‘Only time will tell’: Where did Oklahoma’s early season fire go?

‘Only time will tell’: Where did Oklahoma’s early season fire go?

The fearlessness the Sooners rode to 6-0 this fall has seemingly faded, replaced by something much less fierce and far easier to break.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Nov 5, 2023, 7:00am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Nov 5, 2023, 7:00am CST

STILLWATER — Isaiah Coe wore the look of a man who simply couldn’t believe it. 

Jasiah Wagoner walked toward the visiting locker room at Boone Pickens in a seeming state of shock. 

Jayden Gibson summed up his Bedlam feelings simply.

“I hate these (guys),” Oklahoma’s second-year wide receiver yelled.

That was the scene moments after the clock hit 0:00 on the ninth-ranked Sooners in their 27-24 loss to No. 22 Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon, a defeat that punctured OU’s Big 12 title aspirations, handed the Cowboys the last laugh in the final meeting of the 119-year-old football rivalry and left open at least one burning question: where has the Sooners’ early season fire gone?

I hurt for our guys,” Brent Venables said afterward. “They really laid it on the line.”

It wasn’t an issue of fight for OU. The Sooners showed plenty of that Saturday, clawing back from a 17-7 deficit to hold a lead with eight minutes remaining as OU rushers gained 5.5 yards per carry and Kip Lewis led the way with 15 tackles in place of the injured Danny Stutsman.

But the Sooners were again plagued with what have become familiar issues in the loss that sent their pursuit of a spot in the Dec. 2 Big 12 title game into precarious standing.

OU turned the ball over three times and found the end zone only once on its final nine offensive series, including the final drive that ended when Drake Stoops’ fourth-down reception came up short with 1:01 remaining. 

Dillon Gabriel (26-of-37, 344 yards) threw more, but the Sooners passer found only three of his receivers more than once and countered a second-quarter touchdown throw with his fifth interception of the season after halftime.

The Sooners’ defense proved leaky once again. OU allowed six plays of 20 yards or more and let Rashod Owens,  who began the day with 17 receptions on the season, burn the secondary for 136 yards on 10 catches. A tame performance from OSU’s Ollie Gordon — it’s all relative with the Cowboys’ blazing sophomore rusher — still saw him hit the Sooners for 137 yards and two scores on the ground.

A lack of discipline caught up with OU again, too. The Sooners were flagged eight times in Week 10, including three pre-snap penalties on offense. Venables’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, OU’s second bench penalty in as many weeks, spotted the Cowboys an extra 15 yards on their go-ahead scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter. 

“It ain’t good,” he said. “Everybody lacked discipline, including me.”

Those were the building blocks to the Sooners’ demise in the last of their 118 meetings with OSU, the same problems that dragged OU down against UCF and Kansas late last month. 

Photo gallery: Oklahoma State’s 27-24 win over Oklahoma in pictures

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Yet past the tangible issues lies a greater complication. 

The identity the Sooners carved across their 6-0 start this fall has disappeared. OU opened 2023 with a distinct fearlessness, the kind it rode in the Oct. 7 win over Texas. That mentality has seemingly faded since the Sooners returned from their Week 7 bye, replaced by something much less fierce and far easier to break.

Everybody’s got to take accountability, responsibility,” Venables said.

Venables stood behind his players and the fight they showed Saturday. Running Gavin Sawchuk, who picked up 111 yards on 13 carries Saturday, said he hasn’t felt any sort of change in recent weeks. Safety Billy Bowman kept perspective on where the Sooners stand now than from this time a year ago. 

Stoops, like his head coach and many of his teammates, emphasized staying the course.

“We’re not going to change our approach,” he said. “We have a process and we trust our process.”

The dents in OU’s confidence are more subtle, perhaps. Right guard McKade Mettauer offered an insight. 

The same Sooners offense that marched down the field at the Cotton Bowl last month was “down and out” when it entered the locker room trailing 17-14 Saturday afternoon, Mettauer explained.

“We just didn’t have an attack mentality as players,” he said. “I think we let the score get to us when in reality it was a one-score game.”

The veteran offensive lineman sensed something similar in the Sooners’ loss at Kansas, when OU squandered a 21-17 halftime lead. Seeds of doubt can be minuscule and plenty damaging once they’ve seeped in.

“I think we need to carry our own momentum and not let the environment dictate what is going on with us. I think the energy needs to stay up,” Mettauer said.

“We don’t want to be down. We’re used to kicking team’s butts by a lot. So when we’re in those close games I don’t think we need to allow it to affect us like it did today and like it did last week also.”

Seven days after the defeat at Kansas, OU players found themselves picking up the pieces of another loss.

Gabriel struggled to describe the mood in the Sooners’ locker room. He grasped even harder at identifying the factors contributing to OU’s struggles. As the Sooners’ quarterback said following the Kansas defeat, the Sooners have to flush the Bedlam loss and turn their attention now to West Virginia in Week 11.

Bruised by a pair of losses that have shattered OU’s postseason picture, the Sooners must turn the page. Does Gabriel sense that this is a group that can do that?

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve got to find out. I guess only time will tell.”

 

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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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