- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
NORMAN, Okla. -- Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel discussed at length the struggles of his offense Saturday night in a 24-19 loss at Kansas State.
Heupel agreed that it’s been awhile since the OU offense played up to its potential on a consistent basis. When asked how he gets the Sooners to perform to that level and put it together, as quarterback Landry Jones noted this week, here was his response:
“At the end of the day, have a bunch of new guys -- that’s not an excuse because we’re capable of playing a lot better than we did the other night -- you have five drives that end up in the red zone out of your 10 drives, which isn’t terrible. Trust me, that performance the other night wasn’t good. I understand that. But it’s not like we’re not doing anything well. We need to operate more efficiently in the red zone, we need to take care of the ball. You got two three-and-outs that hurt you, penalties that put you behind the chains, quarterback has to take care of the ball. You do that and it’s a different ball game.
“It’s really not major overhaul changes, it’s just being better at the everyday, average normal things and operating at a high level when doing those things.”
Much of the discussion this week has been on Jones and the two costly turnovers. When asked how he has been as a play-caller this season, Heupel said:
“At the end of the day, if you’re not scoring points -- that’s my job. I’ve got to find a way to get these guys in a position to score points and to play better. And that’s my job. Anytime you walk off the field, it’s black and white, you look at the scoreboard, and you either did your job or you didn’t.
“The other night, I didn’t.”
It was clear what Kansas State’s offensive identity was this past Saturday. The Wildcats wanted the ball in the hands of either quarterback Collin Klein and running back John Hubert. Are the Sooners searching for their offensive identity?
“Because of some of the new skills guys, you’re trying to find the guys that operate and play efficiently," Heupel said. "You’re trying to find a way to score as many points as possible. We’re trying to find 11 guys that will do that. Play clean, play fast, play hard, play physical -- and we’re trying to do that.
“You look at the other night, it’s not going good, we haven’t played well, we’ve turned the ball over, we don’t score inside the 1-yard line. But that drive we go down and score. It’s not like we collapsed and he gave up. He kept competing. We didn’t get another chance to win the ballgame, but we kept fighting.”
Heupel said he doesn’t consider the last two seasons linked. But he understands why fans are concerned and upset, considering OU played poorly offensively late last season as well.
“That’s fair for them. That’s why you want to coach and play at a place like Oklahoma," he said. "Because they care about it. Nobody puts more pressure on anybody or has higher than expectations than I do. And for the most part our players.
“We know we’re capable of performing a heck of a lot better than we did the other night. But it’s not like nothing positive happened during the course of the ball game. There were some positive things, just not enough of it. You can’t turn the ball over. You’re playing a good football team in Kansas State. They limit the opportunities you get. They play possession football. They make you drive the length of the field. It’s not like we had a bunch of short fields. That’s not an excuse. But you got to operate efficiently and we didn’t do that.
“Listen it wasn’t good. I understand that. My expectations are a lot higher than how we played the other night. But I’m not going to say there wasn’t anything positive.”
• Center Gabe Ikard thinks he understands the main issue for the Sooners.
“We’re not complementing the defense,” he said. “We haven’t played well as a team, whether it’s the offense clicking or the defense clicking, there hasn’t been a half where we both are playing well. It all starts up front, with the offensive and defensive lines, that’s where we need to improve.”
Ikard shoulders the blame for the offensive line struggles as the anchor and leader of that group. The Sooners are averaging 6.11 yards per carry but only managed 3.3 yards per carry in the loss to Kansas State. The junior center said Landry Jones is shouldering the blame for the loss because “that’s the kind of guy he is” but he thinks the blame should be placed elsewhere.
“If he’s not getting touched, some of that is not happening,” Ikard said.
There’s plenty of truth in Ikard’s statement, even though the several of the seven sacks allowed by OU have been a result of the quarterback holding onto the ball too long. Nonetheless, if Jones was comfortable in the pocket, his chances of success would increase ten-fold.
• Co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Jay Norvell says the Sooners understand how important ball protection is and have been stressing it since the preseason even though OU has five turnovers in three games.
“You have to play almost perfect, in every other aspect of the game, when you turn the ball over like that,” Norvell said of OU’s three turnovers against K-State. “We’re addressing that and we have, it’s been a real focus for us since the start of the year.”
Ideally, a goal of 12-15 turnovers in a season would be a good mark to shoot for and represent solid ball protection. OU is already a third of the way to that mark.
• Through three games, Kenny Stills has been targeted 34 times by Landry Jones. No other receiver has been targeted more than 21 times.
Norvell believes it is because of Stills' move to the slot, which makes him more accessible to the Sooners’ fifth-year quarterback.
“You kind of saw it with Ryan Broyles,” Norvell said. “Some of the shorter throws are easier to make, so your inside receivers probably have the first opportunity to make those plays. Kenny’s played a lot of football here, he’s a good player so that’s not a surprise.”
Stills has been terrific in the slot, catching 22 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. The junior has caught 64.7 percent of the passes thrown his way by Jones.
• Norvell said the Sooners will do some things within their game plan to make things easier on Jones and instill some confidence in the quarterback early in games.
“We’re going to try to do those things that give him confidence and get him in rhythm,” he said.
Examples would be quick, short passes like the bubble screens that Jones and Broyles used to make a living off of early in Jones’ career.
“Confidence comes from making plays in games,” Norvell said. “We build timing and repetition in practice but guys feel good when they make big plays in games. We’ve had opportunities with that and we just believe it will come. We have a good quarterback and he’s made those plays in the past.”
• The Sooners have seemed to have more success when they run their offense with tempo this season. Yet OU hasn’t run a lot of tempo through its first three games.
“We’ll go faster as we move along with some of these new guys,” Norvell said. “But we have to be able to execute when we don’t go fast. Bob says all the time, it’s what you do when the ball is snapped. We have to do a good job both ways.”
• OU will practice Wednesday and Thursday, then take the rest of the weekend off before resuming next week to continue preparing for Texas Tech.