NORMAN — Brent Venables believes Oklahoma is preparing for a “line of scrimmage battle,” in Week 4.
That’s what the 16th-ranked Sooners are stepping into at 11 a.m. CDT (FOX) Saturday inside Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, the home turf where the Bearcats have lost only twice since Nov. 2017.
Waiting for OU (3-0) in the 2023 conference opener is a Cincinnati offense that features the nation’s eighth-ranked run game (239.3 yards per game) and a defensive line unit headlined by Dontay Corleone and Jowon Briggs, a pair of physical defensive tackles who landed on The Athletic’s preseason “College football Freaks List.”
“Make no mistake — it’s going to be a pretty strong challenge,” Venables said. “They’ve had plenty of really good teams come to their place the last five years and not have success.”
The Sooners’ coach spoke plenty on Tuesday about the Bearcats and the jump in competition OU will find this weekend. Here’s everything else you need to know from Venables’ pre-Cincinnati press conference:
Gabriel more settled: There are plenty of components to point to in explaining why Dillon Gabriel is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.
Given the opportunity this week both Venables and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby instead turned to the overall comfort the fifth-year passer is enjoying in his second season at OU.
“I think he’s in a comfort level right now that he wasn’t in this time last year,” said Lebby Monday morning.
Venables followed Tuesday with a similar appraisal for Gabriel, who begins Week 4 ranked first nationally in completion percentage and third-down passing, fourth in passing touchdowns and sixth in yards per attempt.
“I don’t know if he’s taken the pressure off himself but it looks like he’s having a lot more fun,” Venables said. “And that was prior to the start of the season. I think the group of guys around him — both players and coaches — everybody’s more comfortable just being in the system for another year.”
Arnold pushing Gabriel? Much has been made of the impact of Gabriel’s experience and mentorship he’s given Jackson Arnold and for good reason. The first-year backup quarterback has been talking about learning from Gabriel since Arnold was still a senior at Denton Guyer High School.
On Tuesday, the equation was flipped for Venables: is it possible the five-star freshman is pushing the veteran starter in front of him?
“I would expect so,” he said. “Competition should bring out the best in everyone if you’re made of the right stuff. I don’t think Dillon’s ever felt quote-unquote threatened. But he certainly knows that the young guy is watching him every day and is incredibly talented in his own right. So who doesn’t want to show off their own stuff?”
“At the same time, since I’ve known him, Dillon’s has not been a guy that’s looking over his shoulder either. He’s confident in his own skin and the process of what he needs to play at a high level.”
Injury report: Venables revealed during his weekly coaches show Monday night that cheetah linebacker Dasan McCullough (ankle) is expected to return at Cincinnati after missing two games.
Venables was less straightforward Tuesday on a handful of other injured Sooners. He used the term “hopeful” when asked about the availability of guard Savion Byrd, defensive backs Reggie Pearson and Jasiah Wagoner and defensive lineman R Mason Thomas.
On injured cheetah linebacker Justin Harrington (knee): “We’re still evaluating Harrington in particular about what his options might be.”
Venables later revealed that freshman Phil Picciotti and second-year defensive back Jayden Rowe will undergo season-ending surgeries.
A test for the O-line: The Bearcats have totaled 10 sacks through three games — more than all but 15 defenses nationally — and boast a powerful defensive line unit led by Corleone (seven tackles, two TFL, sack) and Briggs (five tackles, 2.5 TFL, sack).
It’ll surely make for the toughest challenge yet for this Sooners’ offensive line.
“They have really good players, Venables said. “They’re big, strong, physical, relentless. Love the way they play. As an admirer of good football, those guys get it done. It’s going to be a challenge. Mentally. Physically. Four hours of challenge. They’ve had great success at putting pressure on the quarterback.”
“They’re going to make some of their plays. You’re not going to keep them from making plays. Just keep them at a minimum. This is a game of matchups. This is not a game of potential or talking. We’re going to have to be doing it.
OU’s front five has held up well, allowing only one sack through 12 quarters. Questions hover at left guard where Savion Byrd and Troy Everett have each featured over the last two games.
“Offensive line has done a good job,” Venables said. “We’re one of the best in college football keeping the quarterback clean and have done a good job efficiently, rushing the football and helping in there.”
Anderson’s opportunity: Second-year wide receiver Nic Anderson became the first OU freshman to catch three touchdowns in one game with his hat trick at Tulsa. The three-score effort brought his count for the season to five catches for 188 yards as Anderson continues to find his place in the offense.
The brother of former Sooner Rodney Anderson was bogged down by injury a year ago. In 2023, Anderson is taking advantage of his early opportunities.
“He couldn’t get over that injury hump (last year) but he hung in there and kept working through it all,” Venables said. “So it’s great to see him have some success after everything he’s been through. He’s got a great future. He’s big. He’s long. He’s fast. He’s smart. He’s a good leader.”
Containing Emory Jones: The Sooners struggled with the dual-threat ability of Tulsa’s Cardell Williams after the redshirt freshman entered to replace Roman Fuller in Week 3. On Saturday, they’ll have to deal with another mobile quarterback for all four quarters when they run into Cincinnati’s Emory Jones.
“I think it’s important that you better be fundamentally sound in everything that you’re doing because this is a guy who can beat you both with his feet and his arm,” Venables said.
Jones, the former Florida and Arizona State quarterback, transferred to Cincinnati to play his sixth college season. He’s completed 66.3% of his passes for 735 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions to go with 144 rushing yards and three ground scores on 40 attempts through three games.
“He can throw the ball a country mile and he can pull it down and take it the distance at any time,” Venables said. “He’s a really dangerous player. At the same time, you’ve got to stay within your scheme and your philosophy. We’ve got a great challenge. There’s no doubt about it. The things that he can do and the headaches that he can cause, his ability to improvise is a tough thing to simulate.”