Oklahoma football: Sooners are in desperate straits at midseason mark

Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables leads his team out of the tunnel before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. Texas won 49-0.Ct 8093
Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables leads his team out of the tunnel before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. Texas won 49-0.Ct 8093 /

The Oklahoma football program finds itself in desperate straits just three weeks after being ranked as the No. 6 team in the country in both of the major national polls.

How can this be? Sooner fans are in a frenzy over what has happened with their beloved football team that has suddenly become the laughingstock of the Big 12 if not the entire college football world.

On Saturday, at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in the annual Red River clash with longtime rival Texas, the Sooners may have hit rock bottom. The Longhorns completely dominated Oklahoma on both sides of the ball and emphatically recorded their biggest margin of victory over the Sooners in the 118-year history of the rivalry.

OU’s defense has been a major issue for the past several years, but after Saturday, the once high-octane Oklahoma offense ground to a virtual halt. The Sooners managed just 198 yards of offense and no points while allowing a talented Texas team to do virtually anything it wanted on offense, rolling up close to 600 yards and reaching the end zone seven times for 49 points.

It was the first time an Oklahoma has been held scoreless since 1998, when Texas A&M shut down the Sooners 29-0.

After beginning the season with three consecutive wins, all by margins of at least 30 points, Oklahoma has fallen off the cliff, losing three straight conference games for the first time, again, since the 1998 season. The Sooners have lost more than three conference games just once since the 1998 season (they were 5-4 in the Big 12 in 2014). The year before Bob Stoops arrived, however, in 1998, OU lost five consecutive conference games and finished with a 3-5 losing record in conference play.

It’s not just that Oklahoma is losing games, but rather the way the Sooners are losing that is so troublesome.

Asked after Saturday’s blowout loss to the OU’s longtime rival what has happened with the Sooners, Brent Venables said, “That’s a great question. I don’t think it’s any one thing.”

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of Oklahoma’s problems. Although the Sooner head coach was speaking specifically about the defensive struggles, it is pretty clear that the sudden downturn in the Sooners’ fortunes is multi-faceted. The offense also has its issues, though not nearly as blatant and deep-rooted as what is going on the defensive side, which this week is ranked 117th out of 131 FBS teams, worse than even the worst of the Lincoln Riley era.

"“Some ways, we looked like maybe a tired football team,” Venables said in the postgame interview session on Saturday. “There’s probably several reasons why. Right now, we’re having to play near perfect football. And we’re just not able to do that right now."

The OU defense at least made Texas work for its scoring drives, but the Longhorns had the stamina and the ability to sustain long drives, going 90. 92, 80 and 79 yards for 28 first-half points. The Sooners had no answer to the Texas offensive attack. And as the afternoon wore on, there was even less defensive resistance to what the Longhorns wanted to do on offense.

The Sooners recorded a three-and-out on Texas’ opening possession, but the Longhorns scored touchdowns on four of their next five first-half possessions to, for all purposes, putting the game out of reach.

Because Venables is a defensive coach — and one believed to be among the best in the country based on his accomplishments at Clemson the past 10 years — the general opinion among Sooner fans and many others was that we would see immediate adjustments that would improve the OU defense in the near term. And, over time, when he can get the right personnel to fit his system, make it into the championship caliber defense it once was in the 1970s and ’80s and again in the early 2000s.

Instead, after a season start in which it appeared that the Oklahoma defense was going to be better than we’ve seen in a number of years, good Big 12 offenses have exposed its vulnerabilities, which now appear to be numerous. “Not any one thing (or simple fix),” in the words of the Sooner head coach.

It’s pretty obvious that Oklahoma lacks the talent and depth on the defensive side of the ball that  it takes to be a quality defensive unit. The Sooners have always loaded up with elite offensive skill players, and that is why OU has regularly produced one of the top offensive teams in college football for a good deal of its history, and certainly its recent history. As a result, the recruitment of top defensive talent has trailed behind.

That should change under Venables, and a glance at the 2023 commitments already shows a major advancement in elite defensive prospects. The way the past three weeks have gone, though, the OU staff needs to be mindful of holding on to those commitments and prevent potential defections going forward.

As for the offensive woes, it’s easy to make the excuse that the Sooners would have played better with Dillon Gabriel at quarterback. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t have made a difference in who won the game. Instead of 49-0, it might have been 49-14 or 49-21, and for sure Oklahoma would have put the ball in the air more often. But what we did find out on Saturday is that in Gabriel’s absence, the Sooners don’t have a capable backup.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby didn’t trust Davis Beville enough to throw the football. He attempted just 12 passes the entire game, and after watching several of his throws bounce on the ground in front of a receiver or over the head of an intended target, I can appreciate why. In the past two years, the Sooners have lost four quarterbacks to the transfer portal.

Tanner Mordecai and Chandler Morris left after the 2020 season, and Spencer Rattler and Caleb Williams, both No. 1 quarterback recruits in their respective classes, transferred after Lincoln Riley’s departure. Mordecai is now the starting quarterback at SMU and Morris was the starter this season at TCU before suffering an early season injury and being replaced by Max Duggan. Rattler is starting this season at South Carolina and Williams is the starter at USC.

After last season, Micah Bowens, a transfer from Penn State, who has yet to play in a collegiate game, was the only scholarship QB on the OU roster. After Venables was hired and brought with him OC Lebby from Ole Miss, the latter convinced Gabriel to come to OU just hours before he would have become property of UCLA. Beville transferred from Pittsburgh, where he was the third-string quarterback, and General Booty transferred from the junior-college ranks. The Sooners also have true freshman Nick Evers as a QB on the roster. Booty did not play against Texas, but Evers entered the game for a couple of OU series late in the game.

Given the quarterbacks available on the roster, Lebby concluded that Beville gave the Sooners the best chance to win in the absence of Gabriel. Saturday’s offensive performance definitely speaks to the severe drop off at the quarterback position. The Texas defense made sure that Beville gave the Sooners no chance to win the game on Saturday.

What this all amounts to is that the 2022 Oklahoma football team has big problems. What once was believed to be a serious challenger for a 15th Big 12 championship, if not a potential College Football Playoff contender, now finds itself in a real fight just to win three more games out of the remaining six and become bowl eligible.

That’s almost the polar opposite of how things started out for Oklahoma football this season. Buckle up Sooner fans, it may be a bumpy ride from here.