NORMAN — Oklahoma was just starting to get used to playing without one of its key defensive leaders when it lost one of its most indispensable offensive players.
Trey Millard sustained a season-ending knee injury on a fourth-quarter kickoff during the Sooners’ 38-30 win over then-No. 10 Texas Tech on Saturday. No. 13 Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) will play at No. 5 Baylor (7-0, 4-0) on Nov. 7 without the versatile senior, a starting fullback who also has been used as a tight end and a wide receiver.
Now, just like the defense had to do when losing senior linebacker Corey Nelson to a season-ending injury in a win over TCU on Oct. 5, the offense must figure out how to operate without Millard, a player who Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has praised for four years.
Millard carried 17 times for 97 yards and one touchdown and caught 11 passes for 78 yards and another score this season, but those statistics belie his importance. He often was the lead blocker for Sooners’ tailbacks, including Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, who have combined to rush for 1,195 yards and eight touchdowns. The Sooners are averaging 234 yards rushing per game.
“When you watch all of those runs ... look who’s in front of them all the time knocking somebody down, clearing somebody out of the way,” Stoops said Monday. “Trey Millard is usually one of those guys out there in front of them clearing the path. He is consistently recognized as having a winning game, a great game with knockdowns, blocks, catching the ball, running the ball. He does so many things and plays so many positions. “
Millard’s loss won’t be felt just on offense. Stoops said Millard has been Oklahoma’s best special-teams player the past three years.
“Obviously, Trey is the best in the country at what he does and all the things he can do,” center Gabe Ikard said. “We’re just going to have to take the talents of a couple of guys. Hopefully combine them into something close to what Trey is capable of. We’ll see how that goes but we’ll be ready to go. We’ve got good players. There’s not another Trey Millard out there but we can take a couple of guys and make it work.”
During Stoops’ time as Oklahoma’s coach, the Sooners have had players who could play both fullback and tight end, such as J.D. Runnels and Brody Eldridge, but none were as good at it as Millard, Stoops said.
“You could hand him the ball out of a one-back set and feel good about it,” Stoops said. “Great hands, elusive out on the perimeter. We’re always looking for those type of guys to do those things, to block edges, to protect edges, to slip out on play action passes. They’re hard to find but we’re always searching for them. “
Millard’s absence likely will mean increased roles for junior fullback Aaron Ripkowski and senior tight end Brannon Green. Neither Ripkowski (a former walk-on) nor Green have yet to carry the ball or catch a pass this season, although Green played against Texas Tech after Millard’s injury and helped the Sooners on a late time-eating scoring drive that essentially clinched the win.
Green did have three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown (against UTEP) last season after transferring from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College.
“He played well,” Clay said of Green. “It was a tense situation because it was tight and we were only up by five with a lot of time left, especially with that offense. We had to continue to get first downs. Brannon came in and did a great job kicking the defensive end out and Rip did a great job blocking down. We kept hitting that power and we did a good job moving forward and pressing their defense and keeping that clock running.”
Despite losing Nelson and starting defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, and now Millard, for the season, the Sooners still are No. 10 in the latest Bowl Championship Series rankings and are tied for third in the conference behind Baylor and Texas, the team that beat the Sooners 36-20 on Oct. 12.
With “everything we’ve been through, it shows a lot,” safety Gabe Lynn said. “We’ve got guys with character and stuff like that, because we had huge losses, as far as like Corey, and now Trey and Jordan Phillips, and then the loss against Texas. But we’re still fighting. Some weeks, the offense might not look as good as it’s supposed to be. Some weeks the defense might not look that good, but each time we come back and we just keep getting better and better.”