NORMAN — Let’s return to the scene in the minutes following Oklahoma’s Week 8 win over UCF on Oct. 21. In the immediate aftermath of another narrow escape, Brent Venables stepped to the lectern inside the Sooners’ team room at least momentarily relieved.
He’d just witnessed how a late surge from OU’s run game helped carry his team to a 31-29 win. Yet Venables had also just seen how the near-dormant rushing attack the Sooners presented over the initial three quarters nearly dragged OU to its first loss of 2023, one week before Kansas went on to deliver defeat No. 1 Saturday afternoon in Lawrence.
Venables often likes to say things are never as good or as bad as they appear.
But speaking to reporters late that afternoon, the Sooners’ head coach seemed plenty aware of how dire things were in a run game that had averaged 3.0 yards per carry before halftime, unfooled by the magic Gavin Sawchuk and Marcus Major provided only at the very end against the Knights in Norman.
What’s missing from OU’s ground game, Venables was asked?
“You’ve got to run through some trash,” he said. “We got to run with a little more power, play behind our pads and not let the first guy get us down.”
All that stuff Venables was searching for? Tawee Walker provided it, then offered more in his return to the Sooners backfield in Saturday’s 38-33 loss to Kansas. Available again following a one-game suspension, the walk-on rusher was a part of most everything OU’s offense did well in its first defeat this fall.
Walker logged career highs in carries (23) and rushing yards (146) against the Jayhawks, bouncing off and barreling through Kansas defenders to account for 54.3% of OU’s run game on the road.
His second-quarter rushing touchdown carried the scoring wave that gave the Sooners their lead before halftime. Per Pro Football Focus, the nine missed tackles Walker produced ranked seventh nationally among FBS running backs in Week 9 before he exited in the third quarter with a left ankle injury.
“I just listened to my coach and did what I had to do,” said Walker. “I ran hard and got it done on the ground today.”
Saturday offered the latest glimpse into Walker’s importance to OU in 2023. It also exposed just how lost the Sooners offense can become when he’s not operating out of the backfield.
Suddenly, Walker is the skill position player OU can’t live without. What does that say for offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, the run game and the Sooners’ ceiling the rest of the way?
“It’s good to have him back,” Dillon Gabriel said of Walker on Saturday. “We need him.”
Extreme backfield contrasts
Walker’s performance at Kansas was as striking for its sheer volume as the stark difference in the Sooners’ offense with and without the 5-foot-9, 216-pound runner in the backfield.
With Marcus Major (shoulder) sidelined, Sawchuk made his second straight start and took OU’s initial four handoffs. Walker didn’t record a carry in the first quarter. Through two drives, the Sooners had averaged 3.7 yards per attempt on 10 total carries and trailed 14-0 in the opening minute of the second quarter.
He stepped into the backfield for OU’s third offensive series and ran five times on a scoring drive that saw the Sooners gain 5.0 yards per carry, ending on Gabriel’s seven-yard rushing score.
On the next series, bifurcated by a 58-minute weather delay, Walker logged six more attempts and gained 55 yards, including his two-yard touchdown run. He picked up 18 more yards on the following possession, setting up Gabriel’s second rushing score to thrust OU ahead before halftime.
Altogether, Walker carried 14 times across three consecutive scoring drives that ran a combined 158 yards on 23 plays. He entered halftime averaging 6.9 yards per attempt. With Walker in the fold, the Sooners ran the ball on 16 of its final 17 snaps of the first half.
Lebby would later make the rare statement for 2023 that OU’s run game wasn’t the issue Saturday. Walker was the main reason why.
That showed most of all when the Sooners’ most productive rusher was out of the game.
OU opened the second half with four more run plays and Walker gained 21 yards on the initial series after halftime. He picked another 24 yards two drives later before Walker limped to the sideline with the left ankle injury that held him to one more carry for the remainder of the game.
“It just felt like I couldn’t make any cuts on it,” he said. “It was best to put somebody else in because I wasn’t 100 percent.”
In sum, Walker accounted for 49 yards on nine carries in the second half. Without him, OU rushers picked up 50 yards on 15 attempts, dipping back down to 3.0 yards per carry.
On the four series that followed Walker’s exit, the Sooners gained only 88 yards of total offense and found points on only one of those drives. OU certainly could have used him when the Sooners failed to ice a 33-32 lead prior to Kansas’ game-winning scoring drive.
Bottom line: The Sooners were never the same without Walker on Saturday.
“(He) played strong, played tough,” Lebby said. “I hate that he’s not able to feel a victory after the way he played.”
Late-season offense relies on Walker
OU might still be unbeaten if Walker could have finished the game. The Sooners’ steep offensive drop-off without him presents questions big and small with four games remaining.
First and foremost: Will Walker be available at Oklahoma State in Week 10?
He didn’t seem particularly concerned with the injury late Saturday afternoon. That Walker returned to the game and tried to play on the aching ankle is some indication of the severity.
Brent Venables will surely be asked about his status Tuesday morning.
“It’s alright,” Walker said postgame in Lawrence. “I’ll go in and get treated tomorrow. I’ll see how it feels after tomorrow.”
Another question lies with the overall health and effectiveness inside the Sooners’ running back unit.
Major missed out through injury at Kansas. Jovantae Barnes, hampered this fall by the effects of offseason foot surgery, carried five times for 17 yards. Sawchuk, recovered from a hamstring injury, gained 19 yards on his six attempts.
Between Major, Sawchuk and Barnes, the rushing trio has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in two games since the Sooners’ bye. Those numbers lag behind Walker’s 6.3 yards per attempt at Kansas and his mark of 5.1 yards per attempt for the season.
Through eight games, there should be no question who OU’s lead running back is so long as Walker is healthy.
From there, the questions reach Lebby in the coaches booth. On Saturday, he was asked if Walker’s absence impacted the Sooners’ late-game play-calling.
“You still wanna be able to execute and get a first down and go win the game,” Lebby said. “That’s the reality of it. We didn’t do that. Had a chance to win it there and didn’t do it.”
If losing Walker didn’t impact how OU managed the game, it certainly altered how effective the Sooners were on the ground the rest of the way.
Lebby dialed up three consecutive runs that gained six total yards before punting on the Sooners’ first possession after Walker’s injury. He turned to the legs of Gabriel and Barnes on the next series. They had enough to score on the short field set up by Billy Bowman’s interception, handing the Sooners their 33-32 lead with 5:22 remaining.
Walker’s absence was most apparent three minutes later.
Starting at the Kansas 38 yard line with 2:29 remaining, OU stood one first down away from sneaking another tight victory. The Sooners ran three times; twice through Barnes and once via Gabriel. Those carries totaled three yards and forced a punt that opened Kansas’ go-ahead scoring drive.
“(We) had chances to go win the game in the three-minute, four-minute situation and (didn’t) get it done,” Lebby said.
The questions from here are manifold. How did the walk-on who was playing for Palomar Junior College (California) two years ago become OU’s best backfield option? How has Lebby’s second offense in Norman become so dependent on that player? Can Walker stay available for the Sooners the rest of the way? What happens if not?
Principally, OU’s reliance on Walker casts questions larger over an offense that hasn’t eclipsed 450 total yards in its last two games as the Sooners jump into fray of a suddenly tight Big 12 Championship race.
“We’ve gotta get in there and clean it up and get it corrected before we go to Stillwater next Saturday,” Lebby said.
The Sooners have to be better on offense. All the recent evidence points toward OU needing Walker to play a heavy role in making that happen.