The Sooners are 4-0 but what’s ailing OU’s running game?

The Sooners are 4-0 but what’s ailing OU’s running game?

The Sooners have had only one 100-yard rusher this season and rank 67th nationally rushing.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Sep 26, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Sep 26, 2023, 6:00am CDT

NORMAN — On the eve of Oklahoma’s first preseason practice, there remained speculation over how Oklahoma might approach its run game.

Was there a lead tailback on the roster or would Jeff Lebby’s offense rely on a committee of rushers this fall?

DeMarco Murray, for one, knew his answer. 

“You want to have a bell cow,” said Murray, OU’s running backs coach and a former All-Big 12 and NFL runner.

Two months later, the Sooners are 4-0 and ranked 14th. But OU is still looking for answers in a backfield that hasn’t produced many. 

Despite Murray’s call for a lead rusher, Lebby came true on his promise to spread early opportunities. All four Saturdays in September have seen OU change personnel combination, presenting different flavors to varying levels of success. At Cincinnati in Week 4, the Sooners relied exclusively on fifth-year rusher Marcus Major and walkon Tawee Walker and uneven results continued in the 20-6 road win. 

OU built its 10-3 halftime lead while gaining 35 yards on 18 attempts. The Sooners ran better in the second half, when they averaged 4.4 yards and used the run game to power the nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that pulled OU clear of the Bearcats.

Major finished with 63 yards on 15 carries. Walker’s 11 attempts netted 25 yards. 

The Sooners finished with 103 rushing yards on 3.1 yards per carry, a pair of single-game lows for OU since Lebby began calling plays in Norman.

“We got in a little more of a rhythm running the football (in the second half),” Lebby said afterward. “I thought the backs did a really nice job. I thought we finished blocks a little bit better and gave ourselves a chance to go win.”

An overall lack of rhythm on the ground has the Sooners ranked 67th nationally in rushing (157.8 YPG). That hasn’t stifled an OU offense pouring on 506.8 yards per game (10th nationally), but Saturday provided the Sooners evidence of how their run game limits their scoring chances.

Eight of the 12 times OU faces a second down before halftime, the Sooners needed at least nine yards for a first down. Those numbers coincided with 40 minutes in which the Sooners gained 1.9 yards per attempt and one first down rushing.

When OU’s rushing clip improved to 4.4 yards per carry in the second half, the Sooners found themselves in 2nd-and-eight or longer only four times. 

OU may have a passing game capable of covering up its struggles on the ground. The offense moves better, however, when the Sooners have a meaningful run game to keep opposing defenses honest. 

There is no one glaring place to point blame for OU’s poor rushing output. Save for the revolving door at left guard involving Savion Byrd and Troy Everett, an experienced offensive line has remained intact. In Major, there’s experience and athleticism. Sophomores Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk, the former four-star prospects, carry loads of promise but neither played Saturday in Cincinnati. The difficult-to-tackle Walker has been one of the pleasant surprises of the early weeks.

Yet here the Sooners are with only 100-yard rushing performance — Walker’s 117-yard effort against SMU in Week 2 — to date.

Perhaps it’s worth studying how OU is rotating its running backs. Lebby explained that Major’s usage at Cincinnati was based on his practice performance and geared toward kickstarting the veteran rusher. 

“Really wanted him to be able to get in a rhythm,” Lebby said. “He had a really good week and I wanted him to have the bulk of the carries today.”

That logic makes sense. It also raises questions. 

Major’s 15-carry day came after he didn’t record an attempt at Tulsa in Week 3. Barnes’ respective 13-carry showings against Arkansas State and Tulsa have been followed with two carries (SMU) and none at Cincinnati. Sawchuk, who missed part of August and September with a hamstring injury, has carried only 10 times this fall.

An offense seeking run game rhythm isn’t giving its running backs consistent opportunities to find one. Change to the process doesn’t appear imminent, either. 

“We’ll see as we move forward as we see what we’re gonna get on tape, understand who we’re playing and then how these guys practice every week will create opportunity,” Lebby said. 

As Sellout Crowd’s Guerin Emig pointed out, OU doesn’t need a 300-yard-per-game rushing offense to succeed this fall. The passing game elevated by an improved Dillon Gabriel and a deeper, more productive cast of wide receivers can buoy the Sooners’ attack.

Yet Saturdays that call on the Sooners to run the ball will still come, perhaps as soon as Week 5 when Iowa State and the Big 12’s leading pass comes to Owen Field. 

If OU wants to hang with third-ranked Texas in the Big 12 and chase silverware later this fall, it needs a run game, and at least one running back, capable of consistent production.

“We’re gonna see all different kinds of challenges all year…,” Brent Venables said Saturday. “You still got to be able to run the ball effectively.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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