Oklahoma football: Four hard lessons from the Tulane game

Sep 4, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley looks on before the game against the Tulane Green Wave at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 4, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley looks on before the game against the Tulane Green Wave at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

There’s no getting around it. Oklahoma football is off to a rocky beginning in a 2021 season filled with high expectations for the Sooners.

The No. 2-ranked Sooners were fortunate to pull out at win after nearly squandering a 23-point halftime lead over an inspired Tulane team to win by just five and avoid what would have been an upset of epic proportions.

This game looked a like lot Oklahoma began last season, especially the second game of the 2020 season at home against Kansas State. The Sooners have an unhealthy habit in recent years of building big first-half leads, then letting up both offensively and on defense and allowing opponents to get back into the game. A couple of times a year ago that pattern ended badly, and it almost repeated history again on Saturday.

“We’re not going to apologize for winning,” head coach Lincoln Riley said on Saturday following the game, “but at the same time, we’ve got to own the good and the bad.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

“The second half, clearly our team felt that the game was over,” he continued. “That’s my job to make sure our mentality’s right.”

There isn’t really any way around it. The Sooners’ lapse of focus and execution in the second half is something that cannot happen in a championship-caliber team. And it continues to occur way too frequently in Oklahoma games.

As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi liked to say, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” How the Oklahoma football team responds to the stern challenge it faced on Saturday will tell what the true character of this Sooner team is and what they learned from this early season wakeup call.

Here are several main takeaways from a win that in a number of ways seems like a loss, and easily could have been:

Sooners’ defensive secondary continues to have issues

Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt completed only 60 percent of his pass attempts on Saturday, but a number of the ones he did complete were big downfield plays into the Sooner pass coverage and too many were compounded by poor tackling, an issue that has dogged the OU defense in recent seasons.

According to Pro Football Focus, there were at least 15 missed tackles by the Sooner defense on Saturday, mostly by linebackers and in the secondary.

Tulane successfully converted four of six fourth-down plays. One of those was a pass play that was good for 18 yards on fourth-and-six, and another for 13 yards on fourth-and-seven.  Oklahoma was one of the best teams in the country last season in getting third-down stops, and the Green Wave were successful just 29 percent of the time on third down on Saturday (4 of 14). Fourth down should be no different. Ironically, though, it was a game-saving fourth-down stop by the OU defense late in the game that secured the victory.

Oklahoma running game depth a bigger issue than first thought

Oklahoma managed only 116 rushing yards against the Tulane defense and averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Kennedy Brooks was responsible for 87 of those yards, and for the most part looked like his old self from his freshman and sophomore seasons. Tennessee transfer Eric Gray started the game but was limited to just 28 yards on nine carries.

OU averaged 179 yards a game in rushing offense last season, and is going to need a much better effort in the run game going forward. The Sooners need to be able to run the ball effectively in order to avoid being one-dimensional on offense and limit the playmaking opportunities of its talent-laden wide-receiver corps.

Part of the Sooners’ low run production in Game 1 could be the result of poor run blocking on the part of a veteran offensive line but one that obviously misses All-American center Creed Humphrey, who is now starting for the NFL Kansas City Chiefs.

Must get better at third-down conversions

OU converted just three of its 12 third-down opportunities against Tulane, a success rate of 25 percent. The Sooners were successful in two of three tries on fourth down, but the one they weren’t successful on — a fourth-and-one at the Sooner 46-yard line — ended up costing them a Tulane touchdown and a two-point conversion.

The  bottom line is the Sooners needs to get better converting on third down, and that starts by limiting third-and-long situations.

Four field goals a game is symptomatic of inconsistency on offense

OU kicker Gabe Brkic had a record-setting day, with four made field goals in five attempts and three of those of more than 50 yards, an FBS record. Those 12 points off of field goals turned out to be the winning margin, since the Sooner offense was only able to get into the end zone four times for a total of 28 points.

The problem is, you can’t rely on your kicker to bale out the offense with multiple 50-yard field goals every game. The OU offense needs to do a better job of extending — and, ideally finishing off — drives, and, at the very least, shortening Brkic’s field-goal distance.