CINCINNATI – Oklahoma was uneven on offense and missed some tackles on defense, but there was no apologizing for winning 20-6 at Cincinnati Saturday. Not on a team that remembers how sour the season turned at this time a year ago.
Reason to feel better about the past: A year ago OU was 3-1 headed to TCU for a tricky Big 12 road opener. Dillon Gabriel completed 7 of 16 passes before getting knocked out of the game on a nasty hit. OU was never in the game even with Gabriel, falling behind 41-17 at halftime before bowing 55-24. TCU torched an OU defense that looked pretty stout over that 3-0 nonconference start, rolling up 361 passing yards and another 301 on the ground.
The Sooners were 3-0 headed to Cincinnati Saturday for a tricky conference opener, the Bearcats primed for their first Big 12 game. Gabriel went 26-of-38 for 322 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions while toughing out a 1-yard touchdown for some 17-6 breathing room. The defense limited UC to two field goals over 12 possessions. The Bearcats went 3-of-15 on third down, 1-of-4 on fourth and got no points out of two trips to OU’s red zone.
The Sooners have holes they need to patch to think very big this season. Saturday, at least, showed us they have patched enough from last year to feel confident about a better Big 12 showing than 3-6, a year-old plunge that began with that setback at TCU.
Reason to worry about the future: Saturday showed us the repair work ahead for this year’s staff must begin at the line of scrimmage.
Cincinnati sacked Gabriel twice, a number OU can live with. The Bearcats held OU’s run game to 119 yards on 32 carries. That’s a 3.7-yard-per-carry average that the Sooners can’t live with. Not if they feel like contending for a Big 12 championship. It’s a number that should have the full attention of offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
OU’s defensive line contained Cincinnati fine, but didn’t make many plays in the Bearcats’ backfield. That was mostly left to linebackers Danny Stutsman and Jaren Kanak.
The hope was for more playmaking by that defensive line as OU entered Big 12 play, the opposite of what occurred last year. By virtue of Saturday’s win, the Sooners aren’t there yet.
Coach who can put up his feet and crack a beer — Ted Roof, OU’s linebackers coach and defensive coordinator: Stutsman and Kanak locked in on Emory Jones, Cincinnati’s troublesome dual-threat quarterback, from the first series. They played the biggest role in keeping Jones’ impact minimal; he went 22-of-41 through the air and totaled 42 yards on 15 runs.
The twin linebackers are instinctive, natural defenders. They are also being very well-coached.
Coach headed straight back to the film room — DeMarco Murray, OU running backs coach: The Sooners trimmed their running back rotation to two Saturday. Marcus Major carried 15 times for 63 yards. Tawee Walker ran it 5 times for 15 yards and caught a pair of passes for another 27. No Jovantae Barnes or Gavin Sawchuk.
And still no obvious favorite as a go-to back when the Sooners need 2 yards on third down.
In fact, there was no running back anywhere in OU’s formation to open the second half. When Gabriel brought in someone to join him in the backfield before his second snap, it was tight end Austin Stogner.
Gabriel hit Jayden Gibson for 21 yards on that snap. That shows OU can run smooth offense regardless of its backfield.
It also symbolizes the fact that the Sooners are still seeking answers at a position they don’t typically have to worry about.
SportsCenter highlight — Gabriel’s decision touchdown: OU led 10-6 with three minutes left in Saturday’s third quarter, Gabriel taking the ball on second-and-goal from the Cincinnati 1. He faked to Walker and kept the ball headed right, and right into crowded traffic.
Bearcats linebacker Ken Willis was in the backfield, but Gabriel broke his tackle pretty easily. Safety Bryon Threats and linebacker Daniel Grzesiak arrived next and converged on Gabriel as the 204-pound quarterback kept surging toward the end zone.
Then Walker arrived to join the pile with his back to the end zone. Walker even reached in to grab both Gabriel and the ball, and pulled both his quarterback and the ball into the end zone, the QB still carrying Threats and Grzesiak with him.
It took two hours and nearly three quarters, but the Sooners finally established a physical offensive presence, and it delivered a 17-6 lead one drive after UC had cut it to 10-6.
Name to remember — Defensive end Reggie Grimes: Grimes, a 15-game starter the past two seasons, has been overshadowed this year by others on OU’s defensive front. He came into Saturday’s game with one tackle, and he made just one against Cincinnati.
It was a big one, though, and a sign that this is no time to discard him from the defensive depth chart.
Jones kept the ball on third-and-2 from the OU 20-yard line very late in the third quarter, UC down 17-6 but driving. Grimes was the first Sooner to meet Jones at the line of scrimmage. Tackle Isaiah Coe arrived. Jones stopped moving forward.
Jones threw incomplete on the ensuing fourth-and-2, and that pretty much finished off the Bearcats’ offense.
Perfectly put — Brent Venables on the OU defense: “Our guys have been really solid and getting better. Really proud of their work and their commitment and willingness to practice the right way. But our guys know we’re nowhere close.”
Could you repeat that? OU linebacker and Cincinnati native Dasan McCullough on Cincy delicacy Skyline Chili: “Skyline Chili is top-1 for me. I want some right now. I want some when I leave here. I tried to tell (Venables) about it, but I don’t think he’s into it.”