NORMAN — Lincoln Riley arrived at Oklahoma with an Air Raid reputation in 2015.
Now in his fourth season calling plays for the Sooners, Riley’s orchestrated a strong ground game.
Entering Saturday’s Bedlam contest against Oklahoma State, the Sooners have rushed for 300 yards in three consecutive games. Since 2000, it is only the second time the Oklahoma offense has accomplished that feat, joining a three-game stretch in 2014.
The No. 6 Sooners (8-1 overall, 5-1 in Big 12) have also had success running the ball against the Cowboys under Riley. In the last three games, OU has averaged 290.7 yards on the ground and 9.1 yards per carry against the Cowboys.
Ruffin McNeill was East Carolina’s head coach when he hired Riley to be his offensive coordinator between 2010-14. He watched Riley grow into the run game after being tutored by a pass-happy Mike Leach at Texas Tech.
“When he came to Coach (Bob) Stoops at OU (in 2015), I saw an even bigger deal with the run game,” McNeill said. “You’re talking about two NFL Draft choices (Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon) that he had. He’s evolved in the run game and people are copying what he does from all areas of the run game. He blends it so well with the passing concepts. You have to prepare for his run game and pass game equally. And he’s patient, smart and understands that.”
With Rodney Anderson and Marcelias Sutton out due to season-ending injuries, Trey Sermon has developed into the featured back.
OU fans received a taste of Sermon’s potential during a three-game stretch last season. The running back rushed for 334 yards against Baylor, Iowa State and Texas in his freshman season before Anderson began his late-season tear at the position.
Last Saturday, Sermon became the 23rd player at Oklahoma to rush for 200 yards when he finished with 206 yards on 26 carries. Over the past three weeks, Sermon has rushed for 374 yards.
“His confidence is growing. He kind of was the closer role for us last year, and he’s a confident kid right now. He’s playing well. He’s playing better than he did last year, more explosive, more experienced,” Riley said.
“(Sermon’s) a horse, man. To have the injury he had against TCU and be back as quickly as he has and then look like he did the other night is pretty impressive,” the OU coach added. “His ceiling is still quite a bit higher so that’s the good part about it.”
Oklahoma’s run game has rushed for 323 yards (TCU), 322 (Kansas State) and 327 (Texas Tech) in consecutive weeks.
Sermon said he’s looking forward to teaming up with Kennedy Brooks and T.J. Pledger as the season winds down.
“Our mentality is just to step up when our name is called,” Sermon said. “I feel like so far we’ve done a pretty good job and I think our ceiling is still really high, but we have a lot of room for improvement and I think we have a bright future. “
Sermon had 10 carries for 81 yards in last year’s 62-52 win over the Cowboys, including a 53-yard touchdown run on his final carry to seal the victory in Stillwater.
Riley said Sermon’s ability to cut and improve his speed has been seen this season. It was a focal point when new strength coach Bennie Wylie arrived on campus.
“It’s been something we put in front of him and trained him that way and he’s responded. He’s definitely moving better, no question about it,” Riley said. “His body’s better. He’s in better shape, quickness, speed, all that has improved and will continue to improve too. The great thing is he’s been able to get better at that without sacrificing the physicality.
“That’s kind of what’s separated him from the beginning so you’re starting to see what he can do with the ball right now.”
Sermon is looking forward to continued improvement.
“The more confidence that I have in myself, the more I feel like I can just go out there and make more plays and win my one-on-one battles, make guys miss and things like that,” he said.