Even after Gavin Sawchuk’s late surge, questions remain in Oklahoma’s run game

Even after Gavin Sawchuk’s late surge, questions remain in Oklahoma’s run game

In two moments, Sawchuk encapsulated the scope of problem and promise for the Sooners’ running game in a 31-29 win over UCF.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 21, 2023, 7:18pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 21, 2023, 7:18pm CDT

NORMAN — Gavin Sawchuk began the first start of his college career with a pair of gaffes and finished it with a keen piece of strategy .

In those two moments, the sophomore running back encapsulated the full scope of the Sooners’ sour, then sweet run game experience Saturday in the 31-29 win over UCF on Owen Field.

Let’s start at the end. OU clung to a 24-23 with a little over three minutes to play when Sawchuk shed a tackler and burst through the UCF defense with a clear path to the end zone.

Then he did something most running backs don’t have the time for on a scoring run. As he reached the 20-yard line, Sawchuk turned right and looked to his sideline for guidance.

“I wanted to be a team player,” Sawchuk said. “Sometimes there’s situations where you just want to slide down so you can take more time off the clock, help the defense out and don’t give the other team too much time.”

Sawchuk slowed his touchdown trot for the sideline peep, even long enough for UCF defender Jireh Wilson to catch up to him before finding his way into the end zone.

Did he make the right call?

“Well, I didn’t see anybody tell me to get down,” Sawchuk joked afterward. “So I went in.”

It proved to be the decisive score and the final salvo from an OU rushing attack that crawled through three quarters before carrying the Sooners to win No. 7.

“As the game wore on, to me, our competitive depth showed up just a little bit,” Brent Venables said. “We looked to be semi-fresh late in the game on a couple of those touchdown drives. We still had some juice to us.”

It lacked that juice early, grounding the Sooners offense to a near halt during the opening 45 minutes in their first meeting with the Knights (3-4). 

Seven games into 2023, OU has still not delivered a convincing rushing performance in a competitive contest.

“We still feel like we’ve got guys who are very capable,” said offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. “We have to continue to get more out of them and the entire unit.”

Facing a UCF defense that began the day ranked 122nd nationally against the run, Lebby dialed up 12 first-quarter run plays. They yielded the Sooners 23 yards (1.9 yards per carry). The second quarter offered marginal improvement with 34 yards on seven OU carries.

By the time the Sooners limped into halftime with 58 rushing yards on 19 attempts, more wide receivers (3) than running backs (2) had lined up in the backfield.

“(We’ve got to be better) sustaining blocks and running through some trash,” Venables said. “We’ve got to run with a little more power behind our pads and not let the first guy get us down.”

OU entered Saturday 77th nationally in yards per attempt. That Sooners were short handed Saturday in the backfield didn’t help.

Tawee Walker, OU’s leading rusher this fall, was absent in Week 8 through what Venables termed an “in-house” suspension. The walkon rusher is expected to return next weekend at Kansas.

Marcus Major was available Saturday and led the way with 18 carries for 82 yards while looking less than 100%. Venables confirmed postgame that the fifth-year running back is playing through a lingering shoulder issue. 

“He’s toughed it out and has done a great job of showing up,” he said of Major. “(He’s) not complaining. Being available and reliable when we need him.”

All of that left the Sooners depleted and set the table for Sawchuk to make his first start in an OU uniform. 

Hampered by a hamstring injury through the summer and into the fall, Sawchuk had logged only 18 carries on the season prior to Saturday, a small count compared to the 15 attempts he took for 100 yards in his breakout performance at the Cheez-It Bowl last December.

Any lingering rust showed on OU’s initial possession. 

Sawchuk bobbled the direct snap the Sooners called on second down and had to recover his own fumble for a five-yard loss. On the next pass, he dropped a screen pass from Dillon Gabriel that prompted the OU punt team.

If there was a representative in the Sooners’ tired start, it was Sawchuk.

“I think it was just slow for the whole team,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what it was but there was a lot of mistakes we were making. Just weren’t capitalizing on some of the opportunities that we did have.”

Running backs coach DeMarco Murray was waiting for Sawchuk on the sideline after the pair of errors.

“Calm down,” Sawchuk recalled him saying. “It’s a long game left. There’s a lot left.”

Sawchuk had seven yards rushing to his tally when the Sooners opened a drive from the 35 yard line trailing 23-17 with 11:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. Yet it was the second-year rusher OU chose to hand the ball to on the second play of the series.

Sawchuk picked up seven yards on that first carry, then added eight more on the next snap. He ran for another eight yards that took the Sooners across midfield. Those were the early chunk plays on the go-ahead scoring drive that saw 49 yards from OU rushers and ended with Drake Stoops’ 11-yard touchdown score.

“We continued to keep our head down,” Sawchuk said. “Keep grinding. Keep being disciplined as a team, trusting that eventually it’s going to open up. I think that’s what happened.”

Later in the quarter, OU was driving to put the game on ice and Sawchuk was running through the situational football scenarios the Sooners prep for during the week, thinking about whether to score if he broke free or to slide before the goal line.

Whatever conclusions he drew disappeared when he tore through UCF’s front line. So instead, Sawchuk looked to the sideline for guidance. He saw no one telling him to go down. 

A glimpse of graduate assistant Tanner Schafer celebrating was enough to keep him moving into the end zone for the points OU ultimately needed to outlast the Knights.

“Glad I made the right decision,” Sawchuk said of his first touchdown of the season.

With his late-burst, Sawchuk provided 59 of the Sooners’ 132 second-half rushing yards that pulled OU past UCF. In the end, the Sooners’ 189 ground yards ranked tied for their second best rushing output of the season.

Still, as OU keeps its sights on conference and national postseason contention, its running game remains an unmistakable question mark.

“You’d love to have one guy that you knew you were going to feed and go play ball with,” Lebby said.

Late Saturday, Sawchuk began to build his case. 

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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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