WVU Double Covered
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley opened his weekly press conference Tuesday with a touch of humor.
“(Let’s) try this again with West Virginia,” Riley said. “First time I’ve ever had two press conferences for the same game.”
OU plays at West Virginia this week. The Sooners were supposed to play at West Virginia last week, but a COVID-19 shutdown pushed the trip back to the Big 12’s fallback makeup date of Dec. 12.
While the Big Ten Conference fights over who’s eligible to play in the league title game and who’s not after trying to squeeze in eight games in eight weeks, Riley expressed an appreciation to Big 12 leadership for months ago anticipating outbreaks and shutdowns and postponements and building in three open dates with a planned makeup date.
The Big 12 has historically been a reactive bunch of presidents and chancellors, but this time the league led the way with its foresight.
“Really thankful the Big 12 did a really nice job of planning and building in these weekends and giving us the opportunity to make this game up,” Riley said. “Certainly excited for the opportunity. It’s a game that we need, game that is very important to us in our climb as a football team and continue to make the improvements we need to play our best ball at the end of the year, which I think is so critical.
“I think, too, having missed those five days the previous week, this week is important to us to keep improving.”
A Whole New Outlook
Remember when OU went to last year’s College Football Playoff game with just three scholarship cornerbacks? Remember the disaster when one safety was hurt before the game and another was ejected during the game?
LSU fans remember. So do Joe Burrow and Justin Jefferson certainly do.
Now spin that forward a year to last week’s Baylor game, when the Sooner secondary was missing three starters, and the free safety position was laid bare — all three guys on the depth chart out due to COVID protocol.
“Gosh, if we would have had that many guys out, I don’t know if we would have been able to play last year,” Riley said. “And certainly the quality wouldn’t have been what it was the other night.”
Jaden Davis returned to his cornerback spot. He started previously before Woodi Washington took the job, so that wasn’t a big adjustment.
With nickel safety Brendan Radley-Hiles and free safety Pat Fields out, Tre Norwood and Jeremiah Criddell played both positions and looked totally comfortable — Norwood even snagged his team-leading third interception.
Freshman cornerback D.J. Graham got some reps and made an incredible interception.
But the star of the show — Riley even gave him a game ball afterward — was Robert Barnes, the former safety-turned-linebacker who was asked last week to lend a hand at his old spot.
“There are so many guys that have stepped up and become good football players for us and have become dependable players for us that we want to put in the game,” Riley said. “That part has helped. And obviously, the unselfishness and ability of Robert Barnes to kick back there and do that for us was huge as well.”
Riley acknowledged the team’s fortune in avoiding any in-game injuries, ejections or other problems. But if that had happened, maybe the 2020 secondary could have handled it.
“The depth is certainly better,” he said. “The competitive depth is certainly better. Just more guys that we are confident in putting in the game and that we want to get snaps. We are taking starters out to get them (backups) snaps. So that’s, without a doubt, much improved.”
Plenty of Blame to Go Around
Ask Riley how the offensive line played (spoiler alert: they played poorly) and he offers a slightly different perspective that shifts any blame for the Sooners’ lack of offensive punch last week.
“I don’t think anybody on offense played particularly well,” Riley said. “When that’s the case, you’re going to spring leaks. There’s times it is was the o-line, there were times it was the quarterback, there were times it was the running backs, there were times that the receivers were wrong — there were a lot of times when those guys weren’t coached very well. It’s just kind of a cause of leaks springing all over and we didn’t do a good job of handling all of that. It wasn’t anybody’s best game. The mistakes were kind of shared all the way around.”
“There was still a lot of good. The problem, again, in offensive football, nine guys can be doing it freakin’ perfect and one or two guys aren’t and it looks like a train wreck. … That’s been a big emphasis point this week, playing with all 11 and playing with a lot more consistency and, with us as coaches, doing a much better job as well.”
Learning as He Goes
With the season finale upon him and a championship rematch just ahead, Riley was asked something of an existential question on Tuesday: how has this year changed him?
After thinking on it, he offered, in part, this:
“I do think, as coaches — and I’m bad about it at times — you can be a control freak,” Riley said. “You want to have your hands on everything and control as much as you possibly can and take the variables out for your staff and your players.
“This thing has taught me more and more that I gotta control what I can. I can’t get too worked up or too down or spend too much time on the things that I cannot control.”
With Shane Beamer off to South Carolina — he’ll need to be replaced after the Big 12 Championship Game, though he won’t have much impact toward next Wednesday’s National Signing Day — Riley was asked what he’s looking for in a replacement.
“We’ll see,” Riley said. “It’s a broad question. You see what happens with the rest of the staff. Hopefully, we retain everybody else. You just never know. We’ll see what happens. Definitely not going to be in a hurry right now. We’ve got too much to focus on with some big weeks obviously upcoming. We’ll kind of see how that plays out.
“I don’t know that I’d want to pin myself right now at exactly what I’m looking for. The honest answer right now is I’m not honestly looking a whole lot right now. Trying to focus on doing our best with this team and understanding that we’re going to sign this class here in a little over a week, regardless and we’re going to go play these next few games regardless, and well have time to get to that once those things wrap up.”
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