NORMAN — The 57,246 empty seats were pronounced. The roster sizes were smaller. And according to Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, Saturday’s game was close to not happening.
“It hung in the balance for a little bit,” Riley said, “but we were able to do it and thankfully we were able to.”
OU opened its 2020 season against Missouri State amid unprecedented circumstances. Yet, as redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler dropped back, flicked his wrist and let a 58-yard pass sail right into freshman Marvin Mims’ gloves early in the first quarter, it all seemed normal.
Rattler’s arm, which accounted for 290 yards passing and four touchdowns, and a defense that looked like it had been waiting forever to shake off last season's Peach Bowl loss to LSU helped the fifth-ranked Sooners roll to a 48-0 win over the Bears.
Riley, entering Year 4 as OU's head coach, had plenty to be pleased with following OU’s lone nonconference game of the year.
Simply playing it was the first thing on his mind.
“Our team’s first emotion throughout the game and in the locker room afterward was just appreciation for the opportunity to play,” Riley said, “appreciative of all the people, players, staff, medical staff, administration, all of the people that worked tirelessly the last several months to even make this a possibility. Appreciative of the fans who were able to come in here. It was a heck of a lot of fun. Our guys loved it.”
OU’s touchdown celebrations certainly seemed to have some extra juice — see, Charleston Rambo’s dancing after catching a 53-yard strike from Rattler midway through the opening period.
Each failed Missouri State offensive drive added to a therapeutic night for the Sooners’ defense. It never seemed to matter that it came against a Football Championship Subdivision program that won one game last season.
OU didn’t want to give up a score.
“We talked about it last night as a team, this was a statement game in the season opener,” OU defensive end Isaiah Thomas said. “We got standards on this defense — and as a team — and pitching shutouts is one of them.”
Despite the myriad factors surrounding this game — namely, the ongoing social justice movement and COVID-19 pandemic — OU’s opener checked all the boxes of what it should have done against Missouri State.
Still, there were questions.
How Rattler would look in his first game as OU’s starting quarterback being one of the main topics of discussion.
Well, Rattler never saw the second half.
He finished the night completing 14 of 17 passes. His three incompletions consisted of two dropped passes and a well-executed pass breakup from Virginia Tech transfer Jeremy Webb.
It was Rattler’s first meaningful snaps of football in two years, and for Riley, his poise stood out from the victory.
“Some guys can get too up for these things, especially your first one and I thought he handled it the right way,” Riley said. “He certainly had energy and juice, but he didn't let that consume him and he didn't try to do too much and that was always some of your chief concerns and so I'm proud of the way he handled the situation.”
He had help from a handful of new faces. Mims had a team-leading 80 yards receiving. UCLA transfer Theo Howard recorded 63 receiving yards. And true freshman Seth McGowan accounted for 61 yards rushing for a touchdown and a long carry of 23.
Junior safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, a player OU's coaches have raved about through fall camp, led the defense with four tackles, 1.5 for loss and an interception — that pick being an important one late in the third quarter after OU squandered a few turnover chances.
“Appreciate [Delarrin] for getting that one,” OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “That would've been a major black eye on an otherwise good night for the guys.”
But on a difficult weekend for the Big 12, where both Iowa State and Kansas State lost to Sun Belt opponents and three programs’ games were postponed, OU had the fortune of playing.
The Sooners might have been near cancellation themselves.
But Saturday, OU had a game.
And it’s thankful that.
“It’s not exactly how you draw it up. But yeah, you’ve got all these situations right now. It’s either one of two things. You either see it as a hindrance and you say ‘poor me’ and you’re mad you’re in the situation and frustrated. Or you look at it as an opportunity, an opportunity to see new players that maybe we wouldn’t have seen, an opportunity to test yourselves and be able to adjust when things come up.
“So we’ve tried to look at all of it as an opportunity. We had a lot of opportunities tonight, and it was fun to see the guys who stepped up and played in those places, and by and large did a lot of good things.”