Oklahoma football: What OU must do vs. West Virginia to get its mojo back

Nov 12, 2022; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Eric Gray (0) runs the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 12, 2022; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Eric Gray (0) runs the ball for a touchdown during the second quarter against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports /

Former Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops cautions Sooner fans not to panic, that the sky isn’t falling despite suffering back-to-back losses in their last two games.

In an interview this week on Sports Talk 1400 KREF “The Ref” in Norman, OU’s winningest head coach said the Sooners haven’t been playing clean football and have been beating themselves with turnovers and undisciplined penalties. You can’t turn the ball over three times (which OU has done in each of its past two games) and win in this league, Stoops said.

Sounds simple enough, if that’s all it is, but multiple experts have expressed concerns that Oklahoma’s current struggles go much deeper and that we’re starting to see some of the same problems that plagued the Sooners in their disappointing 6-7 season a year ago.

Head coach Brent Venables has been very open about OU’s need to get better in practically every area and that the Sooners are not yet where they need to be, despite the sensational seven-game winning streak, including a classic win over No. 3 Texas, to start the 2023 season.

Oklahoma has reached a critical juncture in its season. What happens this weekend against West Virginia in what for all intents and purposes is a Big 12 title elimination game will be a solid indicator of how the Sooners intend to finish out the season. Some fans may feel like it, but OU is not out of the Big 12 championship race. Of course, the Sooners need to take care of their own business over the final three weeks, but they’re just one Oklahoma State or Texas loss from being right back in the thick of the title hunt.

Lose to West Virginia, however, and we’ll be looking at a much different narrative this time next week, but still far from a lost cause. Win the next three and Oklahoma finishes with a 10-2 regular-season record — a four-game improvement over a year ago — and what most programs would consider a highly successful season. Problem is, this is not most programs. This is Oklahoma, where the standards are higher than most programs.

So what is it that OU must do over the final three games to get things straightened out and moving back in the right direction like the best teams do in the month of November?

Clean up your game

The Sooners need to get out of their own way and stop beating themselves. Oklahoma committed a total of five turnovers in their first seven games. In the last two games, the Sooners gave the ball away six times, and both games ended in a loss. Ball security is one of the fundamental requirements of a winning football team. Oklahoma has gotten sloppy in this regard the past two weeks and it has cost them.

Adding untimely, undisciplined penalties on top of that is like receiving a double shot in the gut. Oklahoma is the most penalized team in the Big 12 both in terms of number of penalties (64) and yards penalized per game (59.2). And in the last two games, they have come at highly inopportune times in the game and, in large part, contributed to the Sooners losing both games.

Get these two critical issues cleaned up and OU can avoid putting itself into a position to lose, which has been the biggest problem the past two weekends.

Gabriel needs more help from his receivers

Since WR Andrel Anthony went down in the Texas game, the Oklahoma aerial attack hasn’t been what is was earlier in the season. The Sooners’ dearly miss Anthony, especially on deep throws. They are still well equipped with talented receivers, but there have been too many dropped passes on balls that should have been caught. On the interceptions Dillon Gabriel threw in the Kansas and Oklahoma State games, the intended receiver in both cases needed to come back for the ball and make a better play on it. Had there been a better play on the ball by the receiver it might have fallen incomplete rather than getting picked off. In one of the two situations, the interception was returned for a touchdown.

Pressure on quarterback has been nonexistent in recent games

Through the first seven games, the Oklahoma defense had posted 17 sacks. In the past two games, the Sooners did not record a single sack in either game and only seven total quarterback hurries combined. Part of the reason was of the respect OU had for the running game of both opponents (Kansas and Oklahoma State), but if you aren’t able to cause disruption and bring pressure on the quarterback, it creates added pressure on the linebackers and defensive backs to cover the receiving routes.

Quarterbacks are getting the ball out of their hands faster and teams are using a lot of max protection and rolling out QBs more to give them time to get through their progressions and find open receivers. The Sooner front seven, keyed by DE Ethan Downs and LB Danny Stutsman, had a field day against Texas this season, posting five sacks of Longhorn QB Quinn Ewers. Much of that could be attributed to the fact that Ewers stayed in the pocket longer than most of the other QBs OU has faced this season.

Regardless, quarterback pressure is a key part of disrupting an opponent’s offensive rhythm, and Oklahoma hasn’t been doing enough of it in the two losses.

Become the predator again and not the prey

Oklahoma is at its best when the Sooners start fast and score early and often. Establishing control early — playing fast on offense and with great physicality and aggressiveness on the defensive end — and forcing the opponent to play from behind is the way offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and head coach Brent Venables like to play. Being the predator and not the prey is Oklahoma football, but the Sooners have not played that way since the win over Texas. OU needs to get back to that style of play, and when it does things will start turning more the Sooners’ way.