NORMAN — Oklahoma’s offense awoke just in time to pull ahead, then the defense made one last timely play to nail down a 31-29 victory over UCF Saturday.
“Win and move on,” one fan said on his way down the Owen Field concourse.
The Sooners head to Kansas 7-0. Barely.
Reason to feel better about the past: Another step forward for the defense
That sounds strange given UCF pierced OU for an 86-yard touchdown pass, and then a 75-yard touchdown drive to pull within 31-29 with 1:16 remaining. The Sooners overran some tackles and dropped some coverages.
But they also held a top-5 FBS offense 120 yards under its average, and defended the game’s most important play — UCF’s 2-point try after that 75-yard TD drive — perfectly.
OU divided 13 tackles for lost yardage among 13 different defenders. Ethan Downs, Jordan Kelley and Peyton Bowen sacked UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee.
The Sooners didn’t intercept a QB known to throw a few picks. They forced no turnovers, something that might have helped an offense that was off stride until the fourth quarter.
Still, the defense kept OU in a game it could not have won last year. Because the defense was in full retreat by this time last year.
Reason to worry about the future: Andrel Anthony’s season-ending injury
Nic Anderson got behind UCF’s coverage for 42- and 29-yard touchdown catches. So that’s two fairly deep balls for 14 important points.
And yet in OU’s first game since losing Anthony against Texas, Dillon Gabriel and his receivers had to work really hard to make things happen.
UCF defenders stuck to receivers more often than anticipated, forcing Gabriel into more dump-offs and check-downs than expected. He had far more completions for single-digit yardage than double. The offense felt out of sync as a result.
You wouldn’t think the absence of one receiver could cause that, especially with a receiving corps as deep as OU’s. Anderson’s future is so bright that he could fill Anthony’s void and then some by the time the postseason arrives.
As it stands today, it looks like Gabriel, Jeff Lebby and the OU offense face a tougher transition without Anthony than we imagined.
Coach who can put up his feet and crack a beer: OU tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley
The Sooners had 115 rushing yards through three quarters, when Gavin Sawchuk, Marcus Major, Jalil Farooq and Gavin Freeman all took handoffs for an offense trying to get a run-game foothold. That Sawchuk and Major were finally able to do so down the stretch wasn’t just a tribute to them.
Don’t forget the contributions of tight end Austin Stogner.
On the touchdown drive that put OU in front 24-23, Stogner got wide along with Drake Stoops to clear a path for Major to gain 13 yards to the UCF 24. The play was a swing pass but went down in the books as a run because Gabriel flipped the pass backwards.
After Gabriel threw incomplete to Stoops, Stogner led Major once more. This was a run play between the tackles, and the tight end’s lead block helped Major pick up another 13 yards to the UCF 11.
The next play, Stoops turned a quick-out into an 11-yard touchdown for the lead.
Stogner caught just a single pass for 8 yards Saturday. He isn’t much of a stats-stuffer in this offense.
Just don’t confuse that for a lack of contribution.
Don’t undersell Finley’s contribution in finding ways for his tight ends to stay engaged.
Coach headed straight back to the film room: OU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh
We grade Bedenbaugh on a curve, meaning he’s had so many OU lines develop over so many of his 10 previous seasons, and put so many of his linemen in the NFL, that we expect nothing short of greatness from the position.
Seven games into this season, it’s hard to assess OU’s 2023 line as anything other than pretty good. Sometimes it falls short of that.
Take Saturday. The offensive line didn’t make it easy on any of the Sooners who took handoffs. Major and Sawchuk broke tackles on a lot of their bigger gains in the fourth quarter, or, in Major’s case, got escorts from tight ends and receivers.
While pass protection continues to be much more dependable than run blocking, Gabriel did get sacked a season-high three times for a loss of 22 yards
SportsCenter highlight: Kendel Dolby’s game-saving tackle
UCF’s 2-point attempt to tie the score was a backwards pass from Plumlee to wide receiver Xavier Townsend, who motioned toward the quarterback pre-snap before turning and heading wide left. The idea was that OU would collapse on Townsend and forget about the receiver who continued his route toward the corner of the end zone.
It was a nice idea.
Safety Billy Bowman stayed with Javon Baker, the deeper receiver. Dolby, in the hybrid “cheetah” position stayed locked on Townsend and shot toward him as he received the pass near the 10-yard line.
Townsend motioned as if he wanted to throw but decided that wasn’t a good option with Bowman covering. He wound up eating the ball as Dolby gobbled him up at the 8-yard line.
Consider it OU’s biggest 2-point stop at Owen Field since Steven Parker knocked down TCU’s pass Nov. 22, 2015.
Name to remember: Gavin Sawchuk
With leading rusher Tawee Walker suspended and not dressed with the Sooners, someone figured to get the ball more against UCF. Enter Sawchuk, who came in with 18 carries for 45 yards on the season.
Sawchuk carried 10 times for 63 yards Saturday, his last going 30 yards for what turned out to be the game-clinching touchdown with 3:13 remaining.
“Continue to do our job. That’s what we’re here at the university for,” Sawchuk said. “You’re ready for your opportunity no matter what. Love Tawee, and just being able to play for something bigger than yourself is a motivating factor as well.”
Brent Venables: “We were fortunate to win the game. We made enough mistakes today to lose – captain obvious here – but we were able to overcome it… We’ll take it.”
Could you repeat that?
OU linebacker Danny Stutsman on the leis he wore around his neck to postgame interviews: “I wanted to wear a General Booty shirt, but I didn’t bring it.”