HOUSTON – Safe to say the University of Oklahoma will be happy to be done with the city of Houston for a while.
The men’s basketball season ended at NRG Stadium in April, and the 2016 version of the football stumbled out of the blocks in a 33-23 loss to Houston on Saturday afternoon.
You knew heading into the season opener there were some question marks regarding the Sooners. Even head coach Bob Stoops admitted he had no idea how his players would react in a competitive environment.
Those questions, though, were mostly centered around the defense. Replacing a bunch of leadership, Mike Stoops’ squad was in for a tussle against Greg Ward and the Cougars.
Nobody doubted offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Nobody questioned whether or not quarterback Baker Mayfield could get the job done. They silenced those critics last year.
But then the Cougars silenced the OU offense.
For 36 minutes 32 seconds, Houston stopped the Sooners. Rushing attack nullified. Pressure on Mayfield. Two turnovers. And that’s how a 17-13 mid-second quarter lead turns into a nearly insurmountable 33-17 deficit in the final minutes. OU scored with 8:34 left in the first half and then not again until 2:05 was left in the game.
“In the second half, we got a little greedy and tried to do too much and got off track,” Mayfield said. “When the defense started playing well, that’s when we tried to get greedy and not do the same thing like staying ahead of the chains. That’s when it all went off.”
Head coach Bob Stoops said running back Samaje Perine injured his shoulder on the first drive of the game and then aggravated it again on a huge hit later in the first half. Although Perine returned, the offensive cohesion never did.
The questions all camp have been about the depth of the receiving group. Or maybe not even the depth but about the playmaking ability.
Mayfield could so often look one way and see No. 3 and know Sterling Shepard was going to be there to help pick him and the Sooners up. Shepard is with the New York Giants now, watching Saturday’s game on the sidelines as a spectator.
What OU needed was someone to pick up that mantle and be that playmaker on the field.
“Yeah. I’ve said it before,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “You can’t really replace Sterling Shepard. I’m going to come back to what I said – I think we have a ton of guys on this team and we’re a lot deeper than we were last year. So I don’t think that was the problem for us losing this game. I just think we have to be more efficient in our offense. We have to get the ball in our hands and make plays.”
Andrews did what he could with three catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns. And overall, Mayfield’s stat line looks pretty solid. He completed 24 of 33 passes for 323 yards with two touchdowns.
But there were plays when Mayfield might have left the pocket too early. There were plays where the receivers didn’t get open in time. Panic didn’t set in, but the button was close to being pushed.
When that happens, then you do things you characteristically do not do. OU has two second-half turnovers, including a fumble by Mayfield. A trick play Dede Westbrook pass to Dimitri Flowers would have been a guaranteed touchdown to start the fourth quarter but Westbrook never gave Flowers a legitimate chance to catch it.
“It’s tough. You work to get it done,” Riley said. “That was kind of the name of the game today. Give Houston credit. We did not do nearly as well as we’re capable of or where we’ll get to. It was tough. But again, that’s certainly not the one that lost it for us.”
Joe Mixon had 40 yards on six carries, including a 32-yard touchdown to go with five catches for 77 yards. Westbrook led all OU receivers with eight receptions for 70 yards.
The questions everybody thought were answered in 2015 will have to pricked and prodded once again and hoping the wheels don’t come off in 2016.
“We lost our patience a little early, maybe, a little overaggressive,” Riley said. “I kind of thought we got a little down when the defense was getting stops and we weren’t converting those into touchdowns midway through the third into the fourth. Finally at the end we settled in but it was too late.”