Oklahoma football: Three big learnings from OU’s reunion with Nebraska

Sep 18, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners cornerback D.J. Graham (middle) makes an interception in front of Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Levi Falck (88) during the fourth quarter at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 18, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners cornerback D.J. Graham (middle) makes an interception in front of Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Levi Falck (88) during the fourth quarter at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

Hindsight is always 20/20, as they say. Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley has said several times in the last couple of weeks that the Sooners are real close to playing at an elite level.

The problem is, it’s hard to reconcile that prognosis with how Oklahoma has appeared on the field in its two nonconference wins over FBS opponents. Even with the blowout win over Western Carolina, Riley admitted, wasn’t nearly as perfect a game as the scoreboard might have indicated.

In recent seasons, it has been the explosive Oklahoma offense that carried the load. Twice in the last four years, the Sooners led the nation in total offense. Defensively, however, the Sooners have struggled slowing down opposing offense and keeping points off the scoreboard. Against good times, this is not a recipe for winning.

So far this season, the struggles appear to be more on the offensive side, while the defense, for the most part, appears to be holding its own. Discounting the Western Carolina game, the Sooners’ two other wins are more the result of defensive play than offensive performance, which is a very different and somewhat disturbing pattern for a team expected to compete for a national championship.

The Sooners were winners on Saturday and remain undefeated, but tenuously so. Here are three prime observations from the win over Nebraska:

OU’s offense having trouble finding its identity

Oklahoma has prided itself, since Riley took control of the offense some six seasons ago, of striking quickly with explosive plays and drives that consume half the time of other more methodical, ball-control offenses. This season, opponents have been taking away the deep ball from the Sooner offense and forcing Spencer Rattler and Co. to be more patient and sustain long scoring drives.

Rattler does not appear totally comfortable taking deep shots and is having difficulty figuring out the soft zone coverage that teams are employing against the Sooners.

Through three games, Rattler has thrown just six passes of longer than 20 yards and completed two. That’s an average of two such passes a game. For a team with multiple breakaway playmakers, that seems ultra conservative. Rattler through just one pass of at least 23 yards on Saturday.

A year ago, he threw 57 passes longer than 20 yards, completing 29. Pro Football Focus gave him a quarterback grade of 98.1 in 2020, which ranked third to BYU’s Zack Wilson and Alabama’s Mac Jones, both now starting in the NFL.

Oklahoma ran for 194 yard and passed for 214 yards on Saturday, demonstrating good balance but far below what the Sooners’ customary offensive output, particularly in the passing game.

Part of that is credited to Nebraska’s toughness, tenacity and game plan on defense. Another part was OU’s limited number of offensive possessions (nine total for the game).

Defense having problems getting off the field

The two biggest plays of the game for Oklahoma were on defense and the Sooners’ were credited with five sacks and 10 tackles for loss, both season highs. But Nebraska was still able to sustain, long, time-consuming drives, which ultimately takes away Oklahoma offensive opportunities. You have to be able to get off the field on defense, and the Sooners have yet to show that with any consistency so far this season.

The OU defense recorded just one three-and-out the entire afternoon, and that was early in the second quarter.

Oklahoma did an excellent job of shutting down the Nebraska rushing attack, especially in containing the speed and shifty Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez. Nebraska was held to just 95 yards on the ground and 2.5 yards per rush. Martinez gained 34 rushing yards.

Nebraska’s taller receivers caused problems for the OU secondary, something that has plagued the Sooners in past games. Not typically a passing team, Nebraska outgained Oklahoma through the air 289 to 214, and Martinez completed 19 of 25 passes.

Special teams play changed momentum and led to OU’s winning margin

Oklahoma’s Isaiah Coe blocked a Nebraska extra-point kick at the end of the third quarter, and the Sooners’ D.J. Graham returned the deflected kick 100 yards for a three-point swing. The two points added to the OU side of the scoreboard gave Oklahoma a 16-9 advantage instead of 14-10, which the score would have been had the point-after try been successful.

That single play resulted in a major momentum shift in the game. On the following OU possession, the Sooners marched 75 yards in 12 plays, with Kennedy Brooks going the final two yards for a touchdown that put Oklahoma up 23-9.

Graham earned a second helmet sticker just moments later, pulling down a highlight-reel interception of a Nebraska fourth-down pass at the OU goal line. As great an interception as it was, it ended up costing the Sooners’ a short field that less than two minutes later resulted in a Cornhusker touchdown, cutting the OU lead to 23-16.

Lincoln Riley said after the game that he actually thought of challenging the interception as an incomplete pass. Had the pass been batted down or fallen incomplete, Oklahoma would have been awarded the ball at the OU 24 instead of the three-yard line. Riley said that might have been the first time in history a coach challenged a defensive interception