The Sooners’ offense is confused. Can OU get things fixed over the next three games?

The Sooners’ offense is confused. Can OU get things fixed over the next three games?

It’s okay if you’re an OU fan left confused by the last three weeks. The Sooners’ offense is confused, too.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Nov 7, 2023, 7:41pm CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Nov 7, 2023, 7:41pm CST

NORMAN — Brent Venables has struggled to make up his mind on the decisive play call that settled Oklahoma’s Bedlam defeat over the weekend, at least publicly. 

Let’s run through the last four days.

In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s 27-24 loss in Stillwater Saturday, Venables stood by the Sooners’ late fourth-quarter sequence that saw Drake Stoops targeted well short of the first-down marker on the critical fourth-down reception, effectively sealing the Oklahoma State victory.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby backed up the play call postgame, and Venables did the same. 

“I liked the play,” he said.

Yet by Monday, Venables’ tone on the game-deciding play had changed. Speaking with Chris Plank and Teddy Lehman on his weekly coaches show, Venables tried to remove any lingering heat on Stoops and suggested his staff had to be better in the moment.  

The fourth-down play,” he said. “We probably, you know, we got a whole Rolodex of maybe some plays that are better than that play.”

That’s how Venables reversed course on Monday. Roughly 16 hours later Tuesday morning, he retreated during his weekly press conference, backing off the chance to elaborate on his comments about OU’s play-calling struggles.

“We’re on to West Virginia now,” Venables said, cutting off a follow-up question. “We’re on to West Virginia.”

It’s OK if that left you confused. The Sooners’ offense is confused, too.

Venables’ terse answer Tuesday said plenty about an offense that’s dragged OU to consecutive losses and placed the Sooners’ postseason hopes on life support through a series of confounding performances. That same offense is the one OU will lean on Saturday as the Sooners look to avoid their second three-game skid in as many seasons in an evening visit from West Virginia (6 p.m., FOX).

“Defensively, they are playing really well and with a lot of confidence,” Venables said of the Mountaineers on Tuesday. “They are playing with great effort.”

Despite its recent woes, the offense Lebby leads into its Week 11 matchup is still one of the most efficient in the country. 

The Sooners remain seventh among FBS offenses in total yards. Their 39.9 points per game rank eighth nationally. No Big 12 offense has found more success through the air than OU’s Dillon Gabriel and Lebby-led attack.

And yet, it’s the Sooners offense and its play-calling struggles in the biggest moments — particularly late-game scenarios — that’s yanked OU out of College Football Playoff contention and significantly dented the program’s path to the Big 12 title game in 2023.

OU historian Mike Brooks provided an insightful stat this week: the Sooners’ back-to-back defeats to Kansas and OSU marked only the second time in the last 87 years that OU led consecutive games after three quarters and lost on both occasions, matching a feat the program last achieved in the fall of 1990.

It’s difficult to separate that fact from a Sooners’ offense that’s gained seven total first downs, converted on 14.2% of its third-down conversions, and the questionable play calls that helped squander at least two opportunities to ice a game across OU’s last two fourth quarters. 

“We’ve gotta play consistently when it comes to doing the basics the right way,” Venables said. “When you get open, you gotta catch the ball. When you’re targeting people on the perimeter we’ve gotta do a great job cutting people up and making people work. We need to be more consistent with some of those things. That helps the flow of everything”

The Sooners aren’t executing the small things the way they were earlier this fall. They’re also struggling to stay on the same page; the fourth-down play in Stillwater isn’t the only one the Sooners can’t get their story straight on.

A few hours before Stoops came up short Saturday, Gabriel completed a 49-yard bomb to Nic Anderson midway through the first quarter. On the ensuing play, center Andrew Raym fired a direct snap to running back Jovantae Barnes, who tried to hand the ball to Gabriel and fumbled for the Sooners’ initial Bedlam turnover. 

Venables said postgame that the snap was meant for Gabriel. Lebby chalked the miscue up to miscommunication. Raym, speaking after practice Monday night, was still at a loss.

“Yeah, um — it took me by shock when it happened,” he said while glancing toward an onlooking team communications staff member. “I’m — I don’t really know what to say with this question, honestly, because I’ve been getting a lot of different responses from my people, so.”

Another subtle crack for a unit that’s shown glaring issues since returning from the Sooners’ bye on Oct. 21. The positive news? Venables believes OU’s primary offensive problems are correctable. 

The focus of this Sooners team has not dipped, Venables asserted. But he did point out that they’ve committed six false starts and six of their 11 turnovers on the season in their last two games. Pre-snap discipline and ball security come as conceivable simple fixes to two of OU’s most crippling issues at the moment.

“Can’t have that and get into a good rhythm offensively,” Venables said. “It’s like having a PI or jumping offsides every other play. Can’t happen. It’s hard to get into a good rhythm.” 

Eager to discuss it on the radio Monday night, Venables was quiet on the Sooners’ recent play-calling at the lectern Tuesday. His focus hung solely on the mistakes he believes OU can remedy. Yet there’s no question all eyes will again return to Lebby and the game he calls for the Sooners’ offense Saturday. 

Following the loss at OSU, Gabriel said only time would tell if the Sooners can bounce back from their two-game stumble and a late-season, offensive dive. Lebby’s latest chance to restore faith comes when West Virginia comes to Owen Field.  

Until then, confusion will hover over — and perhaps among — the Sooners. 

 

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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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