Sharp showings from Dillon Gabriel and Gavin Freeman. An impressive debut by Jackson Arnold. Questions about the pass rush and positive signs from Gentry Williams’ first career start.
NORMAN — Oklahoma rolled past Arkansas State 73-0 Saturday afternoon to open the Sooners’ account for 2023. Let’s talk about it.
Quarterbacks: Dillon Gabriel began his second season at OU with a sharp and incisive performance. He hit Andrel Anthony for a 45-yard gain on the opening drive, then found Drake Stoops for a 10-yard touchdown one play later.
Gabriel added another passing score to Gavin Freeman and a five-yard rushing touchdown before exiting at halftime having gone 19-of-22 for 308 yards and three total touchdowns.
Jackson Arnold’s OU debut came on the first series after halftime and he completed all four of his passes on the 10-play, 65-yard scoring drive. The five-star freshman recorded the first passing touchdown on a 21-yard connection with Jayden Gibson on the ensuing drive. He added a seven-yard rushing score on the next series and finished 11-of-11 for 114 yards through the air.
Running backs: OU delivered on the expectation of backfield rotation in the opener.
Indeed, Tawee Walker got the start. The junior college walkon carried eight times for 44 yards and punched in the first Division I touchdown less than three minutes into the second quarter. He ran in another goal line score on the Sooners initial drive after halftime and closed the day as OU’s most impressive runner out of the backfield.
Marcus Major followed in the order with nine carries for 31 yards and his eighth career rushing touchdown. Second-year rusher Jovantae Barnes finished as the Sooners’ leading rusher with 13 attempts for 49 yards.
Of note, sophomore Gavin Sawchuk was in uniform but did not feature Saturday. Freshmen Kalib Hicks (two attempts, 15 yards, touchdown) and Daylan Smothers (six attempts, 14 yards) contributed in their second half opportunities.
Pass Catchers: Anthony, the speedy Michigan transfer, was most often found in the Arkansas State secondary a step or four ahead of the nearest defender. He delivered a strong opening audition as a downfield playmaker with three catches for 66 yards in his Sooners debut.
Drake Stoops began his sixth year on campus with a 10-yard touchdown score and was OU’s most productive receiver (four catches, 56 yards) before exiting with a first-quarter shoulder injury. He was later spotted on the sideline with his right shoulder in a sling.
Freeman’s play of the day came on special teams (more on that later) but he did plenty to assert his role in the passing game with four catches, including his first-quarter receiving score.
Gibson made perhaps the two finest catches of the day — a lunging 33-yard reception and a 21-yard touchdown grab courtesy of Arnold. Fellow second-year pass catcher Nic Anderson had the longest play of the day with his 52-yard reception before halftime.
Much-discussed freshman Jaquaize Pettway gave a standout second half performance with nine catches for 56 yards after the break.
All told, 10 players logged a catch in OU’s first crack at sorting its wide receiver depth.
Tight end Austin Stogner was not targeted Saturday. Texas A&M transfer Blake Smith caught one pass for 28 yards.
Offensive line: As expected, the Sooners starting front went Walter Rouse, Savion Byrd, Andrew Raym, McKade Mettauer and Tyler Guyton, from left to right. Guyton was flagged for holding and Byrd picked up a false start but the unit kept the quarterbacks upright in a sturdy season debut.
Appalachian State transfer Troy Everett and sophomore Jake Taylor were among the reserves who featured before halftime.
Defensive line: If there was a major critique to be found in the Sooners’ 2023 opener it was in the pass rush.
Rondell Bothroyd, Trace Ford, Jonah Laulu and Da’jon Terry took the first series in a completely changed starting front line from a year ago and a handful of other defensive linemen rotated in throughout the afternoon. Yet the Sooners went without a sack until Ethan Downs’ fourth-quarter take down and logged only a pair of hurries against a retooled Red Wolves offensive line.
It’s a small sample size. But questions persist over OU’s unit up front.
Linebackers: Danny Stutsman picked up where he left off in his place most active Sooners defenders. His four tackles finished tied for the team lead with sophomore Kobie McKinzie.
Jaren Kanak and Kip Lewis tallied three tackles each in a pair of impressive sophomore debuts while Ferris State transfer Konnor Near and freshman Lewis Carter were among who saw their first action in an OU uniform.
Justin Harrington (two tackles, QB pressure) and Dasan McCullough (pass breakup) both authored good starts in the cheetah position. McCullough exited with an injury before halftime and later stood on the sidelines with his left foot in a boot.
Secondary: Arkansas State recorded three plays of 20 or more yards. All three came against the Sooners’ secondary. Two of them came with Woodi Washington in coverage.
The unit’s highlight came in the third quarter on Peyton Bowen’s strip recovered by Kani Walker. Gentry Williams’ made three tackles to lead all Sooners defensive backs in his first career start.
Special teams: Brent Venables has said he’d like OU to be better on special teams in 2023. He surely would have loved Freeman’s 82-yard punt return touchdown 2:22 into the action.
Kicker Zach Smith drilled his lone field goal attempt — a 21-yarder with 37 seconds before halftime — and was perfect on PATs in the opener.
Some early insight into the mystery surrounding OU’s punting situation came in the fourth quarter when Josh Plaster booted the Sooners’ first punt of the day 50 yards for a fair catch. We’ll see if Central Michigan transfer gets shot in Week 2 against SMU.