Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has taken some of the air out of the Air Raid, and the results have been spectacular.
Riley was hired away from East Carolina last year to take Oklahoma back to its pass-happy days when coach Bob Stoops first arrived with offensive coordinator Mike Leach in 1999. Things appeared to be on track last season until he ran into a road block against Texas.
Once Riley put a little more ground and pound into Oklahoma’s high-octane attack, everything clicked. The Sooners reached the College Football Playoff, Riley won the Broyles Award as the nation’s best assistant coach at age 32 and he got a big raise.
“He’s a very bright guy, and he gets it,” Stoops said.
This year, the Sooners struggled in September, losing games against Houston and Ohio State. Once again, Riley recovered with the run game. The Sooners are averaging 226.7 yards rushing per game in Big 12 play, and the Sooners lead the league in scoring offense (45 points per game) and total offense (572 yards). The 16th-ranked Sooners enter Saturday’s game at Texas Tech seeking their 11th straight conference win.
“Lincoln has shown in the last two years here the willingness and effectiveness of the running game, or willingness to run it.” Stoops said. “It’s a big part of what we do, and I think it sets up a lot in the passing game.”
Riley has occasional bouts of stubbornness, especially against elite teams. In losses to Clemson, Houston and Ohio State the past two years, the Sooners averaged just 32 attempts and 105 yards rushing. He acknowledged after the Houston game that there were opportunities to run the ball, and that he got a bit impatient at times. The Sooners ran 12 times for minus-13 yards in the second half.
Riley said he doesn’t mind pounding the ball to get back on the winning track.
“If we’re scoring and we’re getting our guys in position to do what they can do, and we’re making plays and winning games, that’s all I care about,” he said. “Whatever that gets labeled at the end of the day, that’s out of my control.”
Riley’s best coaching work might have been with Baker Mayfield. Last year, he took the walk-on transfer from Texas Tech who had to beat incumbent Trevor Knight for the starting job and coached him to a fourth-place finish in the Heisman race. This season, Mayfield actually has a higher passer efficiency rating. In his past three games, Mayfield has a passer rating of 194.1, tops in the Big 12. His overall passer rating is third nationally.
Mayfield gives Riley a lot of the credit.
“We made the most of our opportunities, and he’s done a great job,” Mayfield said. “There’s a reason he has so much success and he’s had the great opportunity of coaching here.”
Oklahoma’s running back Samaje Perine will sit out Saturday’s game with a pulled muscle in his left leg, but another star is waiting in the wings. Joe Mixon ranks sixth nationally in all-purpose yards and is among the Big 12’s top rushers.
Oklahoma also has successfully filled in for Sterling Shepard’s absence. In the past three weeks, receiver Dede Westbrook has caught 26 passes for 574 yards and eight touchdowns.
“The run game going like it’s going has helped to give him a lot of one-on-one coverage, and he’s just consistently winning,” Riley said. “He’s winning all over the place. When you get all of those one-on-ones and you’ve got a guy like that, you’ve got to keep feeding him.”