When Monday night’s game came to a close, the shock and disappointment on all the faces of the Oklahoma Sooners coaches and players said it all. The 31-14 lead from the first half slowly dwindled away to a 54-48 double overtime loss to the Georgia Bulldogs.
As Lincoln Riley became more conservative and full of trickery as the second half progressed, it made me think how this game might have played out differently had Bob Stoops still been the head coach and Lincoln Riley still the offensive coordinator.
There’s no denying that what Lincoln Riley did in his first year as head coach, and at 34 years old, he made the transition from Bob Stoops as seamless as anyone could have asked for or predicted. He dealt with the on-field issues beautifully and handled any off-field issues, such as the Kansas coin toss game, with the maturity of a seasoned vet. Of course, Bob Stoops stepping aside heading into Baker Mayfield’s senior season was the most selfless move the former head coach could have ever made. It’s something that 99% of coaches at the FBS level would not be willing or able to do. You work your entire career to win national championships, and to step away when you have a legitimate chance to win one more is as bold and noble as it gets. But Stoops did it for the best of the Oklahoma football program. For that, he must be applauded.
At least from the outside looking in, there didn’t appear to be a ton of instances where Bob Stoops was greatly missed. That being said, we know that Riley relied heavily on Stoops this season behind the scenes. He told me after the Big 12 championship game:
“I’ve definitely leaned on him. I would be crazy not to. I’ve told you guys you know what he means to me and how, you know, this happening, in large part is due to him, his unselfishness.
Like a lot of guys would be sitting there, like him today saying, man, that could have been me, or maybe bitter about it and he may be the happiest person out there on the field celebrating with us. That’s just him. He’s a special guy.
I’ve leaned on him for advice and loved having him around and thankful we had the opportunity to have him around our program. It’s just — you know, things are just a little bit different at Oklahoma. How many other places does the head coach that just retired is still around and still so involved and the it’s just so smooth. It’s just different. It’s a different place. We’re built different. There you go, and I think that’s a big reason why you see the consistent success.”
But the one place Bob Stoops could not help Riley was in the heat of the moment on Monday night in the biggest game of Riley’s young career. Riley was a man on an island and looked overmatched in the second half. Despite a first half that was nearly perfect, starting off four drives with a touchdown, touchdown, touchdown and field goal, OU struggled in the second half as Georgia made the proper halftime adjustments by bringing more pressure. OU’s offensive line had trouble handling it and Mayfield was flushed out often and became uncomfortable. On top of that, Georgia’s secondary was playing great man defense.
But Riley seemed to revert back to too many trick plays and other odd decisions as the second half wore on. Some worked, many didn’t. Then, with the game on the line at the end of regulation and in overtime, Riley didn’t let his Heisman winner try and win him the game. On the second-to-last drive of regulation, there was the odd option play to the short side of the field on third and short. A first down would have burnt even more clock and forced Georgia to start using its timeouts. Georgia got the ball back and scored the game-tying touchdown. In overtime, after forcing Georgia to kick and field goal and knowing a touchdown sends you to the National Championship, Riley ran a pitch play on third and short to Jordan Smallwood, a player who hadn’t touched the ball all night long.
While Riley was in complete charge of the play calling under Stoops, you wonder if the veteran head coach would’ve had a moment with Riley sometime in the second half and said, “Lincoln, relax, call your game, and let’s do what got us here.” Those were the kind of fatherly words Riley needed to hear as the chaos ensued those final 30 minutes, but no one was there to tell it to him.
Well technically, Stoops was on the sidelines, but obviously it was not his place to say or do anything.
After the heartbreaking loss, Riley said, “It’s difficult to summarize right now. It’s been a hard run, it’s been a historic run. He’s [Baker Mayfield] been a big part of it, as have all these players. I just told them all that I appreciate how much they bought in and had my back all year. I made plenty of mistakes that they kinda helped our team overcome the entire year. Love him, love the rest of these guys. It’s been a hell of a run and one we’ll be proud of for a long, long time and one that’s going to continue to elevate this program to where we finish it the next few years.”
Hopefully Riley is right and the Sooners have another chance to be this close to playing in a National Championship game. But just ask Bob Stoops. After winning the whole thing in his second year on the job, he never won another one. Riley just wrapped up having a Heisman winner at quarterback and a once-in-a-generation motivator and leader. You think those opportunities are going to come again and sometimes they do, but sometimes they don’t.
Maybe the outcome would’ve been the same regardless, but I can’t help but wonder, had Stoops been there to calm Riley throughout the second half, or give the advice that coaching for 35 years brings, the final result might have been different.
We’ll never know, but it was the most obvious point in Riley’s first season as head coach where the loss of Bob Stoops on the sidelines was noticeable. And it came at the absolute worst time.