Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has made a name for himself with an explosive offense that piles up passing yards, but the success of his first season in charge of the Sooners may be determined by his team’s ground game.
Heisman Trophy candidate Baker Mayfield returns, so the Sooners passing game should be fine even after losing wide receiver Dede Westbrook. At running back, however, the Sooners have to replace two 1,000-yard rushers in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, and their options aren’t exactly proven.
Sophomore Abdul Adams ran for 283 yards in 2016 as a backup. Most of that came against Louisiana-Monroe and Kansas. Injuries have mostly kept redshirt sophomore Rodney Anderson off the field until now. The only carry of his college career went for 5 yards.
Oklahoma’s next options after those two will be a pair of blue-chip true freshmen, Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks.
While the lack of a proven tailback shouldn’t cripple the Sooners, recent history says Riley’s offense needs at least one dominant runner to be as effective as it can be.
Oklahoma has lost just four times since Riley joined the staff as offensive coordinator in 2015. Every one of those losses have one thing in common: the Sooners couldn’t move the ball on the ground.
|Game||Score||Total Rushing Yards||Leading rusher|
|vs Texas (2015)||L, 24-17||67||Samaje Perine (10 carries, 36 yards)|
|vs Clemson (2015)||L, 37-17||67||Samaje Perine (15 carries, 58 yards)|
|vs Houston (2016)||L, 33-23||70||Joe Mixon (6 carries, 40 yards)|
|vs Ohio State (2016)||L, 45-24||177||Joe Mixon (9 carries, 78 yards)|
They failed to run for more than 100 yards as a team in three of those games. They did better in the fourth loss, against Ohio State, but Mixon still had fewer than 80 yards. Meanwhile, Perine averaged 3.5 yards per carry in that game, almost 2 full yards fewer per carry than his season average (5.4).
Those struggles on the ground damaged the passing attack, too. Against Texas, Clemson and Ohio State, Mayfield had three of his worst games in an Oklahoma uniform. He averaged fewer than 250 passing yards in those contests, with 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
Without a solid running game, the Sooners can’t use play-action as effectively, and Mayfield doesn’t have as many openings to scramble. Everything about their offense becomes less potent.
Mayfield will be great again this season, and Riley is a phenomenal play-caller. But there’s a clear ceiling for the Sooners when they can’t run the ball. In order to break through that ceiling, they’ll need at least one of their inexperienced backs to outperform expectations.