It’s not clear exactly how Oklahoma devolved into a one-man football team, but the Sooners need to spend the next 21 days and beyond working on just three tasks.
One, get healthy.
Two, get better.
And three, take a long look in the mirror and ask some hard questions.
The first one is the easiest.
Can quarterback Trevor Knight play in the bowl game on Dec. 29 against Clemson? If so, that clears up some of the pressing issues OU has had in the passing game during the past month, such as asking redshirt freshman Cody Thomas to do too much, and then not trusting him to do anything at all.
Can wideout Sterling Shepard finally get that pulled groin muscle healthy? He’s been trying, but the likelihood of reinjury is high with that particular ailment, and every time he gives it a go, he’s forced to stop. Shepard’s return for the Russell Athletic Bowl certainly would be a boon to Knight — or Thomas, who hasn’t had the benefit of a healthy Shepard yet.
And can Samaje Perine bounce back quickly from the ankle injury that wrecked the Sooners’ efforts in Saturday night’s 38-35 overtime loss to Oklahoma State? Perine had 151 yards and two touchdowns when he went down with an injury to his left ankle, and from his reaction and the reaction of those around him, it seemed a diagnosis of torn ligaments or broken bones would be forthcoming.
But Perine said on Twitter he’ll be back in a couple of weeks, which begs the question: If he was the only person on the field who could move the football against Oklahoma State, could he have taped it up and gone back in?
Did the Sooner coaches, perhaps overconfident with a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead, send Perine to the locker room in a “don’t worry, we got this” moment?
When Perine left, the Sooner offense went three-and-out on six of their last seven possessions.
The second one is quite a bit more challenging for these Sooners, who end the regular season 8-4 overall and just 3-3 in home games — an almost surreal record in Norman. The bottom line is that this isn’t a very good football team right now, and for whatever reason, the players didn’t get better from August to December.
In many cases, they got worse.
Forget Shepard and his immense talent for a moment. Running back Keith Ford (team-high three catches for 34 yards), tight end Blake Bell (two catches, 59 yards) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski (two catches, six yards and a touchdown) are nice complements to a passing game. But come on. Is there not one wide receiver on the OU roster who can run a route, get separation from a defensive back, catch a pass and break away from a defender? On Saturday, OU wideouts combined to catch two passes for 9 yards.
Sooner quarterbacks completed just 55.3 percent of their passes this season, second-worst of the Bob Stoops era behind the 2005 season, when Rhett Bomar (and Paul Thompson) completed 53.3 percent.
And is there not one person on the OU campus who actually can play defense like an Oklahoma defensive back anymore?
Sure, Zack Sanchez had six interceptions and made All-Big 12 this season. But simply catching the football is a whole lot easier than covering Big 12 wideouts and form tackling, two elements at which Sanchez struggles.
Both safety positions were an adventure for the Sooners all year, with Ahmad Thomas and Steven Parker finishing up the season there almost by default. Both senior Julian Wilson and freshman Jordan Thomas were too often picked on by opposing quarterbacks because they simply couldn’t cover anyone.
Oklahoma’s defense has allowed 3,272 passing yards this season, second-worst in school history. If Clemson throws zero passes in the bowl, OU’s defense still will set a record for most passing yards allowed per game, 251.7.
This bowl season, it’s paramount to address those personnel shortcomings. Capable wideouts and DBs absolutely must be identified and developed as quickly as possible.
The third one may be the hardest of all.
What does Oklahoma want to do on offense? For that matter, what does OU want to do on defense? Because right now, those goals are completely unrecognizable. Stoops showed two years ago a willingness to change and adapt his schemes, but both units currently are aimless. Pick something, work it like you worked it in 1999 and 2000, and then never waver. Do what you do, and do it well.
Can Sooner coaches still land big-time talent out of Texas — or do they even want to try? Or will Stoops continue to lose important Texas schoolboys to Baylor and Texas A&M and others and then pretend that OU can recruit nationally? The Sooners can land recruits from around the nation, yes, but they can’t recruit nationally. There’s a difference. Even Barry Switzer never tried to pull that off.
Has Stoops stocked his staff with coaches, such as his national championship-winning quarterback (and in-law to the university president) and his own brother, whom he absolutely cannot fire? Again, Stoops recently did show he finally was willing to fire staffers to effect change, but have the coaches he hired to replace the departed actually improved their positions? It’s certainly debatable.
Oklahoma’s holiday to-do list is short: get healthy, get better and soul-search. But accomplishing all three will strengthen both the immediate and long-term interests of the Sooner program.