“And that was the beauty of Coach Riley,” Gundy said. “He was able to understand that, ‘Hey, we need to do this. I want to do this. And I’m willing to adapt and evolve more in the run game.’ ”
Since then, in two seasons with Riley as offensive coordinator followed by his current three-year run as the head coach who also calls plays, Oklahoma has remained a perennial national title contender. For the fifth straight season, the Sooners won at least 11 games; for the fourth time in that stretch, they have made it to the College Football Playoff. The No. 4 Sooners will play top-ranked LSU on Saturday at the Peach Bowl, with a trip to the national championship game at stake.
As Riley maintained Oklahoma’s status as one of the best programs in the nation, he groomed Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterbacks at an exceptional rate — first Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, who won the award in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and now Jalen Hurts, the graduate transfer from Alabama who was the Heisman runner-up this season. The Sooners’ offense continued to play at a high level, with those quarterbacks grabbing headlines and attention along with wide receivers such as all-American CeeDee Lamb, who has 1,208 receiving yards.
But then there’s the sometimes overlooked and underappreciated element of Riley’s system: The Sooners run more than they pass.
“There are going to be times that you need to [run]," said Riley, whose teams rarely did so at his previous stops. “It’s always interested me. I’ve always enjoyed that part of it. And then we’ve been able, with some of the different personnel we’ve had at OU over the years, take it to another level.”
In the past 21 seasons (three under Riley and 18 with Stoops), the Sooners have typically run the ball between 35 and 45 times per game. So Oklahoma’s average of 41.2 carries this season isn’t new. It’s typical and expected — even with Riley as the play-caller and even in the Big 12.
Five games into Riley’s first season as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, rival Texas upset a Sooners team ranked 10th at the time. In the loss, Oklahoma’s top two backs — Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine — combined for 16 carries for 60 yards. Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said that after the game, “it kind of started to move and change toward running it a little bit more than what we had,” adding that his position group improved, too, which helped facilitate a more prominent ground game. In the final seven games of the regular season (all wins), the Sooners racked up at least 230 rushing yards per outing, with a high of 405 against Texas Tech.
Through the years in Norman, Riley said, “the quality of linemen that OU traditionally got — and we’ve been able to continue to get — have probably been the biggest difference-makers.”
The Sooners have run for 251.2 yards per game this season, their seventh straight year averaging at least 200. (From 1999 to 2012, Oklahoma reached that benchmark once.) The bulk of Oklahoma’s success in this area has come by way of Hurts, an ultra-mobile quarterback who has the size and athleticism to match a running back’s.
“You don't want your quarterback to take hits,” Oklahoma running back Kennedy Brooks said, “but if he needs the extra yard, he'll definitely do it.”
Hurts has accounted for the bulk of Oklahoma’s offensive production, running for a team-high 1,255 yards and passing for 3,634 yards. He has the second-most rushing yards by a quarterback in program history, trailing only Jack Mildren’s 1,289 in 1971. Hurts should cruise to the record Saturday.
Oklahoma has attempted 26.7 passes per game, which ranks 102nd of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams and is a far cry from Leach’s Air Raid (55.7 passes per game at Washington State). Since 1999, the Sooners have thrown fewer passes in a season only once, when they attempted 24.3 per game in 2006.
“I think of the Big 12 like Air Raid,” LSU defensive lineman Glen Logan said. “All you think of is passing and them being able to beat you just throwing the ball. But Oklahoma looks to beat you running the ball also. I think that will be something we can stop. Hopefully make them one-dimensional and hopefully keep Jalen Hurts in the pocket.”
Last month, Mike Gundy — the coach at Oklahoma State and the brother of Cale, the Sooners’ co-offensive coordinator and inside receivers coach — compared the Oklahoma system to the school’s wishbone offenses of the past, calling this year’s scheme a “triple option just disguised in the spread” and a “one-man show,” referring to Hurts.
Hurts’s ability to run adds a difficult dimension for opposing defenses. And LSU has familiarity with problems of that variety.
The Tigers’ defense struggled against a Mississippi team that finished 4-8. Although LSU left with a 58-37 road victory, Rebels quarterback John Rhys Plumlee ran for 212 yards. "Everyone was embarrassed,” Logan said. Fellow defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence likened the game to an “avalanche” from which Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow and the offense had to bail the defense out.
“It’s a great thing that it happened because I’d rather it happen then than happen Saturday,” Logan said this week. “ . . . It was just something that we don’t let happen. We don’t let anybody run the ball, so when you see a quarterback ran for 200 yards on us, it’s just something that you have to think about.”
Oklahoma’s group of ball-carriers has thinned. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson is one of three Sooners suspended for Saturday’s game. Riley would not detail specifics, but according to multiple reports, the players failed NCAA-administered drug tests. Running back Trey Sermon suffered a season-ending injury last month. T.J. Pledger stands behind them production-wise with just eight carries for 62 yards.
But the Sooners still have Hurts and Brooks, two players who, as long as Brooks runs for at least 24 yards Saturday, will both have reached the 1,000-yard benchmark, just as Murray and Brooks did a year ago. For as much conversation surrounds Oklahoma’s propensity to churn out quality quarterbacks who are prolific passers, look at the list of 1,000-yard rushers, too.
“I always felt like to win championships,” Riley said, “you had to be able to run the ball in some form or fashion.”