Oklahoma Returns to Lincoln for First Time Since 2009
By Steve Beideck
Oklahoma fans who endured the misery that came from Lincoln Riley’s abrupt departure for USC are hopeful their restlessness takes a Shakesperean turn as the 2022 football season begins.
New coach Brent Venables can help the OU faithful view the next two seasons – Oklahoma’s final two as members of the Big 12 Conference before moving to the SEC – as the “winter of (their) discontent” by kicking off his tenure just as Venables’ mentor Bob Stoops did in Norman.
Win, and win often.
“Now is the winter of our discontent” – that famous line from Shakespeare’s Richard III, which means a time of unhappiness is soon to end – already is looking like a difficult task for Venables and his staff.
Oklahoma’s first true test of the 2022 season is expected to be presented by Nebraska when the Sooners travel to Lincoln Sept. 17 in the first game between the two teams at Memorial Stadium since the Huskers defeated OU 10-3 Nov. 7, 2009.
It’s not just the Huskers being the strongest early season test for the Venables-led Sooners – Oklahoma opens with home games against UTEP and Kent State before playing NU – that could make things tough on the Sooners.
Internal turmoil flared up during the first week of practice when longtime assistant Cale Gundy abruptly resigned Aug. 7 after reading a word from an OU player’s iPad during a film session.
Gundy, who had been an assistant at OU since Stoops became head coach in 1999, said he read a single offending word just once. When Venables addressed the issue in a written statement, he presented a drastically different version of what happened.
“Coach Gundy resigned from the program because he knows what he did was wrong,” Venables said. “He chose to read aloud to his players, not once but multiple times, a racially charged word that is objectionable to everyone, and does not reflect the attitude and values of our university or our football program. This is not acceptable. Period. Coach Gundy did the right thing in resigning.”
That statement by Venables prompted Gundy’s daughter, Cat, to accuse Venables of not properly handling the situation in a since-deleted post on her Twitter account.
“Interesting you told your players to keep their mouths shut about what really happened and their heads down,” Cat Gundy allegedly wrote in her tweet. “The truth will always come to fruition, it’s only a matter of time.”
Not an ideal way to start a new era. On the field, there also have been some major changes to the Sooners roster from the group that had to hang on late to defeat the Huskers 23-16 last season in the first meeting between the storied programs since 2010.
Eight players from the 2021 team that finished 11-2 after a 9-0 start left Norman via the transfer portal. Included in that number are two who followed Riley to Los Angeles – starting quarterback Caleb Williams and one of his top receiving targets, Mario Williams.
The offensive line will open as an area of concern. Having three starters back who were part of a unit that gave up 33 sacks in 13 games is not necessarily a good thing.
Central Florida transfer Dillon Gabriel is expected to take the reins of the new-look OU offense. Gabriel threw for just over 8,000 yards and 70 touchdowns in two-plus seasons at UCF, and he’ll be reunited with Jeff Lebby, his UCF offensive coordinator from 2019 who left Mississippi to join the Sooner staff.
Oklahoma is unproven at running back and the top returning wide receiver is Marvin Mims after the departure of Mario Williams and Jadon Haselwood, who transferred to Arkansas.
The outlook is brighter on the defensive side even though the OU run defense took a big hit in its first loss of the season. Baylor controlled the ball for 35:19 and racked up 297 rushing yards in a 27-14 victory that started a 2-2 finish which took the Sooners out of a chance to play for another Big 12 title.
Expect Venables to work with defensive coordinator Ted Roof to put his stamp on this and future OU defenses. Long one of college football’s top defensive strategists, Venables will not be satisfied with a unit that gives up nearly 400 yards and 26 points per game as the Sooners did last season.
The addition of Tulane transfer Jeffery Johnson in the middle of Oklahoma’s defensive line should help that group avoid a big drop after several key players moved on via transfer or graduation.
Oklahoma’s linebacker corps with DaShaun White, Marcus Stripling and Danny Stutsman could turn into one of the Big 12’s best by midseason.
Transfers will have to step up immediately to help OU’s secondary avoid becoming a liability as was the case in key moments throughout 2021. Trey Morrison (North Carolina) and C.J. Coldon (Wyoming) are the top hopes to make that a better group.
This game won’t carry the conference and national importance as it once did for many decades. Last year the Huskers weren’t supposed to even be on the same field with the Sooners, but NU hung tough and came close to notching a big upset.
While the conference games are still the biggest hurdles for the Huskers, they’re expected to be competitive with an Oklahoma team that again is earning preseason Top 10 accolades. Nebraska will be brimming with confidence if the Huskers can take care of business against Northwestern, North Dakota and Georgia Southern before the Sooners come calling.
If OU’s internal turmoil is still an issue and the Sooners again struggle in one of their first two games – remember they had to hang on to beat Tulane 40-35 in the 2021 opener – a national TV audience and engaged Memorial Stadium crowd could be witnessing an early season donnybrook.