Oklahoma State.
And last season, half of OU’s 12 regular-season games were decided by seven or fewer points, including six of the final eight.
Allowing opponents to get back into games late is not just a 2020 occurrence, however. There were warning signals a year ago when that same dark cloud hovered over the program in the latter stages of the 2019 season.
The Sooners held 10- and 14-point leads over Texas in the more normalized 2019 season before the Longhorns scored late to draw within seven points of Oklahoma. Even more to the point, OU led Iowa State 35-14 at the half, but had to hold on for dear life as a two-point conversion try by the Cyclones to win the game failed with under 30 seconds remaining, preserving a one-point, 42-41 victory for the Sooners.
Two games later after the razor-thin victory over Iowa State, OU led TCU 21-10 at the half and 28-17 after three quarters, but had to hold on late for a 28-24 win.
Of course, the Sooners were also the comeback kids themselves in pulling off a remarkable come-from-behind regular-season win over Baylor after being by as many as 25 points in the first half.
The difference between then and now is Oklahoma was able to overcome the close calls by finishing out games and finding ways to win.
Road to the rest of the Oklahoma football season begins now
Sooner fans are hopeful that the dramatic four-overtime win over Texas and the Horns’ veteran quarterback Sam Ehlinger serves as a tipping point that will set OU off in a new direction and help the 2020 Sooners find their rightful place as a Big 12 contender and a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Oklahoma is not used to having two losses at this stage of the season, and certainly not two conference losses. What the Sooners need to guard against is not allowing two losses turn into three, four or even five, as happened in 2009 and 2014.
There are some in college football who believe strongly that losing early in the season helps you win games late in the season, when they count the most. This is where the Sooners’ heads need to be as they play if forward for the remainder of the 2020 season.
Despite a 2-2 record after the first four games, there is still plenty to play for, but it’s not going to be easy. What is it they say? Things worth fighting for are never easy.
Oklahoma may be a step or two behind, — and a fourth straight College Football Playoff is no longer in the cards this year — but the Big 12 championship is still very much out there for the taking.
Chances are good that Kansas State and Iowa State aren’t going to keep beating every team on the schedule. After all, they still have to play each other and Oklahoma State, and the Sooners get the Cowboys at home later in the season.
Oklahoma has two more road games in October, starting with TCU next weekend. The Sooners stay in Texas, heading out to West Texas the following weekend for a Halloween showdown against Texas Tech.
If they can make it through the Lone Star gauntlet unscathed, the Sooners will finish out the regular season with three of four games at home (Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor), with a road trip to West Virginia sandwiched in between.
Lots still to play for, and the redirected journey begins this week. emboldened by the rallying cry: Finish, finish, finish…