Uh, oh, Oklahoma.
Before Big 12 play started, the Sooners were sailing along, ranked third in the country and boasting the best road win — at Ohio State — in college football this year.
Two games into the conference season, though, lingering problems have resurfaced on defense along with a lack of healthy, experienced wide receivers. A shocking loss to Iowa State, which one Oklahoma columnist labeled “the worst in program history,” leaves no margin for error.
“The big thing for us is we still have it all in front of us,” OU quarterback Baker Mayfield told reporters, speaking about a possible Big 12 title and a potential playoff bid.
Yet excuse Oklahoma fans if they’re feeling more ornery than usual heading into Texas week. Some even want defensive coordinator Mike Stoops’ head.
“No, that’s not on the table,” first-year coach Lincoln Riley told reporters Monday of a mid-season shakeup. “We have a really good defensive staff, and that’s who we’re going to have.”
In any case, OU has an undeniable problem: a pass defense torched for 463 yards by winless Baylor and 368 yards by an Iowa State QB making his first start. The Sooners have sunk to 97th in NCAA pass-efficiency defense.
“I thought we had some of these things corrected, and that’s not the case,” Stoops said after the Cyclones’ stunning victory. “You’ve got to find ways to cover people and make plays or it’s just going to keep snowballing.”
Riley tried to soft-pedal the loss on Monday.
“We had a couple critical penalties and gave up a few plays in the passing game,” he said. “We continue to stop the run well; that’s the strength of our defense to this point. It’s pretty obvious we’ve got to play better against the pass.”
One unexpected trouble spot has been senior cornerback Jordan Thomas, a 2016 All-Big 12 first-team selection. Thomas has been toasted badly by the Bears and Cyclones and appears to be losing his confidence.
“I know he’ll bounce back. He’s a proven commodity,” Stoops said. “In this league, you’re going to face big-time quarterbacks and receivers every week. They’ll make some plays; you’ll make some plays.”
Sophomore corner Parnell Motley, with two interceptions and four passes defensed, has outplayed Thomas. Senior strong safety Steven Parker also has not impressed.
In fact, the only high-impact player on defense is pass-rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who leads the team with nine tackles for loss and five sacks. Nobody else has more than three of either.
Riley said Okoronkwo, a senior from Alief Taylor, has come a long way.
“Obo has limited his distractions off the field and become more consistent,” the coach said. “He always had the ability and explosiveness. He’s matured and gotten things in order.
“It’s been impressive to see his turnaround in all aspects of life. There was a time when I honestly didn’t know if he would make it here.”
Now if he only had a little help. The defense has generated just five turnovers, which ranks ninth in the conference.
Offensively, the numbers look great — the Sooners are No. 1 in the nation total offense (587.0) and sixth in scoring (44.6) — behind Lake Travis’ Mayfield and one of the best lines in the land.
Mayfield is putting up Heisman-type numbers, completing 74.6 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
He’s working magic with a young, and diminished, wide receiver corps. Two pass catchers are out for the year, Kentucky transfer Jeff Badet is banged up and four-star freshman CeeDee Lamb from Richmond Foster is trying to play through a shoulder injury. Lamb is the real deal, with four TD catches, but his playing status is up in the air.
There are no Dede Westbrooks or Sterling Shepards in this group, though Lamb might eventually become one.
Riley appears to be more focused on his team’s mental state.
“I think we’ve gotten caught up in expectations a little bit,” he said. “Everybody tells us we’re supposed to beat Baylor and Iowa State by 60, and then when it’s not happening at half, there’s an air of disappointment.
“Texas is a game where that won’t be an issue. It’s an emotional one, hard not to get excited about. I don’t think you’ll see any lulls before halftime. We’ll keep swinging.”
BIG 12 POWER POLL
Rnk (prv) Team;W-L (conf.);Next opponent;Comment
1. (2) TCU;5-0 (2-0);at Kansas State (3-2), Sat.;Horned Frogs might be league’s best team, yet most weeks could be a struggle, including this one.
2. (3) Oklahoma State;4-1 (1-1);vs. Baylor (0-5), Sat.;It’s a jumble behind TCU. For now, we’ll give slight nod to Cowboys’ overwhelming firepower.
3. (1) Oklahoma;4-1 (1-1);vs. Texas (3-2), Sat.;Surprise loss at least ditched OU’s annual troublesome and compromising role of huge favorite in this rivalry.
4. (5) Texas Tech;4-1 (1-1);at West Virginia (3-2), Sat.;No doubt Red Raiders are vastly improved. Win this rugged road test, and we’ll totally buy in.
5. (4) West Virginia;3-2 (1-1);vs. Texas Tech (4-1), Sat.;Mountaineers pushed TCU to the limit in Fort Worth and outgained Frogs by 102 yards.
6. (7) Texas;3-2 (2-0);vs. Oklahoma (4-1), Sat.;How volatile is Big 12? If Longhorns win and TCU loses this week, UT could be No. 1 next week.
7. (8) Iowa State;3-2 (1-1);vs. Kansas (1-4), Sat.;Credit Matt Campbell for burying poor game plan vs. UT and fooling OU with creative new one.
8. (6) Kansas State;3-2 (1-1);vs. TCU (5-0), Sat.;Wildcats, dealt bad hand by refs at DKR, have reasonable shot to take down league’s last unbeaten.
9. (9) Baylor;0-5 (0-2);at Oklahoma State (4-1), Sat.;Rebuilding Bears probably capable of beating one good team — just not this week.
10. (10) Kansas;1-4 (0-2);at Iowa State (3-2), Sat.;Hapless Jayhawks used to be able to compete with Cyclones. Now they’re 21-point underdogs.