Eli’s OU rundown: Three things that intrigue me about Oklahoma at Tulsa

Eli’s OU rundown: Three things that intrigue me about Oklahoma at Tulsa

Is this the week the OU backfield gets going? Who starts at left guard? Injury doubts at the cheetah linebacker position.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Sep 15, 2023, 11:00am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Sep 15, 2023, 11:00am CDT

NORMAN — Oklahoma hits the road for the first time in 2023 as a 29-point favorite at Tulsa Saturday afternoon (2:30 p.m., ESPN2). Let’s talk about it.

What’s at stake

It’s not often you talk about a proverbial “get-right game” following a 17-point win. But the 19th-ranked Sooners (2-0) head to Tulsa with plenty of things to get right. 

That’s because last Saturday’s win against SMU was a mixed bag. OU showed mettle it seldom possessed a year ago in the fourth-quarter efforts of a defense that clamped down and an offense that produced timely scoring drives in the 28-11 victory. Yet only time will tell on the legitimacy of this Sooners’ defense.  Concerns remain around Jeff Lebby’s offense with its still-loading run game, an aerial attack searching for consistency and an offensive line that struggled in Week 2. 

“You need to be consistently consistent, if that makes sense,” left tackle Walter Rouse said this week. “This week we got a tough Tulsa team. Then Cincinnati next week. And then a real first test with Iowa State, so we have to pick it up. We got to do better.”

Rouse was speaking specifically about the offensive line. He could have been talking about OU on the whole. 

Saturday’s visit to a sold out H.A. Chapman Stadium gives the Sooners an opportunity to get some things right before Big 12 play kicks off at Cincinnati on Sept. 23.

Three things that intrigue me

Getting the running backs going: Whether you prefer the box score, advanced metrics or the eye-test, the reality is clear: walkon Tawee Walker has been OU’s best running back through two games.

Go figure.

Here’s how the running back production broke down against SMU:

  • Walker: 21 carries, 117 yards, 5.5 YPG
  • Rest of the OU backfield: 15 carries, 56 yards, 3.7 YPG

Walker has been the Sooners’ surest thing out of the backfield. It’s time for the rest — Marcus Major, Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk, primarily — to catch up. 

“We have four guys who have incredible trust with the entire staff and I think can play at any given time,” Lebby said. “The stress, I think, is being able to get 2 and 27 going as they’ve worked themselves into being in a really good position.”

“2 and 27” refers to Barnes and Sawchuk. The sophomore duo combined for three total carries a week ago. It sounds like OU plans to get both more involved on the road this weekend.

Offensive line bounceback: Sooners offensive linemen were flagged three times against SMU, including Tyler Guyton’s ineligible man downfield penalty that nullified a Major touchdown reception. OU’s 4.0 yards per carry fell a full yard short of the unit’s declared goal of 5.0. And starting left guard Savion Byrd found himself on the bench, replaced by Appalachian State transfer Troy Everett after allowing SMU’s lone sack. 

Rouse and McKade Mettauer made it clear that the group fell short of the standard in conversations with reporters.

“With the type of program that I believe we can be, and the type of program that I know all the coaches know we can be, I just think we could’ve done a lot better,” Rouse said. 

The starting left guard spot is one to watch after neither one of Byrd or Everett delivered fully convincing performances.

Cheetah woes: Between Justin Harrington and Dasan McCullough, OU’s two-deep at the cheetah linebacker spot is a shining example of the sturdier competitive depth the Sooners are supposed to have this fall. Yet both of the hybrid defenders enter Week 3 with injury concerns.

Brent Venables said Tuesday that Harrington is “still banged up” from the leg injury he picked up in the win over SMU. McCullough, who suited up but did not play, is also questionable to return at Tulsa. “Hopeful” is the word Venables used.

Should the Sooners be without one or both of Harrington and McCullough, eyes turn to freshman Peyton Bowen and veteran safety Reggie Pearson to rotate in at cheetah against the Golden Hurricane. 

One things from the opposing locker room

Kevin Wilson and Co. get set to host the Sooners with uncertainty hovering at quarterback.

Braylon Braxton is still dealing with the ankle he suffered in the first quarter of Tulsa’s Aug. 31 opener and Cardell Williams injured his hand in last weekend’s 43-10 loss to No. 8 Washington.

The statuses of both quarterbacks are unclear headed into Saturday. Junior Roman Fuller went 12-for-18 for 85 yards and a touchdown after Williams exited at Washington. 

“I mean we need to see,” Wilson said this week. “Roman (Fuller) came in and played well. “Cardell came in the first game and played well. Kirk Francis, too. We’ll have a guy out there.”

Something to watch

To the list of things Dillon Gabriel must improve on in 2023 — accuracy, situational downs, etc. — let’s add consistency. The fifth-year passer torched Arkansas State in an accurate showing on Sept. 2. Last Saturday, Gabriel accounted for all four OU touchdowns. Broadly speaking, it’s been a good start.

Consistency, however, has eluded Gabriel. After completing 19-of-22 passes for 308 yards against Arkansas State, that sharpness dropped in a 19-for-27, 176-yard showing in the SMU win.

The game-to-game dip bears a resemblance to the pattern Gabriel charted in 2022. Here are some stats my Sellout Crowd’s Guerin Emig turned up from last fall:

  • Kansas State: 26-of-39, 330 yards, 4 TDs; TCU: 7-of-16, 126 yards, 0 TD
  • Kansas: 29-of-42, 403 yards, 2 TD, 1 Int; Iowa State: 15-of-26, 148 yards, 1 TD
  • Texas Tech: 28-of-40, 449 yards, 6 TDs; Florida State: 14-of-24, 243 yards, 1 TD

Those games account for more than one third of Gabriel’s starts in an OU uniform. The Sooners need steadier production. 

A prediction

I don’t do game predictions … so I’ll say Peyton Bowen finishes with eight-plus tackles. 

The coveted five-star freshman is exceeding expectations as a central playmaker in the secondary and on special teams across Weeks 1 and 2. More opportunities could be waiting for Bowen in Tulsa with uncertainty over Harrington and McCullough’s availability.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof summed up Bowen’s early performances this way: “We’ve learned that football really makes sense to him. He’s very instinctive. He’s got a lot of pride in his performance. The moment’s not too big for him. Just put me in coach. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. He’s that guy. He’s got a high ceiling and a really bright future.”

Share with your crowd
Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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