Sooners left to ponder where they stand after stunning loss

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Oct. 28, 2023 10:05 p.m. ET

LAWRENCE, Kansas — As rain spritzed and swirled from the late-afternoon sky, a group of reporters huddled beside an ice machine near the southeast entrance to David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. They were seeking entry to a small and sweaty interview room so densely packed with bodies that glasses and camera lenses fogged. Each new admission curled around the door and squeezed along a wall just to claim a sliver of space.

Already quaint to begin with, the glorified cupboard was bursting with media members eagerly awaiting the arrival of Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables, whose sixth-ranked Sooners had come to Lawrence unbeaten but departed with far more questions than answers about how good they really are.

How would Venables characterize his team’s stunning 38-33 defeat to unranked Kansas, a program Oklahoma had beaten 18 consecutive times since 1997? How would he explain the corrosive blend of injuries, missed tackles, penalties and questionable coaching decisions that thrust the Sooners’ hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff into peril? How would he come to grips with the fact that Saturday’s game revealed how far his program needs to go despite all the progress Oklahoma has shown this year?

“Incredibly disappointed,” Venables said. “Made too many mistakes today, turned the ball over, penalties — the timing of all of it was really poor. And to me, it all falls on the fourth down. Should have called a timeout there and put our [defense] in [a better spot] and let them get settled down and I didn’t. So I blew it. Really felt that I could have helped those guys in that situation.”

The blame Venables heaped on himself stemmed from a critical fourth-and-6 play with 1:09 remaining and the Sooners clinging to a 33-32 lead. With the Jayhawks’ offense near midfield, Venables eschewed the idea of stopping the clock in a moment when his opponent was out of timeouts. Venables said he liked the level of pressure his defense was generating against backup quarterback Jason Bean, who’d started in place of the injured Jalon Daniels, and loathed the idea of giving Kansas’ hyper-creative offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki the chance to scheme up something fresh.

So Venables bit his tongue at the inflection point of a drive that starting safety Billy Bowman Jr. would later describe as disjointed and unrefined. The calls weren’t being communicated quickly enough from the sideline. The substitutions weren’t moving fast enough as the Sooners searched for the right defensive package. And in the biggest moment of a game that might come to be viewed as the crossroad in Oklahoma’s season, none of the defensive linemen were set when the ball was snapped. Bean held the ball for nearly four full seconds before lasering a throw to wide receiver Lawrence Arnold for 37 field-tilting yards that set up Kansas’ winning score. 

“Love to have it back,” Venables said through a strained voice, his body visibly recoiling as he described the play. “And you can’t. Hate that I let the guys down there.”

Breaking down where Oklahoma struggled in loss to Kansas

But Bowman assured reporters that a single play “don’t define the game” in the same way Venables used his postgame speech to assure the players they won’t be defined by an individual result — be it the pulsating win over Texas in an unforgettable rendition of the Red River Rivalry earlier this month, or Saturday’s comedy of self-inflicted errors on a frigid and rain-filled afternoon bisected by a 57-minute delay for lightning. And Venables was far from the only offender in a loss that underscored the cracks in Oklahoma’s still-developing armor.

It wasn’t Venables who racked up more than 100 yards of penalties against the Jayhawks, including three personal fouls on a single drive that ended with a Kansas touchdown. Nor was it Venables who threw a pick-six on the Sooners’ first possession to enliven and embolden a sellout crowd. It wasn’t Venables who lost the fumble that facilitated a one-play, 38-yard scoring drive in which Bean peeled around the offensive line for an unencumbered jaunt to the end zone. Nor was it Venables who made a series of conservative play calls at a time when one first down would have won Oklahoma the game.

“Thought our guys played with effort,” Venables said. “Don’t think we always played real smart.”

Which is why the rash of pained postgame expressions stretched from Venables to quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who completed 14 of 19 passes for a season-low 171 yards and zero passing touchdowns. It was Gabriel’s first game without an aerial score since Oklahoma’s loss to West Virginia last November, and he failed to complete a pass longer than 20 yards downfield until there were 24 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. His biggest contributions came as a runner with 64 yards and three scores. “Just didn’t get in a rhythm and ended up losing the game,” Gabriel said during a terse media scrum. “That’s what happened.”

The anguish spread from Gabriel to running back Tawee Walker, who carried 23 times for a career-high 146 yards and a touchdown before dropping out with a lower-body injury. Walker was unavailable for the pivotal fourth-quarter drive in which the Sooners failed to run out the clock, with Gabriel and backup tailback Jovantae Barnes combining for 5 yards on three attempts until Oklahoma finally decided to punt. “Today, as running backs, we kind of played a good game,” Walker said. “But we didn’t come out the way we wanted to, so it really doesn’t matter in my aspect of it.”

Kansas fans rush field after first win over Oklahoma since 1997

The disappointment spread from Walker to offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, who described his unit as “incredibly inconsistent” and viewed his own play calling as “not good enough” after converting twice on 10 third-down attempts. Only once in the last four years had Gabriel attempted fewer passes than the 19 he hoisted against the Jayhawks, with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees. “A big part of it was, obviously, the weather,” Lebby said. “We felt like we were running the ball well. We had really good success and wanted to continue to run the rock to put us in position to go win the game.”

So when push came to shove, and they didn’t win — when the Sooners’ offense false-started on fourth down with 2:15 remaining, when cornerback Kani Walker was beaten by Arnold to set up the game-clinching score, when Gabriel’s last-ditch heave sailed beyond the end zone as time expired — there was plenty of blame to go around. From Venables, Lebby and the unnamed assistant who drew a penalty for berating the referee, to the players who made unconscionable errors in all three phases.

The Sooners came to Lawrence as legitimate contenders for the College Football Playoff.

Now it’s hard to say exactly where they stand. 

“The tough lesson that we need to learn from today’s game,” wide receiver Drake Stoops said, “is that we hurt ourselves in a lot of places.”

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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