Ohio State will face one of its toughest and most high-profile opponents of the season when the Buckeyes face Oklahoma at Ohio Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
For this week's edition of Across the Field, Eleven Warriors caught up with Berry Tramel, sports columnist for The Oklahoman, to take a closer look at the Sooners entering Saturday's much-anticipated game.
There aren't many people who know more about the Sooners than Tramel, who grew up in Norman, has worked for The Oklahoman since 1991 and has spent much of that time covering Oklahoma football.
Tramel covered the Sooners during Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson's time at Oklahoma, so we asked him for his insight on Wilson's tenure there. We also asked Tramel how this year's Oklahoma team compares to last year's Oklahoma team (which Ohio State beat, 45-24, in Norman) and whether he thinks the Sooners can flip the script in this year's game.
Q: Berry, what kind of impact have you seen Lincoln Riley make on the Sooners in his time so far as head coach? Has he made any significant changes in Norman from the way Bob Stoops ran the team?
Tramel: This is going to sound strange, but the biggest impact Riley has made seems to be in recruiting. The Sooners got a rash of commitments in the couple of weeks after Stoops’ retirement. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But I think sometimes a coaching change gives a school a bump in energy. Heck, that’s sometimes WHY schools make a coaching change. But the Sooners got the bump in energy while not having to pay any of the transitional dues associated with a coaching change.
Just about everything is the same. It was virtually seamless. Riley brought in Ruffin McNeill to fill out the coaching staff, giving the defense an extra coach from last season, and he’s hired a new in-house recruiting coordinator. But there’s been very little change. After one game, maybe the biggest difference anyone could point to was that Riley played Baker Mayfield only in the first half against Texas-El Paso. OU had a big lead, 35-7 I think, and we expected Mayfield to play only a series or two in the second half, but he didn’t play at all. Stoops rarely, if ever, went to his backup QB that quickly. Of course, if Texas A&M had already blown that 34-point lead, Riley might have been less apt to hand the reins to Kyler Murray.
Q: How would you compare this year's Oklahoma team to the team Ohio State faced last September?
Tramel: OU is significantly different from 2016 with the exception of the most important position. Mayfield is still around, and he’s played great, really since the Ohio State game last September. He carved up Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, played great against Oklahoma State in the de facto Big 12 championship game and was incredible against UTEP. But everything else is different.
The OU offensive line is better, because of experience. It has all grown up. The playmakers are a question, though. The Sooners had two NFL tailbacks last season in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon; both went early in the draft. The new guys are unproven and don’t appear to be the caliber of Perine or Mixon. And the receiving corps misses Dede Westbrook. Buckeye fans won’t remember Westbrook much, because he was hobbled against Ohio State last season. But with the arrival of October, he was incredible, with big play after big play. Now he’s gone to the NFL, too, and it’s not clear how the Sooners will replace him. Mayfield’s favorite target figures to be Mark Andrews, who has a tight end body but plays slot receiver. He’s an excellent player but does not have home run power like Westbrook did. The one caveat is Kentucky graduate transfer Jeff Badet, who led the SEC in yards per catch last season and had an acrobatic catch last week on a deep ball.
Defensively, OU is better at cornerback. Ohio State picked on the corner opposite Jordan Thomas last year and made Noah Brown a star. Thomas is back, but his counterpart, Parnell Motley, is much better than what the Sooners had last year. OU’s safety play is strong, too; senior Steven Parker is very good. But the linebackers are a question. The Sooners are starting a true freshman, Kenneth Murray, in the middle. That seems like a disaster waiting to happen against a team like Ohio State. OU has gone back to a 4-3 base, which helps against power teams like the Buckeyes. In the Big 12, you’d rather use a 3-4, to get quicker guys out on the field, but I think the Sooners believe they can get by with occasional looks into the 3-4. They need to try to beat the Ohio States and Clemsons.
Q: Who are some Oklahoma players who might not have played big roles in last year's game that Ohio State fans need to know about this year?
Tramel: I guess start at tailback. OU used four fairly evenly against UTEP. Sophomore Abdul Adams started and probably looked the best. He had some nifty moves. I thought third-year sophomore Rodney Anderson, who has battled injuries, would be the likely successor to Perine and Mixon, but so far no. He looked solid against UTEP but not spectacular. JUCO transfer Marcelias Sutton had his moments and true freshman Trey Sermon also played. Your guess is as good as mine on which way OU will go.
At receiver, keep an eye on true freshman CeeDee Lamb. He has really impressed and started against UTEP. Badet, too. And JUCO transfer Marquise Brown has great speed; Mayfield threw deep to Brown last Saturday.
Defensively, sophomore linebacker Caleb Kelly is a budding star. He played very little as a true freshman last September but came on as the season progressed and showed signs of being a difference-maker. And Motley is quite the character at cornerback. He appears to be a really good cornerback and a world-class trash talker. Ohio State will either shut him up or have a long night.
Q: This will be Kevin Wilson's first time coaching against Oklahoma since he left his job as the Sooners' offensive coordinator following the 2010 season. How is Wilson's time with the Sooners remembered in Norman?
Tramel: Kevin Wilson’s time in Norman is remembered by the great unwashed as being OK. His time in Norman is remembered by those in the know as being unbelievably productive. I assume Buckeye fans are like Sooner fans. They have very little patience with an offensive coordinator who doesn’t post 50 points in any particular game. Wilson was innovative and productive in his five years as Stoops’ coordinator.
In 2006, Wilson’s first year running the offense, Stoops dismissed his quarterback, Rhett Bomar, in August. Paul Thompson had been playing wide receiver and was moved back to QB; he led OU to a Big 12 championship. In 2007, a lightly recruited redshirt freshman named Sam Bradford got the quarterback job and played well. In 2008, Wilson installed a no-huddle, uptempo offense, and the Sooners exploded – they made the national title game, Bradford won the Heisman and OU set scoring records. In 2009, Bradford was injured and the Sooners struggled with redshirt freshman Landry Jones at QB. But in 2010, Landry had an excellent year, OU won the Big 12 title again and Wilson got the Indiana job. Landry Jones as a junior and senior never played as well as he did as a sophomore. So Wilson was fantastic as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator. Knowledgeable fans know it.
Q: What does Oklahoma need to do to turn the tables in this year's game, and do you think they will?
Tramel: First off, no, I don’t think OU will turn the tables, not because I don’t think the Sooners are capable, but because I think Ohio State is loaded. I know Texas and Ohio State swapped a strange home-and-home series a decade ago – each team won on the road – and OU and Notre Dame did the same in 2012-13, but that doesn’t happen often.
How could it happen? Well, Mayfield has to play great. If OU’s offensive line gives him time to throw and creates some running lanes to get the ground game going, then the Sooners’ chances go way up. But those things didn’t happen last season.
I think OU will plug one major hole from last season. J.T. Barrett last year was able to float the ball to the corner any time the Buckeyes needed a play. Barrett is a proven winner, but those passes won’t be quite as easy this year against an improved secondary. The Buckeyes scored 38 offensive points against OU last season. I doubt they get that many this time. The question is, can the Sooners score more than 24?