Returning to the basics, the Sooners got their groove back against West Virginia

Returning to the basics, the Sooners got their groove back against West Virginia

OU snapped its two-game skid and regained its confidence Saturday doing all the things that powered the Sooners’ early-season success.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Nov 12, 2023, 8:00am CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Nov 12, 2023, 8:00am CST

NORMAN — The lights went out on Drake Stoops moments after his third touchdown catch Saturday night, not because of the thorough hit West Virginia’s Anthony Wilson laid on him, but because that’s what happens when you score a night-time touchdown at Owen Field.

By the time Stoops could see again, there was a near-brawl unfolding around him in the north end zone. 

Stoops didn’t know yet that Wilson had stood over him after the hard shot, or that Dillon Gabriel, Jalil Farooq and a collection of Oklahoma teammates had arrived in seconds to take on the 11 Mountaineers on the field, prompting a full-blown, flag-flying fracas right as the Sooners’ lead grew to 52-20.

“He licked me pretty good,” said Stoops, who registered a career-high 164 yards on 10 catches Saturday.

“I didn’t know that he had stood over me after,” he continued. “Knowing that, I’m not surprised at all that my teammates came because I couldn’t really get off the ground at that moment.”

The early fourth-quarter flare-up was one of the representative team moments on the night the 17th-ranked Sooners (8-2, 5-2 Big 12) got their groove back in a 59-20 win over West Virginia. 

Nursing the wounds of consecutive losses that shifted the trajectory of OU’s season, Brent Venables spent the week emphasizing the importance of executing the basics. On Saturday, in front of a home crowd for the first time in 21 days, the Sooners returned to the things that made them hum earlier this fall to power their biggest conference win of the season. In the process, OU came away with a critical victory and a win that breathed life back into their Big 12 title hopes.

The fight OU showed in its end zone defense of Stoops was one of those elements. Here’s eight more from a night that saw the Sooners look a whole lot more like themselves:

1) Dillon Gabriel on the ground: It was quite an evening for the fifth-year passer.

Gabriel became the first OU player to account for eight touchdowns in a single game Saturday. He also entered the top 10 on the NCAA’s all-time career passing yards list with a third-quarter connection with Stoops.

Gabriel’s work on the ground stood out though. 

The Sooners are at their best when Gabriel is using his feet and that element has been missing in recent weeks (see: four carries against Oklahoma State). On Saturday, Gabriel picked up 50 yards on 11 carries with three rushing scores and the offense looked as good as it has all season.

2) Stogner involvement: Tight ends are a critical piece of coordinator Jeff Lebby’s offense, even if the first nine games of Austin Stogner’s season didn’t suggest it. 

It all flipped in Game No. 10. Stogner was involved early and often, starting with a 23-yard reception on OU’s first scoring drive. He scored the first touchdown of his second stint with the Sooners in the second quarter and closed with 69 yards on four catches.

OU is better when it has tight ends involved. It showed against West Virginia.

Gallery: OU’s 59-20 victory over West Virginia in pictures

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3) Sawchuk surge: Finally, the Gavin Sawchuk we saw in the Cheez-It Bowl has arrived.

The sophomore running back delivered energy out of the backfield for a fourth straight week, carrying 22 times for 135 yards (6.1 yards per carry), including a 30-yard gain on the first of the Sooners’ eight scoring drives. 

“He’s hitting his stride,” said Lebby.

It’s taken until the second weekend of November, but OU appears to have its answer in the backfield.

4) Anderson delivers: Nic Anderson has been plenty productive. In fact, he entered Saturday leading the nation with his 25.7 yards per reception.

Still, consistency has eluded the redshirt freshman, and the dips were particularly pronounced in OU’s losses to Kansas and OSU. He rebounded against the Mountaineers to the tune of four catches for 119 yards on six targets.

Everything about the Sooners’ offense seems to go better when Anderson is on his game. It certainly did Saturday.

5) Turnovers and penalties: They’re the simple things that play a heavy role in winning and losing.

Between its two defeats this fall, OU committed exactly half of its turnovers for the season and nearly 30% of its penalties. Those were not winning recipes.

The Sooners didn’t serve up an offensive turnover against West Virginia — the lone blunder arrived on Gavin Freeman’s muffed punt — and OU waited until there were 73 seconds remaining in the first half to commit its first penalty. After they were flagged 19 times in their previous two games, the Sooners had only four, non-unsportsmanlike conduct penalties Saturday.

“When you’re not turning the ball over and not having a lot of pre-snap issues,” Venables said. “good things can happen when you play your butt off, have great effort, great attitude.”

6) Lebby redemption: Stoops said it well: “He called a tremendous game tonight,”

The noise around the Sooners’ second-year coordinator had continued to escalate post-Bedlam. Even his own head coach didn’t help matters.

Well, Lebby unleashed the full Rolodex on the Mountaineers and called one of his finest games at OU, guiding the Sooners to a season-high 644 yards of total offense. 

As for the mounting criticism that subsided at least momentarily in Week 11?

“That noise has no effect on my day-to-day,” Lebby said. “It takes none of my focus, my energy, my joy, what I’m trying to get done with our unit and our guys every single day. I’m not a part of it.”

7) Stutsman and Lewis: About an hour after the game Saturday, Brent Venables summed up the importance of Danny Stutsman’s return to the heart of the defense.

“No matter what the coach says or how good the redshirt freshman does that’s coming in his place, Danny, there’s a real emotional lift that you get when he’s out there,” he said. “The toughness, and he loves to play, loves his teammates, loves to compete. I think he brings out the best in people when he’s out there.”

Pairing Stutsman with sophomore Kip Lewis, OU had a linebacker tandem that combined for 15 tackles and set the pace for a defense that produced stops on 11 of its last 13 series after West Virginia’s scoring drive on the opening possession.

8) Goal-line stand: Speaking of that defense, how about another goal-line stand?

This wasn’t the valiant effort at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 7. But defending the very same end zone where Jaren Kanak’s penalty blew up a potential goal line stand against UCF last month, OU stonewalled the Mountaineers before halftime.

The stop held significance in the game itself. In the scheme of a Sooners team seeking to regain confidence, the moment felt even bigger.

“In the critical situations, we’ve, for a good part of the year, we’ve responded,” Venables said. “Shows to the grit and the toughness that our guys have, the belief, the leadership.”

Principally, Saturday night’s victory stopped the bleeding for OU. 

It steered the Sooners clear of their second three-game skid in two seasons. It restored faith in the progress being made in Year 2 of the Venables era. On a day OU got help elsewhere in the conference, it kept the Sooners’ Big 12 title game hopes flickering for at least another week.

Most of all, doing all the things OU did well early in the season got the Sooners back in their groove as they stare down two remaining regular season games starting at BYU next Saturday (11 a.m., ABC or ESPN).

All of that felt good, even to the guy who got the wind knocked out of him. 

“It felt great to be out there executing against and to have some success,” Stoops said. “It’s fun to ball with your brothers.”

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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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