A Bright Torch
 
It is only Week 2 of a season, only Game 2 of a head coaching career, so we have to wait and see how 34-year-old Lincoln Riley evolves in the course of time.

Next year, he won't have Baker Mayfield. Next year, he might have to win in a noticeably different way. Next year, Texas and Tom Herman might figure it all out. Next year, Texas Tech might get a better head coach who knows how to cultivate a defense. Those and other possibilities could give Riley and his Sooners a bumpy ride.

Wait and see. Wait and see.

Yet, it was impossible to watch Oklahoma -- despite a truckload of first-half mistakes -- dismantle Ohio State in Columbus Saturday night and not think that college football had found its next great head coach.

Lincoln Riley, on the road in the first great test of his head coaching career, smoked Urban Meyer. That in itself requires no extra commentary or embellishment. If a coach outflanks Meyer -- who is this generation's "1-A" coach to Nick Saban's "1" (or the "1-B" to Saban's "1-A") -- he can sit and stay at the big-boy table.

What made Riley's conquest more impressive: First, he kept his team focused after a first half which typically leads to a second-half downturn and loss against a program of Ohio State's caliber. Oklahoma dominated the first half but had nothing more than a field goal to show for it. College athletes can easily let down their guard and lose heart after such a sequence of events. The Sooners stayed at a high level, continuing to outmaneuver and outrun the Buckeyes... but finished all the drives which never were completed in the first half.

Second, Riley found offensive solutions and improvements on a roster which lacked Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. Coaching is an attention-to-detail business, and it was clear that Riley had taught all his new players exactly how to execute his offense. Players were consistently in the right spots at the right time. The precision of the offense was unmistakable. The angles used on routes took OU skill players beyond the reach of Ohio State linebackers in open space. Oklahoma was clearly the detail-oriented team on Saturday.

Third, Riley's work stood in marked contrast to Kevin Wilson, the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator under Riley's former boss, Bob Stoops, who cheered for his Sooners from an Ohio Stadium suite. Wilson was supposed to unlock the full measure of J.T. Barrett's talents, getting Barrett to play as well as he did in 2014, under the man Riley will stare down the next few years in Dallas on October Saturdays: Tom Herman. (Another man previously charged with helping Barrett develop is Herman's offensive coordinator at Texas, Tim Beck.)

While current Texas head coaches and assistants struggle, and while a former OU and Stoops assistant could not help Urban Meyer on Saturday night, the 34-year-old in the big chair had the answers.

Fourth, Riley connected college football coaching trees on Saturday.

Bob Stoops is first and foremost a member of the Hayden Fry coaching tree. He learned the game under Fry as a player at Iowa in the early 1980s.  Bill Snyder was a staffer on those Iowa teams, and Stoops eventually spent several years under Snyder in a head coach-assistant coach relationship. Stoops is therefore part of the Snyder tree as well. 

Yet, one can't forget that Stoops' next step before becoming one of Oklahoma's under-40-years-old head coaches (the Sooners know how to do this, a point some people forget...) was as a national championship-winning defensive coordinator for Florida in the SEC. Kansas State had not yet become a big-time program when Stoops worked under Snyder. That was still in progress (moving in the right direction, of course, but still evolving). At Florida, Stoops watched Steve Spurrier call ball plays. He also witnessed firsthand the speed of defensive linemen and large linebackers, where the SEC has often separated itself from most of college football. Creative offense and freakish defense in a recruiting paradise -- Stoops needed that taste of college football life to fully prepare himself for what lay ahead at Oklahoma.

Saturday night, Riley -- Stoops's protege and therefore a central member of the Stoops coaching tree -- paid homage to the Spurrier strain of the Stoops line with one call in the second quarter against Ohio State. It is a window to the future once Mayfield leaves at quarterback, and it shows why Oklahoma -- as much as one can never guarantee anything in life or sports -- is probably in very good hands.

Mayfield -- who limped at a few very brief points in this game -- was subbed out for a small number of plays. Kyler Murray, the Texas A&M transfer who will very likely succeed Mayfield in 2018, began a play by handing off to his running back. Plain vanilla, right? Wrong.

The running back moved to the right of the line while Murray half-circled behind him. The Ohio State defense moved toward the running back, as any defense would be expected to, but just then, the running back pitched the ball to Murray.

It was an inverted option, with the QB being the pitchman. This was a flea-flicker, only in the form of a running play.

It was impossible for me to not compare the twist-on-an-old-theme motif to one of Spurrier's favorite plays in his early years at Florida: the QB pitch to the running back, who hands the ball off to the quarterback when the QB drops back and the RB approaches the line of scrimmage.

The typical flea-flicker, of course, is one in which the QB hands off and the running back turns around and pitches the ball. This flip-flopped the normal flea-flicker. The QB pitched and the running back handed off. The advantage? The running back did not have to turn around and pitch the ball. He could hand off when looking upfield. This saved time, and it also meant that if a defensive lineman had achieved penetration toward the quarterback, the running back could keep the ball, gain four yards up the middle, and live another play.

Riley's running back option owns so many of those same qualities: the variation on a standard template, the unexpected twist, the "this has never been done in this way" identity before.

Motivation. Poise. Standing tall against Urban Meyer. Displaying supreme chalkboard wizardry.

It is only Week 2, but Lincoln Riley -- on one night -- gave every indication that he will be just fine in the college football head coaching business.

Bob Stoops was happy for his players. He was also immensely happy that his retirement occurred at a point in time when his protege was sufficiently groomed and prepared to become Oklahoma's newest 30-something head coach of distinction, following in footsteps continued by Stoops and originally established by Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer.

It is only Week 2, but Oklahoma football stands on very solid ground.

It's definitely in a different universe compared to Texas, that's for damn sure.

Tier Benefits
Pledge $0 or more per month
patrons
Everyone
Pledge $0.01 or more per month
patrons
Patrons Only
Blue Plate Special
$2 or more per month 25 patrons
  • Access to special features, either longform pieces or special podcasts
  • Writing/copy editing help, especially on Fridays
Recent Posts