The now No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners rallied back, stayed perfect and beat Kansas 35-23 on Saturday. The poor start and uneven performance defensively against a previously anemic Jayhawks offense left Sooner fans scratching their heads as to just how good OU’s defense can be, though.
Kansas took the opening drive of the game right down the field and scored the game’s first points when KU freshman running back Devin Neal plunged into the end zone from a yard out.
That Kansas scoring drive was a 14-play, 80-yard one that drained the first 9:15 of the game clock. The Jayhawks converted three different third-down conversion tries on it, too.
Meanwhile, a trio of Sooners — defensive linemen Josh Ellison and Isaiah Thomas and linebacker Brian Asamoah — each picked up offsides penalties on Kansas’ first scoring drive.
The Jayhawks followed that first drive up with a 12-play, 69-yard drive that soaked up another 6:36 of the first-half clock. Jacob Borcila booted through a 28-yard field goal and that 10-0 Kansas lead was the margin at halftime.
All told, Kansas won the first-half time of possession battle in lopsided fashion. It finished with KU possessing the football for 22:00. The Jayhawks also ran 39 offensive plays against the Sooners’ 17 before intermission.
“It kind of became the theme, specifically in that first half, you know, the inability to get stops in the run game. That just eats away at some yardage and creates some situations in second and medium, second and short. And then add penalties to that, undisciplined football in the front. Then, all of a sudden, whether you’re handing the first down away or again shortening the distance with multiple downs still yet to go to convert,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.
“Really disappointed in not stopping the run there, specifically early, although I don’t know that we got a whole lot better as the day went. Obviously, you’ve got to give the opponent credit. There’s a theme there. There’s a theme there forming over the last few weeks. The opponent makes plays, we make plays and then at some point there’s a jockeying back and forth who makes the most on a given day and we’re just not making enough plays defensively and specifically on third down. You’re just asking for long drives and you’re just asking for momentum. It was very difficult for us to turn the tide momentum-wise.”
Kansas was supposed to be the get-right week for a defense that had allowed a banged-up Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson to return and throw for 320 yards and three touchdowns against them, Texas’ Casey Thompson for 388 and five passing touchdowns and TCU’s Max Duggan for 346 and four scores in its last three games. It wound up far from that get-right week.
Instead, a Kansas offense that’s struggled against everybody seemed right at home against Oklahoma. The Jayhawks converted on each of their first five third-down conversion tries and finished 9-of-13.
Perhaps most distressing? It was across the board offensively where Kansas improved upon its season averages as it attacked Oklahoma’s defense.
The Jayhawks entered averaging 6.6 yards per pass attempt and KU quarterback Jason Bean hadn’t thrown for more than 189 yards against anybody but Duke.
Bean ended his day 17-of-23 through the air for 246 passing yards and 10.7 yards per attempt. After playing OU, Kansas’ season-long passing numbers jumped from that aforementioned 6.6 yards per pass attempt to 7.16 after the Jayhawks bested their per-game passing numbers by more than 70 yards.
Kansas’ Neal also tallied his second-best rushing mark of the season with 100 rushing yards on 23 carries. Senior KU wide receiver Kwamie Lassiter II matched his season-high in receptions with seven and recorded his best receiving-yardage day with 101 yards.
“As I said, there’s a theme forming over the last few weeks is an inconsistent unit. Whose fault’s that? It’s all of ours. Obviously, specifically me. It does come down to practice. That’s where you attack those issues,” Grinch said.
“In the end, what we need to do is we’ve got to find ways to make more plays. Maybe guilty a little bit as a play-caller in trying to call some things to initiate that play. Maybe that is the inappropriate thing to do, but trying somehow, some way to get that TFL that we’ve been so known for as one of the better defenses against the run really over the last year or so. To see where we find ourselves today is extremely disappointing and we all got to take responsibility for it.”
OU has been operating minus starters in its secondary as cornerbacks D.J. Graham and Woodi Washington as well as starting safety Delarrin Turner-Yell all missed Saturday’s game against the Jayhawks.
Asked if he was worried about the secondary, Oklahoma head football coach Lincoln Riley wasn’t ready to say yes.
“I just think we’ve got to play better. Kind of like we said last week, that secondary gets better when you start pressuring the quarterback. That secondary gets better when you handle the zone-run game and an athletic quarterback better than what we did. The secondary gets better when you’re not constantly having penalties that put them in plus-situations,” Riley said.
“We know we’ve got to continue to get better there. We’re looking for that right lineup that we feel like is going to give us a spark, especially with so many guys out. I think it’s going to be a combination of the guys that have been getting all these reps need to take some jumps and need to improve. And then, obviously, hope to be able to get a number of these guys back here pretty quickly and the combination of that needs to be better for us, yes.”
As Riley mentioned, Oklahoma would desperately like to see its production in its opponents’ backfields improve. Against Kansas, OU was only able to muster up one sack and three quarterback hurries.
Improvement will need to come along quickly as the Sooners’ closing stretch looks to be its most challenging of the season. After Texas Tech this week and then a bye week to follow, OU closes its regular season with three straight games against ranked opponents when they’ll play Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State in successive weeks.