In Venables' Sooner opener, three plays told the biggest story
Oklahoma's 45-13 victory over UTEP closer than it appeared and still there were big signs the program's headed in a better direction under its new coach
Given the way it began, the temptation to assert it could not have gone any better for Sooner coach Brent Venables’ on-field debut is strong.
Though it finished 45-13, Oklahoma was on top of the team formerly known as Texas-El Paso 21-0 not nine minutes into it.
Though that pace failed to continue the length of the first half and beyond, the 32-point victory made possible by Zach Schmit’s 22-yard field goal with 5:17 remaining and Gentry Williams’ end-zone interception with 18 seconds remaining meant OU covered the spread by a point, which is nice, as was a bunch other stuff, too.
Like UTEP hitting halftime with negative 19 rushing yards and finishing with 25 on 31 carries.
Like six Sooner sacks of Miner quarterback Gavin Hardison and three other tackles for loss.
Like Eric Gray running for 102 yards on 16 carries, breaking the century mark for the first time as a Sooner.
Like OU averaging 17.6 yards per snap in the first half and, coasting home, 8.1 for the game.
So much good stuff, it may appear the Sooners flat ran over the Miners, that it was always easy, never a game and OU wasn’t merely good but a machine.
That would be wrong.
For a bit, it was very much a game.
OU led 21-0 in a blur, yet after that UTEP held the ball for 15 plays, getting on the board with a 48-yard field goal from Gavin Baechle.
OU then went three-and-out, going backward after facing third-and-1 at its own 34.
The Miners then held the ball for 15 plays and and made it 21-10 and OU went three-and-out again.
Suddenly, UTEP was within 11 points, 7:14 in the first half remained and the Miners had the ball at their own 43 looking to make it 21-17 by intermission knowing it would begin the third quarter with the ball … and that, ladies and gents, is a real football game.
Also, Michael Turk’s 39-yard punt that gave the Miners the ball at their own 43? That only happened because Turk leaped high enough to snare the snap and save a safety, after which he hurried what became a puny punt.
So OU was challenged.
Maybe that cheapens the victory.
Maybe it elevates it, because UTEP didn’t score again until the fourth quarter, and only then because Baechle came through with a 54-yard field goal like he was Gabe Brkic or something.
Or maybe none of that was nearly as important as three plays, all in the first half, that told a much bigger story.
• No. 1:
UTEP, third-and-16 at its own 26, Gavin Hardison found Reynaldo Flores for 3 yards. Officially, David Ugwoegbu and DaShaun White got credit for the stop.
But those who followed the play to its conclusion know Ugwoegbu and White were only 40 percent of the Sooners in on it.
Joining Ugwoegbu and White were Danny Stutsman, Billy Bowman and Marcus Stripling.
Watching the replay and writing down numbers I came up with Ugwoegbu last, which doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve the credit, only that all five arrived quickly and when did that ever happen a year ago, two years ago, five years ago? When did almost half the Sooner defense last bring down an opposing receiver for a gain of 3?
• No. 2:
Gavin Freeman — son of old Sooner tight end Jason Freeman, without whom one of John Blake’s 12 victories, 10-9 at TCU, Sept. 12, 1998, never would have happened, the elder Freeman turning a Horned Frog interception into a Sooner fumble recovery on the very same play — on a reverse, went 46 yards down the right side and sideline, capping OU’s original onslaught.
What the boxscore does not reveal about Freeman’s scamper is, at 5-foot-8, 173 pounds and a true freshman out of Heritage Hall, five different Miners might have brought him down but didn’t.
Cornerback Ilijah Johnson made first contact, knocking him off balance. Linebacker Tyrice Knight and safety Kobe Hylton had the angle, but Freeman lowered a shoulder and bounced away. He then ran through the arms of linebacker Jerome Wilson before nickelback Dennis Barnes offered a final shove, failing to put him out of bounds short of the pylon.
Maybe we saw Kennedy Brooks or Rhamondre Stevenson do something like that, but a 5-8, 170, true freshman?
• No. 3:
In the second quarter, UTEP facing third-and-24 at its own 29, Hardison found Walter Dawn for a gain of 6. Justin Broiles and Jaden Davis got credit for the stop.
It wasn’t as simultaneous as the first item on this list, yet by the time Dawn was down for good, six Sooners were on the scene helping. Broiles and Davis, yes, but Bowman, Ugwoegbu, Jalen Redmond and Lawrence Key as well.
More than half the Sooner defense.
Sure, we saw something similar only a quarter earlier, yet prior to that, who knows?
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For that matter, who knows what happens to OU going forward either.
It’s just one game.
So, good for Gray breaking 100, but 6-and-change per pop isn’t so great against the Miners … Dillon Gabriel impressed, but not overly, 15-of-23 accuracy fine for an opener against against mediocrity, but not likely enough against Baylor, Oklahoma State or Texas … Good for getting Marvin Mims and Drake Stoops involved from the beginning, proving first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby maintains a keen grasp of the obvious … That and making tight end Brayden Willis — three catches, two TDs — an early factor should pay dividends the rest of the season.
But that trio of plays?
It’s just one game, but it would appear Venables’ culture is breaking through on the field, too, and of all the signs Saturday presented, it was the prize.