NORMAN — Oklahoma threw a season-low 19 passes in its Week 9 loss, including only 12 before the fourth quarter. Dillon Gabriel’s 171 passing yards at Kansas marked his second-fewest in a full game since joining the Sooners. Facing the nation’s 65th-ranked secondary, OU completed just two passes over 20 yards in the 38-33 defeat.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. Does Brent Venables wish the Sooners and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby had taken more downfield shots in Lawrence?
“I think the opportunity was there,” he said Tuesday. “Wishing is not going to do anything. But we do need to be maintaining an aggressive mentality.”
Against UCF in Week 8, Oklahoma’s offense waited until the fourth quarter to hit full gear. At Kansas seven days later, the Sooners’ offensive engines hardly ever got going.
Following back-to-back performances with fewer than 450 total yards of offense, scrutiny around Lebby and his OU offense has never been louder as the Sooners head to Oklahoma State for the final scheduled Bedlam clash Saturday (2:30 p.m., ABC).
A particular focus in the wake of OU’s first loss of the season has settled on the vertical passing game.
The Sooners’s 19 pass attempts Saturday were their fewest in any game under Lebby outside of the 2022 Texas game when Gabriel was sidelined by a concussion. Per Pro Football Focus, more than one-third of Gabriel’s throws at Kansas went behind the line of scrimmage. Only twice did he attempt a pass 20 yards or longer.
Venables seemed to indicate Tuesday that OU will look to throw downfield more often at OSU.
“There’s always that balance when you’re trying to be efficient and protect the football,” Venables said. “But at the same time — at the right time — take your shots. We’ve got good players that can run past people and go up and make competitive plays.”
Venables was also asked about the noise that’s emerged around Lebby within the Sooners fan base in the last two weeks as an offense that still ranks fourth nationally in scoring has gone quiet.
Has Venables talked with his offensive coordinator about the groundswell of criticism?
“I had that conversation with our team and our staff several times since I’ve been here, prior to playing our first game, however long ago that was. That’s Oklahoma. That’s a place like Oklahoma. So that comes with it.
“So just stay inside out. You’re the one in that arena, you being all of us. Have an appreciation for the support but there’s craziness to all of it. I love the passion and the energy. When things don’t go well, hey man, they have a right to be pissed. But you have a right whether or not you listen to it and let it affect you or not, too.”
Updates on Danny Stutsman and Tawee Walker
Venables is hopeful linebacker Danny Stutsman and running back Tawee Walker will be available Saturday.
Stutsman suffered an apparent right ankle injury in a collision with teammate Dasan McCullough before halftime at Kansas. Stutsman returned for the second half with his ankle heavily taped.
The junior linebacker took a snap on special teams and lasted one play on defense. While Venables offered encouraging words Tuesday, Stutsman’s status for Bedlam will likely be determined later.
“I feel good about Danny. He feels pretty confident, but we’ll see. May not be something we don’t know until close to game time.”
Venables offered a similar update on Walker, who set career highs with 23 carries and 146 yards rushing and a touchdown before a left ankle injury forced him to miss the Sooners’ final four drives Saturday.
High praise for Ollie Gordon
OU has seen plenty of talented running backs in recent weeks. Not many — or any, in fact — have looked like Cowboys sophomore Ollie Gordon.
“Ollie Gordon has just been fantastic,” Venables said. “He’s got power, he’s got speed, he’s patient. He’s got great quickness. Lateral quickness. And he’s explosive. He can run right through you and run right by you.”
When the Sooners venture to Boone Pickens Stadium for the last time in a long time Saturday, they’ll be running into one of the nation’s hottest running backs.
Since carrying only 19 times through OSU’s initial three games, Gordon has torn off five consecutive 100-plus yard rushing performances, including monster efforts of 282 and 271 rushing yards the last two weeks.
The former three-star prospect’s 7.7 yards per carry are better than all but two running backs nationally. After finishing just shy of 300 yards against Cincinnati over the weekend, Gordon’s 1,087 total rushing yards lead the nation.
Gordon’s heater would present a challenge to any defense. He might be hitting OU at just the right time, too. The Sooners step into Bedlam having allowed three straight 100-plus yards rushing performances.
Longhorns running back Jonathon Brooks tore through OU for 129 yards at the Cotton Bowl. UCF’s RJ Harvey tallied 101 rushing yards in Norman. And Devin Neal’s 112 yards were the juice behind the Jayhawks’ 225-yard rushing effort.
Here’s Venables’ scouting report on Gordon:
“Ollie’s just so powerful. He’s got a nice spin move and does a good job in pass protection. He mows down a lot of people in pass pro as well. But his patience for a big guy is something that’s a little different. It’s not just power. He’s got speed and in the hole he can make you miss. He makes a lot of people miss. He breaks a lot of tackles but he makes a lot of people miss. Just excellent feet and then he can get to full speed 0-60 really fast.”
Gentry Williams and the cornerbacks
Sophomore cornerback Gentry Williams practiced Monday and is expected to return to the Sooners’ secondary against the Cowboys.
That’s good news for OU’s defense and the Sooners’ thin depth at the position.
“That’s a young group that doesn’t have a lot of experience,” Venables said. “Gentry has been in and out of the lineups and that’s not ideal. The more you play, the better you should get. But when he’s been in there, he’s done a great job and all of his best football is still in front of him.”
Veteran cornerback Kani Walker started in Williams’ place and played 71 of a possible 77 snaps against Kansas. After Walker and Woodi Washington (77 snaps), freshman Jasiah Wagoner was the only other OU player to feature at cornerback in Week 9.
Movement along the offensive line
OU’s offensive line was perhaps as healthy as it’s been all season at Kansas. It helped pave the way for a 5.0 yards per carry average in Lawrence. And the unit allowed only one sack across 60 minutes.
There were no visible issues up front. So how come the Sooners rotated so heavily on the offensive line in Week 9? Venables offered a simple explanation.
“I think we’ve got some good quality players,” he said. “You can’t just play five guys. So we’re trying to continue to develop that position like every other position.”
It’s a logical answer. Does it explain why the Sooners never quite found a stable front five or why OU heads into Bedlam with questions around who might start at OSU?
Jacob Sexton’s 54 snaps at left tackle more than doubled Walter Rouse’s at Kansas. Cayden Green logged 54 snaps of his own at left guard, leaving the other 26 for Savion Byrd, who started against the Jayhawks for the first time since Week 3 at Tulsa.
Based on those numbers and the individual performances at Kansas, I’d guess OU goes with Sexton, Green, Andrew Raym, McKade Mettauer and Tyler Guyton from left to right in Stillwater. Eight games into 2023, the Sooners’ offensive line still isn’t settled.
We’ve already established that the post-Texas hangover is a myth…probably. The Sooners’ struggles over the last two weeks haven’t exactly helped knock down the notion, though.
OU has followed its post-Texas celebrations that flowed into the Sooners’ Week 7 bye with back-to-back sloppy-performances against seemingly inferior opposition, leaving at least some to wonder if the emotion of the early October win over the Longhorns has sapped OU.
Venables certainly doesn’t believe so.
“I don’t look at it that way. At least not with this team. That’s not what I see. I see each game presents its own issues and problems, and we try to correct them and learn from them and move onto the next one. Maybe I’m completely wrong. I might be, but that’s how I’ve always approached it.”
The concept of the post-Texas letdown is rooted primarily in imagination. Venables’ explanation for OU’s recent struggles hinges on a more sound logic.
“When you lack attention to detail at times and you lack the discipline it takes at times, this game will punish you,” he said.
Emphasis on tackling
The Sooners had nine missed tackles against the Jayhawks, per Pro Football Focus, and plenty more lapses Saturday as Kansas picked up 443 yards of total offense.
Venables says that’s on him, first and foremost.
“We put on a clinic of how not to tackle, particularly in the first half last week,” he said. “I say that that’s a reflection of me. My name’s all over that. That’s not on the players. They do have a responsibility but it starts with me. Really disappointed in how we tackled last week.
“If we don’t tackle better than we did last week, Gordon is going to pull away from the pack when it comes to college football in rushing.”
The Sooners will be represented by five captains on Saturday: Ethan Downs (Weatherford), Trace Ford (Edmond), Gavin Freeman (Oklahoma City, Drake Stoops (Norman) and Gentry Williams (Tulsa).
“What played into it is guys that are respected that are from the state of Oklahoma,” Venables said. “Having grown up in the state of Oklahoma, they haven’t a different type of value maybe for Bedlam. So it’s a big deal to represent their state. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Final Bedlam woes?
Saturday is the last Bedlam game with both as members of the Big 12 Conference. Without an agreement for a non conference matchup between OU-OSU on the schedule, that means this will be the last Bedlam for the foreseeable future.
Does any of that feel weird, Venables was asked Tuesday?
“Not really. That’s because it’s the next game, it’s Oklahoma State. It doesn’t feel weird because you’re not into the future. I don’t know if that makes any sense but it doesn’t feel weird. It just feels like it’s Oklahoma State and it’s a big game and we need to find a way to win.
“You’re more concerned about things that took place last week that you got to get better and who’s going to be available and what kind of schemes you need to have to have a chance to win the game in all three phases. So we’ve got too many other concerns to really think about the future to be very honest with you.”