The Oklahoma Sooners had a lot of upside to their season coming into Saturday's Red River Rivalry with the Texas Longhorns. They were undefeated, still had national title hopes and were 14-point favorites in their matchup with Texas. But after losing to their rivals across the southern border, 36-20, much of that upside has vanished, and the Sooners are back to where they started with many questions encompassing the team.
Sure, the Sooners did have top defensive playmaker in Corey Nelson out for the game Saturday, but overall, the Longhorns dominated the game for four quarters with hard-nosed football. They challenged the Sooners defense with physicality and, well, bullied them seemingly for four quarters.
Even with the Sooners' uncharacteristic performance on the defensive end, their offense still had opportunities to keep them in the game, but failed to capitalize time after time.
The Sooners offense looked stagnant and helpless at times, much due to the ineffectiveness of both the rushing and passing game. They were inefficient on third down attempts, converting just two first downs in 13 attempts.
Despite the devastating upset, the Sooners have to fix their faults moving forward. After all, there is still a lot of season to be played, and capturing a Big 12 title is certainly not out of reach.
These are five critical takeaways from the Sooners' loss to the Longhorns.
1. Blake Bell's Lack of Big-Game Experience
Quarterback Blake Bell took a couple steps back in his passing game after two impressive performances in his last two starts. And his two interceptions in the game ultimately hindered the Sooners from keeping up with Texas on the scoreboard.
It was Bell's first official start against Texas, but Bell had a breakout performance against the Longhorns last season as a short-yardage specialist when he recorded four rushing TDs.
Saturday, however, was a completely different story.
This time as a starter rather than a goal-line specialist, Bell was sacked four times and was minus-27 yards on seven carries.
In Bell's defense, he was pressured the entire game by the Longhorn defense which overpowered the Sooners offensive line. Sooners head coach Bob Stoops noted the lack of help for Bell from the other offensive players in his post game interview. (Hat tip to ESPN.com for the quote.)
"Well, (Bell) needs support," Stoops said. "In some areas our protection broke down. Give them credit. They beat us in protections, they covered us."
2. Loss of Corey Nelson is a Huge Blow
If there is one thing we learned of the Sooners defense from Saturday's game, it is that linebacker Corey Nelson is really, really good.
Nelson didn't play Saturday due to a season-ending pectoral tear, but it was apparent the Sooners needed his skill set on the field. The Longhorns took advantage of Nelsons' absence by exploiting the inexperience of Nelson's backup Dominique Alexander.
Brandon Chatmon on ESPN.com quoted Sooners defensive coach Mike Stoops concerning the huge blow to his defense with Nelson's season-ending injury.
“He’s a big leader for us and he’s had a spectacular year,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “His big play ability and ability to find the football, those are things we’ll miss but other guys will have to pick up the slack and this will be a good opportunity for Dominique.”
The Sooners coaches are extremely high on Alexander's ability, but the fact of the matter is he is inexperienced, and it showed during Saturday's game. He looked confused in his responsibilities on certain plays, and a bit timid in his tackling.
Alexander will continue to develop as the year continues, but Sooner Nation will certainly miss Nelson in the meantime.
3. Struggle Converting Third-Downs
The Sooners have struggled this season with third-down conversions, and the story was the same Saturday when they converted only two first downs in 13 attempts.
Texas held Oklahoma to 2-of-13 (15%) on third downs. The Sooners netted a total of -4 yards on the 13 third-down attempts.— John Bianco (@UT_Bianco) October 12, 2013
Much of this is due to the Sooners putting themselves in too many third-and-long situations. If they keep the third-down plays manageable, then they will find themselves converting more times than not.
This was extremely difficult for the Sooners with the Longhorns' challenging with physical, hard-nosed defense. There were hardly any plays where the Sooners offensive line generated big enough gaps for their running backs to make big plays. And as far as pass protection...Well, Bell was sacked four times.
The Sooners have a ton of speed on offense, and they should certainly be converting more third-down conversions in games. Relying on the arm of Bell obviously didn't work last Saturday, but spreading the field with screen plays and outside runs could better utilize the Sooners speed.
Lack of offensive efficiency on third-down plays is never a good thing, so look for Stoops and the Sooners to immediately focus on that facet of their game.
4. Keith Ford is Under Utilized at Running Back
The Sooners use the running-back-by-committee approach when it comes to their rushing game. While it is always a plus to keep fresh legs on the field throughout the entirety of games, they may be taking too many carries away from young freshman stud Keith Ford.
Ford only had 34 yards in the game Saturday, but he also only had six carries.
The Sooners coaching staff has been reluctant to make Ford their premier back due to his youth and inexperience. He sometimes has trouble with ball security, which is somewhat normal for true freshman. But his upside in the long run outweighs any risks to him being played.
When Ford entered the game Saturday, the offense was moving the ball up the field. He was physical and ran right through Longhorn defenders—something the Sooners desperately needed to do—but he did not stay in the game long enough for his play to make a difference.
It's understandable for Bob Stoops and other coaches to want to incorporate multiple running backs since they have so much depth, but a few more carries to a person with big playmaking ability like Ford would certainly help.
STOOPS: "Keith Ford continues to (earn it). We need to try to get him more snaps. He's a good football player."— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) October 14, 2013
5. The Sooners Clearly Overlooked the Longhorns
Call it what you like, but Texas outplayed, out-schemed and out-executed the Sooners.
The Sooners were clear favorites with the Longhorns struggling, and somehow they walked away from the Cotton Bowl looking like the much inferior team.
Getting upset midway through the season was not something the Sooners wanted, but a valuable lesson can be learned from the experience: No team can be overlooked in Division 1 football.
And even though the Sooners hopes for a Big 12 title have dwindled a tad, they are not completely gone. A lot of it depends on how the Sooners answer to this week's upset. If they can make adjustments this week and keep improving throughout the remainder of the season, then it may take a bit of the pain away for Sooner Nation after Saturday's upset.