The rest of Oklahoma’s 2023 season begins Saturday with an afternoon visit to Nippert Stadium.
CINCINNATI — The host Cincinnati Bearcats have only two losses at Nippert Stadium since Nov. 2017, most recently a 31-24, overtime loss to Miami (Ohio) last weekend. Oklahoma (3-0) kicks off conference play on the road with the Bearcats Saturday.
Let’s talk about it.
What’s at stake
All the talk about the 16th-ranked Sooners being different this fall? We’ll behind to find out how real it is in Cincinnati.
OU took care of business in nonconference play and often looked good doing it. The Sooners discarded Arkansas State and Tulsa by a combined margin of 122 points and showed renewed fight in the fourth-quarter surge against SMU in Week 2.
Now the real tests come.
Cincinnati (2-1) has a mobile quarterback in Emory Jones and a run game (239.3 YPG – 8th nationally) to test OU’s defense. Week 4 also provides another chance for Dillon Gabriel to reinforce his improvement in 2023 and for the backfield to sort itself out.
We’re about to find out what this Sooners team, favored by 14.5 points by BetMGM, is really made of.
Three things that intrigue me
Offensive balance? Is this the week OU figures out the running game? I’m not sure it has to be.
The Sooners who led the Big 12 in rushing attempts last fall averaged just 4.3 per carry across the nonconference slate. Among Tawee Walker, Marcus Major, Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk, it’s the junior college walkon who has delivered the most convincing performance to date, but none have kick started the rushing offense.
OU is running the ball on 56.7% of its snaps and maybe that number can stay the same. But there’s no reason the Sooners shouldn’t lean all the way into Dillon Gabriel and the passing game success OU has found with an improved wide receiving corps.
How Jeff Lebby and the Sooners approach the conference opener will be telling of how OU plans to proceed.
Who starts at left guard? The Sooners haven’t had consistency to the left of senior center Andrew Raym since the first quarter of the SMU game.
Savion Byrd got benched that night after allowing OU’s only sack of the season, replaced by Appalachian State transfer Troy Everett. Byrd started the Week 3 win at Tulsa but exited with an undisclosed injury, leaving Everett and freshman Cayden Green to rotate in at the left guard spot.
Brent Venables included Byrd this week among the players he’s “hopeful” might participate at Cincinnati. If Byrd is out, the Sooners could turn back to the more experienced Everett or Green, the 6-foot-5, 316-pound, temporarily converted tackle.
McCullough’s return: Venables expects cheetah linebacker Dasan McCullough to return in Week 4.
That’s important considering the uncertain status of cheetah Justin Harrington (knee).
“We’re still evaluating Harrington in particular about what his options might be,” Venables said Tuesday.
McCullough’s return is also important because the Indiana transfer is going to be important to this OU defense.
The ankle injury he picked up in Week 1 has limited McCullough to only two snaps so far. At full strength, he’s a potential game-changer for the Sooners and a first look could come Saturday.
One thing from the opposing locker room
Mobile quarterbacks have been a thorn in OU’s side in recent seasons. The Sooners face another in Week 4.
The Bearcats are averaging 525 yards per game and Jones — the former Florida and Arizona State passer — represents an extra threat to a defense that conceded three straight scoring drives when dual-threat quarterback Cardell Williams entered for Tulsa last week.
“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 of Jones.
The Sooners have seen Jones once before. OU limited him to 8-of-16 for 86 passing yards and 60 yards on the ground with a rushing score in a 55-20 win over Florida in the 2020 Cotton Bowl.
“I just remember he’s a pretty good quarterback,” said cornerback Woodi Washington. “Runs the ball well. Throws the ball well. We’re in for a fight this game.”
A quote I liked this week
Emmett Jones’ wide receiver room has gone from question mark to the Sooners most impressive position group in three games.
Second-year pass catcher Jayden Gibson revealed the unit’s nickname and outlined its identity following Tuesday night’s practice session:
“We go by ether. That’s what our identity is. Coach Jones goes by ether. Anything ether touches, it’s death. Killing. Straight murder, ya feel me? That’s the identity of the receiver room. It’s our group chat name. It’s everything. It’s not just a name or a theme. It’s how we go about practice. Especially myself, it’s what I pride myself on. I feel like my teammates would say the same thing.”
“I don’t care about friendships in the game,” he continued. “I don’t care about who like me or don’t like me. When we’re on the field, it’s straight ether. Everybody has to get it. Coach Jones brought that whole mentality to the receiver room. That was an easy question. That’s our identity. Ether. Look it up.”
I don’t do game predictions … so I’ll say Jalil Farooq goes for over 100 yards and nabs another touchdown in Week 4.
The junior wide receiver broke out for six catches on six targets for 126 yards and a 34-yard touchdown at Tulsa. He remains the Sooners’ most athletic pass catcher. Look to Farooq for another big Saturday in Cincinnati.