Oklahoma football: Sooners’ offensive ills start with O-line

Dec 7, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooner quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs with the ball in the third quarter behind guard Tyresse Robinson (52) and tackle Erik Swenson (77) against the Baylor Bears in the 2019 Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 7, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooner quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs with the ball in the third quarter behind guard Tyresse Robinson (52) and tackle Erik Swenson (77) against the Baylor Bears in the 2019 Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

There is no question that the Oklahoma football offense, which for the better part of the past decade has made the Sooners the fourth winningest team over that period, is struggling to find its footing early this season.

The Sooners’ .819 winning percentage since the 2010 season ranks just behind Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. Those high winning expectations continued all offseason for the Sooners and leading into the 2021 campaign, with a Heisman Trophy front-runner at quarterback, a plethora of offensive weapons at his disposal and a veteran offensive line returning.

How could Oklahoma’s expectations for a championship-caliber year in 2021 not be a high level?

But this is college football, and nothing is a guarantee from year to year for anybody, it seems, not named Alabama.

The Sooners are averaging 443 yards of total offense through four games. That’s nearly 50 yards fewer than last season, when Oklahoma experienced its fewest total offensive yards in Lincoln Riley’s time at Oklahoma.

The quarterback and the offensive coordinator are typically the first places fans and the media b point to when the offense is struggling. This was on full display at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium last Saturday night, when boos rained down from the stands along with chants of changing quarterbacks.

Rattler will be the first to tell you that he isn’t playing as well as he’d like or expects to. Even when he’s at his best, though, he’s only human, which means he’s not perfect. But Rattler is far from the only problem, as Riley readily acknowledges, that’s led to OU’s stagnant offense.

The Sooner receivers have had difficulty getting open and gaining separation on deep routes, and the running game, which has always been a strength at Oklahoma through the years, even with the Air Raid offense, has been very hit and miss.

The one area that has a direct impact on all of these skill positions is the offensive line. And let’s be perfectly honest: OU’s offensive line play has not been good enough so far this season.

“I’ve been asked a bunch, and I get it,” Riley said at his weekly news conference on Tuesday,

"“It’s not one group. It’s not one thing. It’s we need to coach better. Every position group needs to be a little better.”"

The Sooner head coach’s assessment is spot on, but the one position group that needs to get more than a little better for the OU offense to be more consistent and pull out of its current slog is the offensive line.

Just three years ago, the Oklahoma offensive line was named winner of the 2018 Joe Moore Award, which every season recognizes the most outstanding offensive line in college football.

Coming into the current season, Sooner offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, considered one of the best in the business, praised the OU offensive line group, especially for its depth and for the experience he had returning. He said he was as excited about this year’s group as he was in 2018.

“The talent’s there. The ability’s there,” Bedenbaugh told reporters after Saturday night’s narrow win over West Virginia. “Every guy in that room has the ability to start and win games.”

The Sooners are indeed winning games. But the narrow manner by which they are skating by is deeply disturbing and not sustainable, at least not with the same result, going forward.

Oklahoma ran for just 57 yards against West Virginia. It was the fewest yards the Sooners have had on the ground since gaining just 15 yards in a home loss to Notre Dame in 2012.

The 313 total yards of offense against West Virginia was the third worst since Riley as been at Oklahoma. OU was held to 269 yards last season in a win over Baylor, and to 278 yards in a loss to Texas in 2015, Riley’s first season in Norman.

Riley said he thought the O-line played pretty well in the win over Nebraska, but said the guys up front weren’t as clean against West Virginia.

“Some of the things we can do better schematically,” he said in Tuesday’s press conference. “Some of it’s were playing against the No. 4 defense in the country (West Virginia) that’s pretty damn good on the front.”

Rattler was sacked four times on Saturday and seven times through four games. That ranks tied for 46th in the country.

Let’s face it, when Rattler is pressured, which he has been a lot so far this season, and not given time to get through his downfield reads, pass routes aren’t completed, the receivers can’t get open or gain any separation. This leads to bad quarterback decisions, passes forced into tight windows or, worse, a sack or an interception. That responsibility. More times than not, this situation is the result of a breakdown on the offensive line.

As Jason Kersey who covers Oklahoma for The Athletic, succinctly put it in a article this week, “Until Oklahoma figures out its offensive line issues, it probably doesn’t matter much who is playing quarterback.”

Bedenbaugh has tried several combinations on the offensive line this season. For the West Virginia game, he replaced center Robert Congel, a transfer from Arizona, with sophomore Andrew Raym and left tackle Anton Harrison with Wanya Morris, a transfer from Tennessee.

The Sooner offensive line did play better in the second half against West Virginia, but we’ll have to wait and see how things play out in the tough weeks ahead.

“We’ve got to execute better and win our one-on-ones up front and we won’t have that problem,” said OU offensive right tackle Tyrese Robinson after the West Virginia game.

If only it were that simple. But that would be a giant first step.