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COLUMBUS, Ohio — When it was over, long after Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield had circled Ohio Stadium and planted a very large flag in the turf — which was essentially a dramatic interpretation of what he’d spent the last three-plus hours doing in a 31-16 victory — the Sooners’ rookie head coach finally came off the field. Lincoln Riley had an arm around his wife Caitlin. Near the tunnel, he was embraced — it was a bear hug really —– by his predecessor.
Moments earlier, as the final seconds ticked off, Bob Stoops had waved away a reporter.
“I’m out! I’m out!” Stoops said –— and pointing toward the field, he added: “It’s those guys!”
And it was. Those guys and that guy — Stoops’ hand-picked replacement — had delivered Oklahoma’s biggest, most emphatic road victory since, well, it’s hard to determine. What’s not difficult to figure is this: With a dominant road win Saturday night, the Sooners pushed themselves squarely into the way-too-early conversation about the College Football Playoff. And the easy thing would be to overreact.
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“We’ll be disappointed if this is the highlight of our season,” Riley said, later adding: “It’s two games in. Everybody is gonna want to anoint us now. We’ve got a long ways to go.”
He’s right. But Saturday night at least, Oklahoma was very good. Mayfield, who threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns, made a pretty good case as college football’s — if not its best player, at least its most valuable. The Sooners’ offensive line more than held its own against Ohio State’s freakishly talented defensive front. And in perhaps the night’s biggest surprise, Oklahoma’s defense stymied Ohio State for most of the night. The Buckeyes struggled especially in the passing game, resembling nothing so much as the wheezing, inefficient machine that lurched to a halt late last season. The questions about J.T. Barrett (19 of 35 for 183 yards, with a critical interception) will grow loud.
It all added up to an emphatic statement.
“We should have won by a lot more,” Mayfield said — and he’s right.
But circle back to what the victory might have revealed about Oklahoma — not necessarily for this season but in an even bigger picture. Despite Stoops’ sudden and shocking retirement in June, the Sooners might be about to win a lot more under Riley.
When Stoops exited, those who’d been paying attention weren’t surprised Riley was elevated from offensive coordinator. He’d been identified quickly by Oklahoma’s administration as a potential successor, a guy with the elusive “it” factor. Since being hired to run the offense, he’d helped rejuvenate the program. Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, Bob’s younger brother, described the transition as “seamless.”
“He has a great pulse of our team,” he said, “and he’s got a closeness to them that’s very important.”
But still. Riley’s a rookie head coach. At Oklahoma. Following the winningest coach in the storied program’s history. And Saturday, four days after turning 34 — he’s the youngest head coach in college football's top division — Riley was going up against the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes and Urban Meyer, who ranks among college football’s top two active coaches on almost anyone’s list. But if Ohio Stadium, volume boiling over from 109,088 fans, was a pressurized cauldron, Riley didn’t let on.
“We expected to win this game,” he said. “We respected the program Ohio State is and all coach Meyer has done. That makes it more special.”
Said Mike Stoops: “He’s way beyond his years. He wasn’t outclassed tonight, that’s for sure.”
Neither was Oklahoma, which was a reversal from last season, when the Sooners were overmatched in a blowout loss at home to the Buckeyes. It’s the kind of victory that could resonate deep into the season, all the way to when the Playoff selection committee deliberates. It was a much-needed shot of success for the Big 12. And it was a vivid illustration of why Oklahoma was so enthralled with Riley.
If you wondered how he would balance head-coaching duties with calling plays, Saturday was a pretty nice indicator. Oklahoma’s game plan was an offensive masterpiece that found multiple clever ways to get multiple receivers into multiple open spaces. Mayfield’s quick passes neutralized the Buckeyes’ front four and found nine different receivers, led by Dimitri Flowers’ seven for 98 yards. Flowers is a fullback. On his 36-yard catch-and-run to kickstart the Sooners’ offense in the third quarter, he was essentially uncovered in the middle of the field.
“Our guys made plays,” Riley said. “They made it very simple to call plays.”
That’s especially true with Mayfield, a three-year starter and returning Heisman finalist. But Mike Stoops said of Riley:
“He just has that knack. … How about those plays? I mean, he just comes up with that stuff.”
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And he added: “Don’t underestimate him. He knows what he’s doing.”
After Saturday, the warning is probably unnecessary. Someone asked Riley what he might have proved about himself.
“There’s no ‘me’ in this,” he said. “It’s what did we prove as a team? We proved that when we’re focused and have a great mentality and play together, we can beat a lot of people.”
Who knows what the emphatic win ultimately means. After the most impressive victory of a very young season, Oklahoma is riding high. The much-maligned Big 12 can ride along. College football has a way of shattering crystalized perceptions, especially when they’re formed this early.
But as former and current coach wrapped up in that postgame hug, a seamless transition seemed to have left Oklahoma in very good hands.
“Lincoln’s our guy,” Mike Stoops said.