A Week 2 win that changes a career, a season and a national championship race
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the last player trickled into the Oklahoma locker room late Saturday night, Lincoln Riley was still checking his call sheet.
Maybe he was marveling at what he had just done. Maybe he was already getting ready for next week.
Nevertheless, that magic piece of cardboard containing OU’s offensive plays — filtered through the mind of Oklahoma’s first-year head coach – just took down No. 2 Ohio State.
No. 5 Oklahoma’s 31-16 win probably changed Riley’s life, career, the Sooners season and perhaps the national championship race.
This wasn’t just the nation’s youngest FBS coach walking into The Shoe in his second career game and kicking the Buckeyes all the way to the Olentangy River. It was the surgical nature of the beating.
It was a savant waving a wand. Harry Potter with a visor. It was a much-maligned defense from the much-maligned Big 12 rising up. It was Large Game Lincoln replacing Big Game Bob — on Saturday, certainly.
“I’m out, I’m out,” Stoops said waving away reporters wanting a reaction as the gun sounded on one of the greatest wins in OU history. “It’s [about] them.”
Yes, it was. Riley coached a team that lost its best pass catcher (tight end Mark Andrews) early on. The go-ahead touchdown came from a walk-on (Lee Morris). Another TD catch came from a freshman (tailback Trey Sermon). Even a fullback (Dimitri Flowers) got in the act.
Nine players caught it. Seven players ran it. Thirty-two months after he arrived in Norman, three months since he succeeded Stoops, it would not be outlandish to suggest OU has the most innovative play caller since Chip Kelly.
Kelly is currently in Bristol, Connecticut, breaking down games for ESPN. Riley is leading a program that looks playoff worthy.
“We’ll be disappointed if this is the highlight of our season,” he said.
So will a lot of people who saw not only the birth of a coaching career but perhaps the rejuvenation of a conference. The Big 12 needed this for its ego, its rep and to get out of Twitterverse punch-line status.
“It’s two games in and everybody will want to anoint us now,” Riley said.
Maybe they should.
“You’re going into one of the bluebloods that everyone says is the best team in America,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “We handled ourselves in a very strong way.”
Baker Mayfield threw three touchdown passes then unleashed a year’s worth of frustration by taking a lap with Oklahoma’s team flag and “planting” it at midfield.
Yes, it was artificial turf, but you shouldn’t confuse what Mayfield was trying to prove.
“It was embarrassing to have them sing their fight song on our field [last season],” he said. “Nobody picked us on ‘Game Day.’ Eighty percent of the country voted for Ohio State to win.”
In these sorts of situations, underdogs will take their inspiration any way they can get it.
“If you didn’t pick us before, don’t switch up on us now,” Flowers said.
“We’re not pretenders,” said OU linebacker Emmanuel Beal, a Columbus native. “No. 2 Ohio State lost in their house.”
None of it can be underplayed. A quiet guy from Muleshoe, Texas, had just guided Oklahoma’s first win in a true road game against a team ranked in the top two of the AP poll for in 54 years.
To be precise, that was in Bud Wilkinson’s last season in 1963.
And it wasn’t outrageous to suggest Riley outcoached Urban Freakin’ Meyer who lost only his seventh game in six seasons here.
“Yeah, it was awful,” Meyer summed up.
Suddenly, everything changed for Oklahoma, the Big 12 and Stoops. If the Sooners keep playing anywhere close to what they did Saturday night, they’re basically a sweep of Oklahoma State away from getting into the College Football Playoff.
Sure, that’s conjecture from the view of the second week of the season, but for the Big 12, it beats the heck out of being eliminated from the playoff in September.
That’s exactly what happened in a 21-point loss to the Buckeyes in Norman, Oklahoma.
What happened between then and Saturday night will be fodder for Stoops’ book — if ever writes one. For now, it’s clear he didn’t leave the cupboard bare. In fact, Riley has turned out to be one hell of a cook.
Mayfield played the game of his career, completing 27 of 35 for 386 yards. The only two-time walk-on to become a Heisman finalist still hasn’t lost a true road game.
Both he and his new coach are 10-0 in such games at OU.
“He’s not doing it with a bunch of Rudys out there,” Riley said.
Morris grabbed the go-ahead touchdown pass with 2:17 left in the third quarter after Ohio State had taken a 13-10 lead.
“He probably won’t be a walk-on much longer,” Riley said.
It’s been more than 11 ½ years since the Big 12 beat a nonconference opponent ranked in the top two.
Texas took down USC in the 2006 BCS Championship Game. Only the Pac-12 (2004 season) has a longer national championship drought among the Power Five.
We’ll see if any of that lingers in the minds of the CFP Selection Committee.
“I’ve voiced very strongly my belief in this league,” Riley said.
OU outgained Ohio State 490-350. A staggering 22 of Ohio State’s 69 offensive plays went for zero or negative yards.
“That’s the story tonight, how well our defense played,” Riley said.
That and the new guy can coach not only an offense but a program.
“Our preparation since Monday has been perfect,” Beal said.
Three times on Saturday the snap went diagonally to the tailback. This was no Wildcat play, it was an altogether new play.
On one play near the end of the first half, Mayfield limped off the field after completing a 12-yard pass. Backup Kyler Murray came in, handed off and then got a pitch from the tailback he took for 9 yards.
Mayfield said he had a sudden attack of the cramps. Whatever the case, Riley has a knack for calling the right play at the right time.
“They ran that in practice,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “I didn’t know what the hell that was.”
Neither did Ohio State. As the Sooners danced into the night, it’s nice to welcome a coach, a program and league into the national discussion.
Ohio State won’t face athletes like this the rest of the season in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the man who built the program Riley took over stayed off to the side. There were a few hugs, a lot of yelling and then Bob Stoops disappeared into the night.
“I know he’s happy,” his brother Mike said. “We wouldn’t be in the place right now if he wasn’t all convinced it wasn’t the best for us and him. That’s why the transition was so seamless.”
A savant in a visor proved it.
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