Oklahoma football: Four critical takeaways from Sooners’ dismal game and first loss

Oct 28, 2023; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Tawee Walker (29) runs the ball as Kansas Jayhawks cornerback Mello Dotson (3) makes the tackle during the first half at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 28, 2023; Lawrence, Kansas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Tawee Walker (29) runs the ball as Kansas Jayhawks cornerback Mello Dotson (3) makes the tackle during the first half at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /

For much of the Oklahoma football game on Saturday, what we saw were disturbing flashbacks to the 2022 Sooner team and not what the group had become in 2023.

It wasn’t just one thing but a host of mental and physical factors that contributed to a 38-33 Kansas win. But make no mistake, the preparedness, execution and resilience of a good Kansas football also had a big hand in Oklahoma’s poor play in what was an ugly weather day for both teams.

As many mental and executional mistakes committed by the Sooners against the Jayhawks, OU actually was in prime position to close out and win the game. Kansas had just handed the Sooners a golden ticket when Oklahoma defensive end Ethan Downs picked off a pass from Jason Bean and returned it to the KU 38-yard line with two and a half minutes remaining and OU holding on to a one-point, 33-32 advantage.

We can argue for the rest of the season that Oklahoma could and should have won this game, but the reality is it didn’t, and I’m not sure the Sooners deserved to win as poorly as they played. There is no one player or coach that shoulders this discouraging defeat alone. It belongs with everyone that participated in the game for OU. The Sooners were beat by a better team on this day.

Venables expressed high disappointment in his postgame interview session by the loss to Kansas but emphasized that his team shouldn’t be defined by any one win or any one loss. What’s most important now, he said, is how we respond to the setback.

Perhaps an even bigger challenge awaits the Sooners next weekend when they go to Stillwater for what could be the final game in the Bedlam series with OU moving to the SEC after this season. Oklahoma State has been playing as well as any team in the Big 12 the past four games, so Oklahoma can expect a stiff test.

The character of the 2023 Oklahoma team will be revealed next weekend in what could be a season-defining moment for the Sooners.

Oklahoma needed to run the ball well and it did behind Tawee Walker

Two of the must-do’s in the Oklahoma game plan coming into the Kansas game were to run the ball effectively and limit the powerful Jayhawk run game ranked 12th among all FBS teams. The Sooner run game took a while to get going, but by the end of the first quarter and through the second period, OU was pounding the rock with ease and consistently mostly behind the running of Tawee Walker and QB Dillon Gabriel.

Walker was a workhorse and a major contributing factor in three of the Sooners five touchdowns, amassing a career and season-high 146 yards and a touchdown. Gabriel had three rushing TDs. Oklahoma outrushed the Jayhawks 269 to 225, but the 225 rushing yards by Kansas were the most allowed by the OU defense all season.

Sooners were outplayed and outcoached

There were several highly questionable coaching decisions by Brent Venables and the OU staff during the course of the game, none more costly than the conservative play calls by offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby when the Sooners had the ball 1st-and-10 on the KU 38-yard line after an interception by Ethan Downs with just 2:29 remaining in the game. Three consecutive run plays lost two yards.

Facing fourth down and seven yards to go for a first down and Kansas out of timeouts — which was the intent of running it three consecutive plays to force Kansas to use all three of its timeouts — OU made the decision to go for it in an attempt to move the chains and effectively end the game. Only, the Sooners were penalized for illegal motion on offense, making it 4th-and-12 negating the fourth-down conversion attempt and forcing a punt. Unfortunately, there was still over two minutes remaining, more than enough time for the Kansas offense to move into field-goal range, which was all the Jayhawks needed to flip the score.

Instead, Kansas marched 80 yards in seven plays for a game-winning touchdown. There was still 55 seconds left, less than the amount OU had on its game-winning TD drive to defeat Texas. This time, however, Oklahoma wasn’t so fortunate. The Sooners did manage to move the ball to the Kansas 23-yard line, but a couple of throws into the end zone fell incomplete as time ran out.

On Kansas’ game winning touchdown drive, Venables took full responsibility after the game for not calling a timeout and set up the defense with Kansas facing a huge fourth down from the OU 42-yard line with six yards needed to extend the drive as well as the game. Instead, KU quarterback Jason Bean completed a 37-yard pass to a wide-open receiver at the Sooner nine-yard line, changing the course of the game.

The bottom line, though: Oklahoma wasn’t able to make the big plays when it needed to and Kansas did.

Costly turnovers and penalties at critical times absolutely punished OU

Oklahoma penalties have been an issue all season, with a number coming at the most inopportune times in the game. On the other hand, turnovers have not been a problem; in fact, the Sooners have been one of the best teams in the country protecting the football.

Coming into Saturday’s game, Oklahoma had committed just five turnovers through seven games and owned a +10 turnover margin, second best in college football. Against Kansas, though, the Sooners committed three turnovers (two lost fumbles and an interception) that directly led to 13 Jayhawk points.

OU was penalized 11 times for 101 yards, including back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct calls for 30 yards on the Sooner side of the field that contributed in great measure to the Jayhawks first touchdown in the fourth quarter and a 26-21 Kansas lead.

In-game Injuries to key players had unfortunate impact

Injuries are never an excuse because they happen to all teams. Play was stopped a number of times on Saturday — not to overlook a 58-minute lightning delay in the middle of the second quarter — for injured players on the field on both sides. Early in the contest, it was mostly Kansas players for which play was stopped on account of an injury, but as the game wore on injuries occurred to several key Sooner players.

TE Austin Stogner hobbled off in the first half, then late in the opening half, OU’s leader and best player on defense, Danny Stutsman, went down with what appeared to be an ankle injury. He left the game and returned for just one snap in the second half before retiring for the balance of the game. Tawee Walker, who had gained a game-high 146 yards through the first three quarters was injured on an OU touchdown drive late in the third quarter with an apparent lower leg injury and did not return.

The Sooners have enough depth to send in the next man up, but there is little question that Oklahoma was affected by the loss of Walker and Stutsman.