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2021 Season

Is Lincoln Riley a Genius or Just Really, Really Lucky

A look at how key coaching decisions had a massive impact on the Red River Showdown.

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Caleb Williams of the Oklahoma Sooners warms up before the game - Getty Images - Tim Warner
Getty Images - Tim Warner

It’s hard to argue against something when it works, but there were two moments in the game where I just cannot get over coach Riley’s decisions.

Coming out of the first quarter, it was 28-7 and Oklahoma was on the verge of getting blown out. The Sooners faced 4th and 1 on their own 34 yard line. Conventional wisdom says there is still a lot of game left. You should punt it away because if you turn it over on downs here, the game is almost certainly over.

So what does Lincoln Riley decide to do? He goes for it, and if that wasn’t risky enough, he brings in his backup quarterback that hasn’t had a snap in a game in two years to run the play.

The result: Caleb Williams was met nearly three yards behind the line, but somehow finds a way through the line and then there was nothing between him and the end zone. It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it did and in spectacular fashion.

Shortly after, coach Riley benched Spencer Rattler in favor of Caleb Williams. The freshman quarterback brought an undeniable spark to the offense as Oklahoma stormed back.

With 7:52 left in the game, Williams found Marvin Mims for a 52-yard touchdown to pull within two. With the game on line, it’s not that Riley chose to go for the 2-point conversion, but rather, how. Williams was in full control of the offense, and had already shown his ability to make something out of nothing by turning a bad snap into a positive play. So what does Riley do, again, with the game on the line? He pulled his hot QB in favor of the QB he benched after his second turnover. Conventional wisdom says “what in the world are you doing?”, but again, it worked. Rattler found Drake Stoops in the end zone and tied the game at 41-41.

If either of those plays had failed, Riley would have been eviscerated for the decision. However, they worked, so…is it coaching brilliance, or just getting insanely lucky?

Comparatively, coach Steve Sarkisian’s 4th-quarter game management left a lot to be desired. In this case, questionable decisions did not lead to favorable outcomes. The game momentum was swinging fully to Oklahoma’s side, but with an 11-point lead, the Longhorns did little to slow it down.

Texas got the ball just before the end of the third quarter. At that point, the clock is your best friend. However, Texas’ next drive took just 1:19 off the clock. Oklahoma responded with a field goal making it an 8-point game with 11:30 left in the game. Three pass attempts and a punt later, Oklahoma had the ball back with just 1:08 off the clock. And the only reason it was even that much was because Casey Thompson was sacked on first down. In a situation where you need to shorten the game as much as possible, and you have possibly the best back in the country, the Longhorns called 3-straight pass plays.

Everyone in that stadium knew what was about to happen next. Oklahoma marched down the field and tied the game. Texas’s 11-point lead to start the quarter, which was once a 21-point lead, was gone in just eight minutes of game clock.

Texas now had to find a way to survive with seven minutes remaining and the momentum fully with Oklahoma. Fifteen seconds later, after a fumbled kick return, the Sooners had a 48-41 lead.

Texas turned it over on downs on their next drive, but the defense held, and the Longhorns got the ball back with 2:46 left to try and tie the game. Game management is critical in this position. The best you can do is tie the game, so while you need the score, you cannot leave too much time for Oklahoma to get a game-winning field goal.

On first down, Bijan Robinson picked up three yards. That was the last time he touched the ball. To hit credit, Casey Thompson led the Longhorns down the field and got the score they needed. Unfortunately, it was with 1:23 remaining. It was more than enough time for Caleb Williams, Kennedy Brooks and the Sooners. Brooks ran it in for the score with just three seconds left In the game to seal it for Oklahoma.

There were some questionable – possibly game altering – decisions on both sides, but with very different results. And I cannot figure out if coach Riley is genius, or just really, really lucky.