By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
LAWRENCE, Kan. — A little Blake Bell goes a long way, yes, but a little more Blake Bell would go a much longer way and if Oklahoma intends to win a conference championship or simply threaten to become the team it looked like it might become before rolling into the Cotton Bowl, the X-factor couldn’t be more clear.
Its the quarterback, stupid.
It’s a harsh reminder, yet required, because OU ran for 235 yards in Saturday afternoon’s 34-19 victory over Kansas and the margin’s not the margin without a blocked punt and a trick play that made for nine Sooner points in the space of 18 seconds, not to mention a two-point runback of a blocked PAT that may never happen again.
It’s pretty simple.
OU is playing vastly better defense this season and was terrific again Saturday once the first quarter ended, and even though it doesn’t seem like it all the time, the Sooners can run the ball like they haven’t in recent seasons, the victory over the Jayhawks being their fifth 200-plus yard rushing game in seven tries.
But if you’re looking for OU to look like OU again, like a team capable of owning the game against opponents better than Tulsa, it’s really on Bell.
It’s nothing new.
When Jason White was great, OU was great. When Sam Bradford was great, OU was great. When Landry Jones was great, OU was not quite great, yet still all it could be because the teams Jones’ quarterbacked were frustratingly more fragile than those of his predecessors.
Saturday, Bell completed 15 of 25 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns. He threw one interception and intentionally grounded once. Plain and simple, he wasn’t every good.
He was very good against Tulsa and very good against Notre Dame. Not so much since.
The predictable ups and downs of a first-year starting quarterback?
Sooner offensive coordinator Josh Heupel doesn’t think so.
Bell’s inconsistency is “not to be expected, “ Heupel said. “He’s capable of playing better than he played today.”
In the moment, Heupel sort of realized how strident he’d sounded and began to talk about the plays Bell managed to make against the Jayhawks, like a big over-the-middle hook-up with Jalen Saunders and a beautiful touchdown strike to Jaz Reynolds. Nonetheless, the point had been made.
Bell doesn’t seem to want to go there. That, or he’s simply not built for serious introspection 45 minutes after leaving the field.
“When you’re out there, you’re trying to execute the offense, but there’s some times when guys aren’t going to be as open and a couple of times today I really wanted to sit in the pocket and let stuff develop and that’s when I kind of got flushed out, and they got that intentional grounding,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure I got it out. I didn’t really want to take a sack on that. But you know stuff like that is going to happen.”
It’s the rambling statement of a player you hope knows better, because “stuff like that” is not supposed to happen, ever. And even though it may happen, the starting quarterback is not supposed to chalk it up to the vagaries of the game.
Indeed, there are times Bell appears in complete control. Similarly often, he doesn’t.
Heupel, to his great credit, took a shot at the reason why.
“I don’t’ know if you can pinpoint it, but I think, as much as anything, he’s rushing through things,” he said. “Whether it’s him physically, mentally, the combination of the two, he’s just not playing calm and relaxed and executing.”
Co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell was given the same option of accepting up Bell’s struggles as the inevitable ups and downs any first-year starting quarterback’s bound to experience. He declined, but chose not call his quarterback out specifically.
“We have to play more efficiently,” Norvell said, “and take advantages of more opportunities.”
Bell doesn’t have to be his predecessors. He doesn’t have to be the best quarterback in program history like White or the second best like Bradford — yeah, yeah, feel free to go crazy on that one — nor is he charged with outscoring the opponent in the same way Jones was charged for big chunks of his last two seasons.
Still, if he somehow thinks the way he plays isn’t more important than the way everybody else plays, he’s wrong.
“You always want to do more,” Bell said. “There’s still a lot of plays to be made.”
He got that right.
He needs to do more.
He needs to make them.
He needs to know this.
Because just a little more Blake Bell could go a long, long way.
Follow me @clayhorning