NORMAN, Okla. -- Unpleasant would be a great word to describe Oklahoma's ride home after Texas hammered the Sooners 36-20 in the Red River Rivalry in Dallas last Saturday.
“Silence,” cornerback Zack Sanchez said of the 193-mile trip from the Cotton Bowl to Norman. “Guys were in their own zone, thinking about plays we could have made, should have made.”
It’s not the first time the Sooners have been in this situation. At this time a year ago, the Sooners had already suffered a loss to Kansas State in Big 12 Conference play, yet they took the field in the regular season finale at TCU with the chance to win the conference outright if Kansas State were to lose to Texas. The Wildcats defeated the Longhorns the night after the Sooners' win over TCU, thus OU shared the conference title with KSU.
There’s no reason to think the Sooners can’t accomplish a similar result in 2013.
“The Big 12 is a great conference and you never know,” defensive end Geneo Grissom said. “We definitely think we are still in the running.”
But Oklahoma has work to do and it'll need help to make its goal of another Big 12 title a reality. Basically, its loss to Texas means its destiny is no longer in their hands.
“It was a reality check for everybody,” guard Adam Shead said. “The Big 12 is a pretty tough conference this year. You don’t have the big offenses anymore, the defenses are stepping up.”
All other conference results aside, if they have any hope of winning the Big 12 title, the Sooners' offense must put fear in Big 12 defenses again. The lackluster production of TCU’s offense has been a topic of conversation in Big 12 circles but the Sooners are averaging 0.7 more points per game in conference play than TCU (18.7 to 18.0). It’s a far cry from last season's squad which led the league with 41.9 points per game in conference play.
Even though OU spent the offseason disappointed with its ability to run the ball in key moments, the Sooners' running game isn’t the problem, as OU ranks second in the Big 12 with 216.33 rushing yards per game, averaging 5.07 yards per carry.
Its horrible passing game deserves the majority of the blame. OU has passed for 160 yards or less in conference play just 14 times since 2004 yet hasn’t been able to surpass 160 passing yards in any of its Big 12 games this season.
The Sooners’ offensive coaches insist they are close to having a breakout game through the air and are hopeful it starts this week against Kansas. Co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell believes quarterback Blake Bell and the receivers just need to find the in-game chemistry that results in big plays instead of narrow misses.
“That kind of chemistry comes from playing in games and making big plays,” Norvell said. “When guys make big plays in a game, they gain confidence in each other and that’s when it grows. That just doesn’t happen overnight, it happens from playing and throwing balls and making big plays on third down and having a guy you can trust. We’re building that.”
Make no mistake, Bell is under fire as the starting quarterback. Some people think Trevor Knight, who was originally named the starter, should get another chance while others think Kendal Thompson, the only one of the three quarterbacks who has not taken a snap this season, should get a shot.
The Sooners’ quarterback position is in flux, as OU coach Bob Stoops hinted this week that a change could be made if Bell’s play doesn’t improve -- and the junior knows it.
“All I can do is get in the film room, learn from my mistakes and get better,” Bell said.
If he does, OU will have the chance to get back into the Big 12 title race. If he doesn’t, the Sooners will have to turn to Knight or Thompson because, no matter what, OU will not compete for a Big 12 title without a improved passing game.
“In this league, you better be able to throw the ball and be balanced,” Norvell said. “We’ve got to do a good job at both [running and passing] to have the success we want to have going down the stretch.”