NORMAN, Okla. -- Sooners fans have been spoiled for the past decade.
Jason White, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones have made being the quarterback at Oklahoma look easy. Heisman Trophies were secured, school records fell and, most importantly, Big 12 championships were won.
Blake Bell has huge shoes to fill.
After a record-shattering first start, OU’s current starting quarterback has struggled to find any kind of rhythm in four starts since the Sooners’ 51-20 thrashing of Tulsa on Sept. 14. Bell threw for 413 yards, a school record for a quarterback in his first start, and four touchdowns. In the four games since, Bell has passed for 648 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
While Bell appears to have secured the starting job for the near future, he needs to play better if OU hopes to compete for a Big 12 title this season. Coach Bob Stoops knows it, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel knows it and Bell knows it.
“I still believe he can play better,” Stoops said. “We want to be effective in running and throwing the football, and I think the obvious part is that we need to be a little more effective throwing the football -- or consistent. We’ve had our times where we’ve been pretty good with it and we’ve had our times when we haven’t, so we’ve got to get that part of our game more consistent.”
A closer look at the numbers, thanks to ESPN Stats & Info, reveal the up-and-down nature of the Sooners’ passing game this season. OU’s passing game under Trevor Knight, the starter to open the season, was bad, but under Bell, there has been some renewed hope.
The junior has been good when OU uses play action, completing 27 of 38 passes and averaging 7.9 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and one interception. He has been solid but somewhat careless with the ball against the blitz, completing 27 of 46 passes and averaging 8.6 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
But the blueprint to beating the Sooners is out in full view. Stack the box, force Bell to beat you and until he shows he can make teams pay, expect defensive coordinators to continue to load up to stop the run. And OU can’t expect to lean on its play-action success when Texas Tech arrives in Norman on Saturday. The Red Raiders hold opponents to an AQ-low 4.2 yards per attempt on play-action passes and are one of five teams that hasn't allowed a touchdown off play action this season.
OU’s only answer is to make big plays in the passing game to force teams to respect Bell and his receivers and do a better job converting third downs.
“There’s a bunch of big plays out there that we still missed,” Heupel said. “Those are things we’re going to need to hit on Saturday. It think that’s the difference, whether its run or pass plays, we haven’t got the big hitter.”
Bell is 8-of-31 on throws of 15 yards or more, averaging 6.6 yards per attempts. His 25.8 completion percentage is second worst in the Big 12 behind Clint Trickett of West Virginia, and Bell is averaging 14.1 pass attempts per completion of 20 yards or more.
“It’s going to come, we just have to keep fighting every day,” Bell said. “Like Coach Heupel says, you’re going to keep taking shots, you’re not going to hit them all but if we hit a few, we’re going to be in good shape.”
By comparison, Jones averaged 3.3 completions of 20 yards or more last season and 3.4 per game as he got his feet wet as a starter during his redshirt freshman season in 2009. Bell is averaging 1.6 per game including 1.3 in OU’s last four games. Even though OU’s offense has changed and he hasn't gotten the same opportunities Jones had in 2012, there have been big-play opportunities that Bell has misfired on.
“We need to get better,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “We feel like we’re still leaving yards on the field. We need to throw for a higher percentage and make more chunk [plays] down the field.”
Joining the lack of big passing plays, poor third-down conversion rate has been another focus for the Sooners this week. OU ranks 69th nationally, converting 39.4 percent of its third down conversion attempts and Bell’s 62.4 raw Total QBR on third down ranks ninth in the Big 12. With the Red Raiders on Saturday followed by Baylor on Nov. 7, the Sooners know their current offensive production won’t get it done if they hope to keep up with two of the nation’s highest scoring teams.
“We have to be better to beat the best teams in this league,” Norvell said.