Losses, lack of discipline, speaking in circles have Venables' second year gains in jeopardy
The most telling moment of Brent Venables’ second season as Sooner football coach is happening right now.
Though it may appear that moment’s passed, Oklahoma unable to remain unbeaten or control its Big 12 conference championship destiny, it hasn’t.
It hasn’t because at stake now is Venables’ coaching arc, the once-apparent steps taken in year two to put the program in position to flourish in a new conference in year three.
It hasn’t, because at stake is his ability to handle and emerge from adversity, because not only is it hitting the Sooners on the playing field, but on the sideline and in front of microphones, too.
The saga over OU’s final snap in Stillwater is one example and it took another turn on Tuesday.
The play was Drake Stoops’ 3-yard catch facing fourth-and-5 with 1:01 remaining.
Afterward, Venables said “I liked the play.”
“Obviously, we need to run a route to get open and convert right there,” he said. “I don’t like being short. But we had the play we wanted with the coverage we wanted.”
Then, Monday, at his coaches’ show, speaking to Sooner broadcaster Chris Plank and former Sooner great Teddy Lehman, Venables said something very different.
“The fourth-down play, we probably, you know,” he said, “we got a whole Rolodex of maybe some plays that are better than that play.”
Then, Tuesday, when SoonerScoop’s George Stoia brought up what he said on Monday, Venables, interrupting, said “We’re on to West Virginia now,” and when Stoia asked if it was a play-calling or execution issue,” Venables again proclaimed, “We’re on to West Virginia.”
That’s three different responses in four days about one play, the last one shutting everything down.
The truth appears to be that, despite Venables' insistence the biggest issue his team faces to be turnovers — three each against Kansas and Oklahoma State — he’s also quite frustrated with his offense and maybe the man running it, he just wishes the drama would go away.
It’s also adversity.
The Sooners are plainly becoming less disciplined, not more, an alarming thing given the regular season is 75 percent complete.
OU has committed more penalties (64) costing more yardage (533) and more per game (59.2) than any other squad in the 14-team Big 12.
Also, 45 of those yards have been attributed to the Sooner bench and 30 of those to Venables himself, 15 coming at Bedlam when he ran to the numbers to argue a pass interference call during the Pokes’ 97-yard touchdown drive that put them on top for good.
Snafus like that should not follow a team into November, yet here we are.
Oklahoman columnist Joe Musatto took a run at the topic, asking Venables, sort of, how he internalizes the struggles: do they reflect a coaching deficit or are some things simply on the players?
“Everybody has ownership, but it starts and ends with coaches,” Venables said, before saying something far more interesting.
“You know, ‘Coach Venables, he’s an undisciplined coach and the players are playing undisciplined,’” he said. “And until you get it right, that’s fair, shoot the arrows.”
He feels the heat.
Who’s to know if a head coach can do anything directly to stop penalties not his own. But he and his staff really have been undisciplined, it’s not just a narrative, and his players have played that way, too.
Nor has Jeff Lebby been helpful.
The Sooner offensive coordinator has come up empty in the biggest moments and has struggled to talk about it, too.
On the 3-yard completion to Stoops when OU needed 5 to keep going:
“We liked it, we thought it was going to be man-to-man,” he said Saturday. “It needed to be a yard deeper and that’s the reality of it.”
But the coverage was not man-to-man, but three-on-two in the area Dillon Gabriel threw the ball, and the space Stoops had to run the route and catch a pass beyond the chains may not have been available.
“The last two weeks, man, it’s turnovers,” Lebby also said.
He’s right, they’ve been costly, but the Sooner defense has continued giving his offense plenty of chances to flourish and it’s failed.
Tuesday, Venables was trying to make it all about turnovers, too.
“Some games, like [the] Texas game, we're far from perfect,” he said. “But you didn’t turn the ball over so you win the game.”
It was an odd thing to say given pretty much everybody remembers Gabriel taking the offense right down the field over 62 seconds in the last two minutes to win the game, not a clean turnover sheet, though it was helpful.
When they’re talking in circles, there’s adversity.
We thought Venables and the program he guides had come so far from one season to the next and though that may still be the story, it isn’t yet.
Serious adversity has struck.
Is the head coach equipped to get past it?
Can he do anything about an offense that can’t do what it must do when it has to?
Can the dumb penalties, including his own, end?
Can he get his team out of this existential funk.
The most telling moment of the season is happening right now.
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