Lincoln Riley, the youngest head coach in college football looked like a genius for most of the Rose Bowl. His Sooners, led by Heisman Trophy-winning Baker Mayfield, gashed Georgia in unprecedented fashion while amassing a 31-14 lead. Then, even after the Bulldogs flipped a switch to turn off the faucet, the Sooners found a way to put together 14 straight fourth-quarter points.
Oklahoma held a 45-38 advantage when they took over at their own 23 with 5:00 to play in the fourth quarter. Another score would have salted the game away. A few first downs could have facilitated a clock-killing.
But something happened to the Sooners no one saw coming.
Self-sabotage. Self-sabotage in the form of Riley putting a governor on his offense and most important player. For some reason, the playcaller went from free-wheeling aggressor to a timid conservative zealot. With everything on the line, Riley did everything he could to make sure Mayfield would not decide the most important game of either of their lives.
Two Rodney Anderson runs sandwiched a Mayfield keeper. Eight yards were gained and the ball punted back to Georgia for a game-tying touchdown drive.
Then, with 55 seconds left, Mayfield had the opportunity for more heroics. He followed a 12-yard completion with an incompletion. An 8-yard Anderson run set up 3rd and 2 with 29 seconds remaining. Riley then inexplicably dialed up a low-percentage and eventually fruitless deep shot to Anderson streaking out of the backfield.
Things would get even worse in overtime and beyond.
Trailing by three and 17 yards from a date in the national championship game, Riley opted to run a tight end around on 3rd and 2, then went for the game-tying field goal instead of the game-winning touchdown. In the second frame, the Sooners got a first down and were again 15 yards from paydirt.
Riley chose to insert backup quarterback Kyler Murray for yet another unproductive option look, then ran a screen that was blown up to set up 3rd and 1 before Mayfield found Marquise Brown underneath for 7 yards.
We all know the rest. Austin Siebert’s 27-yard field was blocked and Sony Michel galloped in from 27 to rip Oklahoma’s heart out.
Georgia deserves credit for overcoming a monumental hole and righting the ship. As time passes, though, we’ll look back at what Riley did on Monday with equal parts confusion and disbelief.
“I’m sure I’ll look back on it and there will be calls I wish I would have done different,” Riley said after the game. “I called the plays at that time that I thought were the very best.”
The problem is that everyone except Riley immediately knew these conservative plays weren’t the best in real-time. Mayfield was being handcuffed and the expansive offense played in a box for reasons beyond comprehension. It was like watching Oklahoma have an out-of-body experience and it ended, predictably, in failure.
Let’s be fair here. Riley could have decades of success in front of him. The Rose Bowl wilting may be covered with layers of championships sooner rather than later. But for now, it’s impossible to ignore how major the rookie coach’s miscalculations were.
Bob Stoops’ “Big Game” nickname became a zinger through the years. It’s reasonable to argue, though, that he never melted down quite like Riley did on Monday night in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Oklahoma ran 18 plays for 51 yards down the stretch. Mayfield went 4-for-7 for 19 yards. His only deep shot into the end zone came on a free play and was intercepted. He wasn’t himself, sure, but Riley didn’t give him the opportunity to be that guy — the best player in college football.
The cold truth is that there is no good answer. Utterly indefensible.