NORMAN, Okla. — Lincoln Riley’s career has been built on offense, but Oklahoma’s coach had no difficulty identifying what went wrong defensively at Kansas State.
“It’s two things,” he said. “Defense is you have to get the ball back, one way or another. If you don’t create turnovers and if you don’t get off the field on long yardage, there’s not very other good options for a defense. We haven’t gotten turnovers the last four games. But we have done a tremendous job of getting off the field and so we, in some ways, have offset that with a ton of three-and-outs and being incredibly good on the third downs.”
Neither happened in OU’s 48-41 loss to the Wildcats, which magnifies the importance of Saturday’s home game against Iowa State (7 p.m., FOX). OU might need more than an unbeaten schedule the rest of the season to reach the College Football Playoff — style points matter too.
Nothing about its defensive relapse against K-State will impress the CFP committee, which convenes Tuesday to announce the first rankings this season.
For at least one game, for reasons players and coaches have struggled explaining, OU slipped into its old habits. After seven games of improved defense and a new coordinator, Alex Grinch, receiving showers of credit, there came a costly regression.
It happened primarily on third down at K-State, where the Sooners entered the game ranked seventh nationally allowing opponent first-down conversions on 27.8 percent of their tries.
K-State converted 6 of 13 with an average of eight yards to gain on those plays. Three conversions were picked up by runs of at least 15 yards.
“I thought it was spotty early at best,” Grinch said of the run defense. “Then we really lost trust. When you don’t have 11 guys trusting the call, all of a sudden what could be a minimal gain or negated gain turns into one on the plus side for the opponent. That was probably the clearest one to me. Are we coaching plays, not our particular calls, not trusting our rules. Certainly that was one element today.”
The Wildcats’ final numbers — an equal 213 yards passing and rushing — weren’t as alarming as the way they did what they wanted, exactly when they wanted.
Which is another area of weakness Grinch and Riley have tried to fix over the past week — OU hasn’t forced a turnover since Sept. 14.
Junior cornerback Tre Brown had an interception bounce off his shoulder pads at one point. OU must make those plays, Riley reiterated.
Takeaways are the backbone of Grinch’s scheme. He began preaching their importance incessantly when he arrived last offseason. When the Sooners struggled to gain them, he warned that at some point there would be a price.
“The biggest difference was Kansas State was able to take advantage of our missteps, and we didn’t take advantage of theirs. We drop the ball, they take advantage of it. They made a couple of big plays in big moments, we didn’t,” Riley said. “The quarterback [Skylar Thompson] played fantastic, but he hit us in the face twice. We don’t catch it. Those are the big ones. Ball is on the ground, they get it. Ball is on the ground for kickoff, they get it. Those are big opportunities.
“For us defensively, we have to get off the field or get turnovers. When you get both, that’s when you’re playing at an elite level.”
Grinch wondered aloud if there was an easy fix for turning this OU team into one that can force the ball away from opposing offenses. Through games it is actually behind pace of last year’s team, which finished with 11 takeaways.
“Is there a magic bullet to that? If there is one, we have to find it,” he said.
Riley has included poor tackling in his explanation of the defensive shortcomings in Manhattan. Grinch had a different point of view after the game.
“Have we been a pretty good tackling team up to this point ... all of a sudden today, did we have just a rash of missed tackles? I don't know that we did,” Grinch said. “I don't think we fitted very well. I don't think we were very disciplined. I think that was, as much as anything, the main culprit as opposed to all of a sudden we're falling off of tackles, although I think certainly that happened at times.”
Grinch explained that when things didn’t go OU’s way, players shut down. Another relapse would prove fatal to the CFP hopes that were once intact.
“I think like anything, when you don't get the results you want, all of a sudden, your confidence is just broken. We’ frustrated. We're ticked off,” Grinch said after the game. “We make no excuses for a lack of performance, but to all of a sudden say that from a confidence standpoint, we're gonna go the other direction, that's our responsibility as coaches to make sure we don't lose that.”