We are now 75% of the way through season two under Brent Venables. After roughly 35 slow, grinding weeks of offseason, the last 10 weeks have flown by. And when things are going great, like they were through 7 weeks, things really fly by.
OU was 6-0, just beat the best Texas squad in the last decade, and was on the verge of a top 5 ranking and an inside track to the playoffs. Morale was sky-high. You have improved on defense – nothing elite, but better than good – and have made plays when they were needed. The offense, even with some ups and downs, was humming, a top 5 unit in the country by both basic and advanced stats.
Then the bye happened.
I’m not sure what transpired in that week off, but something happened. Did the team buy into their own hype? There was a quantitative drop off in production on both sides of the ball. And from an individual standpoint, some players regressed. Whether there are injuries known or unknown that factored in, we may never know, but every team deals with injuries. It’s college football at the highest level. It’s going to happen.
Not to pick on anyone in particular, but it comes with the territory. I don’t think anyone would have argued that Danny Stutsman didn’t look like a first team All-American through six games. Would anyone argue that he still should be in that conversation at this point? I know he got hurt towards the end of the Kansas game, but he wasn’t playing great after the bye up until that point. And he is your defensive leader. And after looking like he turned a corner and was playing like an NFL prospect, Key Lawrence has really struggled lately too. Hate to put it this way, but it may have been fortunate that Lawrence was injured after that first series yesterday. He was an outright liability against that offense. And those aren’t the only two examples on defense.
We’ll save the deep dive on defense for the next piece.
On offense, it seems like Dillon Gabriel has regressed back to some old tendencies too. Much can be said about the man in charge of the offense, but Jeff Lebby isn’t the one on the field making the reads and executing the calls. Gabriel, in his fifth season of collegiate football, is supposed to be your field general. Not only does he have the games under his belt, he’s been under Lebby’s system for three years now. Lots of blame has been thrown at both for the two-game slide, but the duo wasn’t exactly sharp in the UCF win either.
Gabriel had a lot of doubters coming into the season, but he seemed to be turning a corner, erasing a lot of doubt with a gritty performance against Texas, the biggest win of his long career. His QBR is still a career-best 167.7 rating through nine games, but his last four games (including Texas) have been under that average – 132.2, 142.5, 138.8, and 151.9 yesterday. He was clearly better than the Kansas game, but there was still plenty of opportunities yesterday that just weren’t executed or converted.
But the problems seem bigger than any one player. Just how big are they? Are they expected in the second year of a head coach’s career? Can they be excused? And most importantly, can they be fixed?
Okay let’s dive in. Jeff Lebby seems like the hot topic right now, and that’s probably deserved. I always tend to lean on the adage that nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems. Do I think Lebby is a great coordinator? No, not really. Has he performed well enough to be brought back next season? Honestly, probably not. But is it as bad as it has been portrayed to be? Also probably not.
This doesn’t mean he can’t improve with a different quarterback, which seems to be the argument to support bringing him back. Or the argument that he doesn’t have the elite playmakers yet that his offense needs. Could be true, but there’s a counter argument to that – why can’t he figure out how to use what he’s got? It’s not like this roster is full of group of five level three stars (heh).
Let’s just use the eye test for a minute.
Since the bye, OU has faced UCF (former group of 5 member), Kansas, and Oklahoma State. One doesn’t need to be an expert in college football or pay attention to recruiting to know that OU has the talent on the roster to beat those three teams in their sleep. Now, when you are OU, you have a massive target on your back when it comes to playing this schedule. OU and Texas are the games they get up for, especially OU when you are Kansas and Oklahoma State. So you should expect their best effort. But even then, a well-developed game plan with moderate execution should be enough to get the job done.
OU’s record coming out of the stretch against those three opponents? 1-2. I’m not sure that is excusable in any season. OU went 6-7 last year, worst year in over two decades, and still didn’t lose to Kansas or Oklahoma State. All three of those games were ugly. UCF was excused by the bye week, and many thought the struggles would wake this team up. They played like crap, they fought, and they pulled out the win. Then what? They fell on their face in Lawrence. Then fell on their face again in Stillwater. Besides a play here and a play there, it just did not look good from the eye test.
So what do the last three weeks look like from a numbers perspective?
Keep in mind, here are some of the defensive metrics from the three opponents going into the games:
|TEAM||UCF D||UCF D||KU D||KU D||OSU D||OSU D|
|Points Per Game||30.6||92nd||29.2||89th||26.0||61st|
|Points Per Game (Estimated)||28.0||83rd||29.0||94th||26.6||72nd|
|Yards Per Game||419.2||99th||426.0||109th||411.9||99th|
|Plays Per Game||73.4||107th||72.0||94th||70.7||85th|
|Yards Per Point||13.7||81st||14.6||59th||15.8||40th|
|Points Per Play||0.417||80th||0.405||76th||0.368||56th|
|Yards Per Play||5.7||79th||5.9||99th||5.8||92nd|
|Expected Points Added – Pass||0.165||81st||0.182||93rd||0.095||66th|
|Expected Points Added – Rush||0.042||117th||-0.008||77th||-0.043||28th|
|Passing Yards Per Game||199.0||28th||250.3||97th||234.7||67th|
|Sacks Per Game||2.2||62nd||3.0||T-19th||1.9||T-77th|
|Yards Per Pass Attempt||6.8||36th||7.5||73rd||8.0||97th|
|Team Passer Rating||117.5||23rd||137.3||80th||140.1||84th|
|Rushing Yards Per Game||220.2||130th||175.7||102nd||177.1||T-102nd|
|Yards Per Rush Attempt||5.3||119th||4.9||107th||4.5||89th|
|Red Zone Scoring||77.27%||31st||100.0%||T-130th||73.33%||19th|
|Time of Possession||32:58||122nd||29:43||65th||30:42||87th|
|Early Downs EPA||0.098||107th||0.100||111th||-0.020||47th|
|3rd Down Conversions||52.05%||127th||48.15%||123rd||42.45%||97th|
|4th Down Conversions||40.00%||T-41st||50.00%||63rd||18.75%||4th|
|RANK AVERAGES||AVG RK||78.56||AVG RK||90.43||AVG RK||62.9|
Not a single one of those defenses would ever be called good. It’s not a perfect system, but an average of 23 different rankings would put them around 78th, 90th, and 63rd overall in the country. I would even go as far to say as those are three bad defenses.
And OU went 1-2.
Here’s the offensive production using many of the same categories as above, but split by the first six games and the last three games.
|METRIC||THRU 6||LAST 3||DELTA||CH (%)|
|Points Per Game||45.2||29.3||-15.9||-35.2%|
|Points Per Game (Estimated)||41.3||30.0||-11.3||-27.4%|
|Yards Per Game||506.0||458.0||-48||-9.5%|
|Plays Per Game||76.2||76.0||-0.2||-0.2%|
|Yards Per Point||11.2||15.6||-4.4||-39.3%|
|Points Per Play||0.593||0.386||-0.207||-34.9%|
|Yards Per Play||6.6||6.0||-0.6||-9.1%|
|Passing Yards Per Game||341.2||256.0||-85.2||-25.0%|
|Sacks Allowed Per Game||0.8||2.0||-1.2||-150.0%|
|Yards Per Pass Attempt||9.7||8.2||-1.5||-15.5%|
|Team Passer Rating||181.6||145.4||-36.2||-19.9%|
|Rushing Yards Per Game||164.8||202.0||+37.2||+22.6%|
|Yards Per Rush Attempt||4.1||4.7||+0.6||+14.6%|
|Red Zone Scoring||90.91%||75.00%||-15.91%||-17.5%|
|3rd Down Conversions||51.22%||36.84%||-14.38%||-28.1%|
|4th Down Conversions||77.78%||40.00%||-37.78%||-48.6%|
Literally the only two metrics (out of 17) that have improved are rushing yards per game (+37.2 yards per game) and yards per rush (+0.6 yards per rush). Everything else has regressed, substantially by some metrics.
Points per game, down 35%. 3rd down conversions, down 28%. Red zone scoring, down 17.5%. Sacks allowed has more than doubled. Yards per point down over 39% (!!). Points per play down almost 35% (!!).
Against the 78th, 90th, and 63rd overall defenses in the country (average metric, leading into the game).
If anyone still wanted to watch any football after the game and caught the Alabama-LSU and/or USC-Washington games, you would have seen true dual-threat QBs creating and extending plays for their offenses. Dillon Gabriel has done a good job at times this season moving the ball on the ground. But one can’t help but watch Jalen Milroe, Jayden Daniels, Caleb Williams and think that this offense could be more effective with a dynamic athlete like that at QB. Heck, 4-5 weeks ago, none of us would have desired Jalen Milroe. But at this point? I would take a trade in a heartbeat.
Which brings me to the next point. Is this a Dillon Gabriel thing? Or a Jeff Lebby thing?
Do we think that Jackson Arnold – who may not be as fast as Daniels and Williams or as big as Milroe – couldn’t unlock some version of this offense that is missing? This becomes the existential question when deciding the future of the offensive coordinator position at Oklahoma.
So the stats above are pretty transparent. But after that, it gets complicated.
Obviously, as the offensive coordinator, Jeff Lebby is in charge. It’s his offense. His scheme. His hand-picked quarterback (although, to be fair, he didn’t have a lot of options or time… last year). His staff, for the most part. Bill Bedenbaugh may be the least desired of the staff members by Lebby, but BnB is here and who Lebby has to work with. Each game is scripted with Lebby’s game plans. Each play call, Lebby’s. The offensive rotations appear to be on the position coaches, but Lebby is the boss. Ultimately, the entire offense falls at his feet. And Venables has done a good (I suppose “good” could be debatable) job leaving Lebby be to run it.
Maybe it’s time for Venables to step in. Something is broken.
The run game is picking up, but you just need to spend 5 minutes on the message board to realize everyone sees the inconsistencies. Why is Jovantae Barnes in the game for a trick play? Why did Tawee Walker and Gavin Sawchuk only account for 21 carries between the two of them? And why did OU only run the ball 27 times? Sawchuk had a game-high 64 yard rush. The other 26 carries only accounted for 84 yards (3.23 yards per rush). Oklahoma State was 102nd in rushing yards given up per game, and 89th in yards per rush. Is it a talent problem? I don’t think so. Sawchuk was a top 100 player and has looked good when given a chance. Walker might be a walk-on, but he’s got the best tape out of any of the backs so far this season. He’s effective enough. Is it a scheme deal? It certainly seems like it. I’ll lean on our own Caleb Cummings for a breakdown of the scheme that he has called “Junior Varsity” several times.
The passing attack has taken a big step back. Sure, some of that could be attributed to the loss of former Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony, Jr. after his ACL injury. Anthony certainly looked the part of a true number one X receiver until the injury late in the Texas game, showcasing the abilities both of a possession receiver and a deep threat guy. But Andrel got on campus just nine months before the season, and joined a group full of former four stars and top 100 receivers, including Nic Anderson, Jalil Farooq, Jayden Gibson, Jaquaize Pettaway (true freshman), and Brenen Thompson (also a recent transfer). Even former transfers LV Bunkley-Shelton and oft-injured JJ Hester were once four star recruits. And while recruiting doesn’t mean everything at the end of the day, that’s a lot of talent for a staff to find something from to step up in light of an injury. This piece started off by stating that injuries happen to everyone. OU is going to let one injury to a non-QB completely change the entire offense? So is this a scheme deal too? I trust Emmett Jones based on his track record. I trust the talent on campus. But at this point, I do not trust the scheme.
How about the play calling itself?
Look no further than the last play of the game yesterday. 4th and 5. Drake Stoops had a great game up until this point. Double digit catches, over 100 yards receiving, and was on the shitty end of a terrible no-call in the endzone that likely could have won the game for the Sooners (a story for another time). This is not a shot at Drake. But he is NOT the elite threat that you call on to make a play. And they didn’t just call on him – he was the ONLY read on the play.
A one-read play. To extend the game. To Drake Stoops. On a route design that put him two yards short of the sticks.
Its 4th and 5. You are down and have to go score a touchdown to win the game. A field goal gets you to overtime. But you’re not in range yet. You need that first down to keep it moving. You have a comfortable amount of time left and a time out in your pocket.
And you call that?
I get that you MIGHT want a quick, easy read for Gabriel. But that’s the option?
Another huge play from yesterday was the botched trick play (we think?) that was a direct snap to Barnes (we think?). In a vacuum, not a bad play. We’ve seen the direct snap work before; OU won the RRS in 2021 on the very same play to Kennedy Brooks. Situationally, it can be used effectively. Yesterday, at that time, was not one of those situations.
OU started the drive deep in their own territory after a pretty incredible punt by the Pokes. Eventually, Gabriel finds Anderson loose downfield for a 49 yard gain, instantly flipping the field. The very next play, OU rushes to the line after subbing Barnes in quickly, and you know what happens next.
What is the point of calling that play there? You just had a huge play. You are scrambling to the line. You sub in your 3rd or 4th most effective back, and you put him in that situation? Just line up the ball and run. Zero need to get cute, especially when it’s still early in the game and it is not out of hand, not even close. You make that play call, make sure Barnes isn’t the one in the game. If you see him, audible out of it. Or just don’t call it in that spot in the first place.
And just overall, nothing seems cohesive. They called two shots downfield against Kansas. I get the weather wasn’t optimal, but Kansas had no problem throwing the ball downfield (with a QB with far less arm talent). TWO shots. So what does Lebby do to adjust? He calls multiple to… Jalil Farooq? Farooq is a fine player, but his strength is after the catch. His stregnth is definitely not finding separation on the outside. Why are those plays going to him, and not Thompson? Or Pettaway? Sure, these rotations are probably on Emmett Jones. But where is the cohesion between play caller and position coach?
Or why is Stogner on the field, not only as much as he is throughout the game, but on a critical drive where yards matter and receiving threats are needed to create separation? Make it make sense. They are running a 3-3-5. Spread them out wide. Anderson, Thompson, Stoops inside, Farooq inside. Too easy, right? Jeff Lebby has full control of that situation, but he can’t figure it out.
There are so many little things that just add up to what we’ve seen these last few weeks (and really all season, from time to time.)
Point blank. The defense shares a lot of blame for the last two weeks especially, but the offense had multiple chances in both the last two games to take the game over and win, and just couldn’t get it done.
If Dillon Gabriel is struggling next week, you have GOT to be ready to pull the cord. Will that be a Venables call?
It’s early, but I’m a little worried that Venables doesn’t have the awareness of a seasoned coach yet that would let him step up and micromanage the team a little better. I think he got incredibly outcoached yesterday, and he has got to show that he can adjust to finish out this season with positive momentum. Someone has to be the voice in that room that says, “enough.” Can Venables do that? He’s got to be watching these games and seeing the same things we do, no?
Tell Demarco to stop messing around with the rotation. Play Sawchuk and Walker. Ride the hot hand. Use Walker in the second half to pound it. There is too much overthinking going on. Just play ball. Sawchuck busts a 65 yard touchdown. Good! Give it to him over and over again, then bring in Walker in the second half to wear out the defense. But instead, Demarco has a “plan” and won’t let the feel for the game interfere with that plan. I think you could have been a layperson and watched each OU game live once time through, not watched any replays or highlights, and sit here and say that Barnes has no business playing over Sawchuk and Walker. Again, they only had 27 total carries yesterday. Does that really warrant splitting those up amongst anyone other than Sawchuk, Walker, and the QB?
Ask Lebby why he’s not throwing at least one deep ball to Brenen Thompson per quarter. Ask Lebby why Anderson doesn’t get 10+ looks per game, as he should. Anderson is clearly an elite talent, and you can’t scheme up more than six targets? He only got two against Kansas. Insane. Ask Emmett if Pettaway really is that behind that he can’t get a shot with his speed. Again, too much overthinking going on. Just play ball.
The entire team has a method, and everyone should appreciate that. That was missing under Lincoln Riley. A program needs that organization and structure. But sometimes you just have to let loose and play ball. This staff, whether it’s an individual problem with each position coach or Venables’ overall approach, just cannot play ball. It’s as if each position grouping has compartmentalized everything about their gameplan and depth chart and there is no cohesiveness across the entire offensive (or defensive) units.
It’s time that Venables steps up and micromanages this offense, or all that momentum from the 7-0 start could be gone in a hurry.
You guys have watched the game too. What do you think?