There’s no getting around what OU fumbled Saturday in Lawrence

There’s no getting around what OU fumbled Saturday in Lawrence

The Sooners will likely be some distance from the lead pack when the first College Football Playoff rankings are released Tuesday night, and Saturday’s loss may be hard to overcome.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 28, 2023, 8:30pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 28, 2023, 8:30pm CDT

LAWRENCE, Kansas — Oklahoma’s final Big 12 meeting with Kansas began under the sun.

It ended in the pouring rain with the sixth-ranked Sooners’ College Football Playoffs hopes severely dented while Kansas fans chanted “S-E-C” as they carried the goalposts to Potter Lake with their first win over OU since 1997.

The Sooners are no longer unbeaten. They flew home from Kansas Saturday not only with their first loss of 2023, but with their dream season irreparably altered by Saturday’s 38-33 defeat to the Jayhawks (6-2, 3-2 Big 12).

Just weeks ago, OU seemed to have everything figured out. Now, with four games left on the regular season schedule, the questions around the Sooners are mounting.

Chief among them all: Where does OU go from here?

“We’re not going to be defined by any one win or any loss. We’ve got a lot still out in front of us,” Brent Venables said afterward. “(But) this one hurts. It stings.”

Yes, the Sooners (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) are still conceivably in the CFP hunt after Saturday. As Venables told his players in the locker room postgame, OU still controls its destiny in the Big 12, too.

However, after carving narrow escapes against Texas and UCF, OU finally got bit in Week 9, and many of the wounds in the loss that lowered the Sooners’ ceiling in 2023 were self-inflicted.

It started with Ra’Mello Dotson’s pick-six on Dillon Gabriel’s second throw of the game. OU would turn the ball over on downs on the next series and finished the day 2-of-10 on third down.

Consistency again eluded the Sooners’ offense for another week. After jumping ahead 21-14 with 4:23 to go before halftime on three consecutive scoring drives, OU picked up just 35 yards on its next 13 plays and went four straight drives without points.

The second half saw toothless play calls — see: the Gavin Freeman jet sweep offense coordinator Jeff Lebby dialed up on the first series after halftime — and turnovers that featured wide receiver Jalil Farooq at running back and defensive end Marcus Stripling involved in kick return duties.

Three personal fouls, including an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on an unidentified OU assistant coach, accounted for 45 yards on Kansas’ seven-play, 65-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter.

In a position to ice the game with 2:29 remaining, the Sooners ran three plays that gained three yards and burned 24 seconds, setting up the Jayhawks for their decisive touchdown with 55 seconds remaining.

It was a parade of errors that let the steam out of OU’s season and left the Sooners shell shocked as they boarded the buses in the rain.

“I would say stunned — I’ll put it that way,” said safety Billy Bowman. “We know we didn’t come out here and execute to our ability. So I feel like that one’s on us.”

Questions will be asked of an offense that went quiet again while Dillon Gabriel threw fewer passes than in any full game since his freshman year. Outside of Tawee Walker (23 carries, 146 yards, rushing touchdown), the Sooners offered very few threats.

“Not good enough,” Lebby said of the play-calling. “I mean, obviously. We’re standing here after getting beat. Not good enough.”

There will be questions about a defense that’s gone from sharp and mistake-free to shaky and prone to both coverage and mental lapses.

“(We) didn’t play with discipline,” Venables said. “Same thing, two weeks in a row — different ways, but it all counts the same. It’s discipline, or lack thereof.”

Questions can be asked about coaching, too. Venables admitted he erred in hanging onto a timeout before the 37-yard gain that set up Devin Neal’s game-winning rushing score.

“I should’ve called a timeout there and put our guys in, let them get settled down and I didn’t,” he said. “So, I blew it.”

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Another question: how to proceed from here?

OU opened Saturday in the driver’s seat of the Big 12 title race. It’ll head to Stillwater in Week 10 still very much in control of its path, but now tangled with fellow one-loss conferences foes Texas, Kansas State and Iowa State. The schedule in front of the Sooners features four manageable games against Big 12 opponents with a combined league record of 11-9.

As for the national landscape, OU’s shot at the four-team playoff took a massive blow Saturday.

The Sooners will likely be some distance from the front of the pack when the initial College Football Playoff rankings are released Tuesday night. Saddled with a late-season defeat, the Sooners may struggle to make a playoff case even as a one-loss conference champion.

There’s simply no getting around what OU fumbled in Lawrence.

“We got a lot of hefty goals and we fell short today,” center Andrew Raym said.

Venables’ message to his players was simple: flush the loss and move on with a trip to Oklahoma State on the horizon. His players echoed that sentiment.

“The message is we’re going forward,” said wide receiver Drake Stoops. “OSU is next week and that’s a big game. We can’t allow this one to affect that one and continue to drop games.”

Stoops stands among the Sooners’ central leaders. He delivered a rousing speech in the locker room following the Week 8 win over UCF. On Saturday, Gabriel, Raym and linebacker Danny Stutsman were among the loudest voices as OU tasted defeat for the first time in 2023.

Walker, the walk-on running back, spoke about dashed plans for an undefeated finish this fall from the tunnel inside Memorial Stadium. Bowman acknowledged the loss — and more importantly what it represents — as a wound that will sting.

In a sport that almost universally encourages its players to block out the noise, the fallout Saturday was difficult for the Sooners to ignore.

“We got to focus on us winning these next four games and that’s what we can control,” Bowman said. “Other teams might lose. Who know what can happen in all of college football.”

More difficult to keep in focus in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s loss was the fact that OU has already come so far.

These Sooners are some distance from the 6-7 record they finished with a year ago. Big 12 title contention marks a significant step in the broader progression under Venables. Playoff aspirations were always ahead of schedule.

Defensive lineman Ethan Downs, who’s late interception initially appeared to seal an OU victory Saturday, knows that. It didn’t remove any of the pain in Lawrence.

“Disappointing, frustrating,” he said of the loss. “It gives us a new edge, new fire, new drive to go into practice … Every time we watch film, it’s that much more crucial because we know with victory and a loss, there’s a fine line.”

That’s perspective Venables will hope his Sooners can collectively carry forward. In front of them in November are four games and a potential conference championship appearance that will hold significant bearing on how OU’s 2023 season is remembered

We’re about to see where the Sooners go from here.

“We’ve got an opportunity to still achieve most of our goals,” Venables said. “So, now it’s about how we respond.”

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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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