NORMAN — Brent Venables had nearly reached the tunnel leading off Owen Field when he spied Joe Castiglione.
Venables beelined to the OU athletic director and gave him a big hug.
So did Venables.
It was a good day. A good day for Sooners everywhere. A good day for the first time since the Texas game honestly.
OU 59, West Virginia 20.
“We had two tough back-to-back weeks that were very challenging in the ways you expect,” Venables said, alluding to the losses at Kansas and Oklahoma State. “But really proud of our guys, the leaders on the team.
“Just mindset, attitude, resolve, toughness, persistence, all the things that you would want.”
On an evening the Sooners got back on the winning track after losing two games by a combined eight points, there was lots to like. An offense that scored eight touchdowns and only punted three times. A defense that held the Mountaineers to 330 yards and allowed only four third-down conversions. A team that didn’t shoot itself in the foot with penalties or turnovers or untimely mistakes.
And this wasn’t just about what happened on the field in Norman. The Sooners got some help in their hunt for a spot in the Big 12 title game after the Cowboys’ debacle at UCF. Even though the Cowboys hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Sooners, OU now finds itself in a four-way tie for second.
It’s not control-your-own-destiny stuff, but the Sooners started the day needing losses from the Cowboys, Jayhawks, Longhorns, Wildcats and Cyclones. Two of them lost, which for the Sooners is a good start.
But the thing that stood out most Saturday was something we saw from the Sooners: after a couple of crushing games, they responded with their most complete performance of the season.
Because even as the Sooners were rolling through the first seven games of the season and getting out to a 7-0 start, they left lots to be desired. There were several stretches of unease. Offensive struggles against SMU and Cincinnati. Defensive issues against Iowa State and UCF.
The win against Texas was great for OU, of course, but even that game had bad moments. A punt blocked for a touchdown. A 10-point lead surrendered in the second half. An offense that went stagnant. A defense that gave up more than 500 yards of offense.
The final score covered up much of that.
But as good as that Texas win felt, what happened Saturday night in Norman was more important for the short-term success of this team and the long-term future of this program.
“Putting it all together means a lot — being clean, taking care of the ball, executing with precision and having a relentless, passionate mindset,” Venables said. “It’s what the game requires.
“There’s a lot that was really good tonight. That may have been our best four quarters.”
No may have been about it.
It certainly was.
Even though the defense got punched in the face right out of the gate, giving up an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the game’s opening possession, the Sooners allowed only 255 yards the rest of the game.
The Mountaineers averaged 9.4 yards a play on that first drive.
The rest of the game, they managed only 4.0 yards.
Then, there was that goal-line stand late in the first half. West Virginia had four plays to get 3 yards, and darned if OU didn’t hold them out of the end zone with great plays from Danny Stutsman and Jacob Lacey, Kobie McKinzie and Rondell Bothroyd, Da’Jon Terry and Kip Lewis, then Robert Spears-Jennings and Terry again.
The offense came out firing from the get-go, scoring on its first five possessions and nine of 11 overall with Dillon Gabriel at quarterback. He sat out the final two drives, a punt and a couple of kneeldowns to end the game, but when he was in there, the Sooners hummed.
First half: touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, punt.
Second half: touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.
And those eight touchdowns? Gabriel had a hand in all of them, throwing five and running three.
“It just shows when we play our game … we can be as good an offense as anybody in the country,” said receiver Drake Stoops, who had a career-high 164 yards and three touchdowns on 10 catches. “It just felt good to get back to that.”
The Sooners returned to some of what we’ve seen before, but really, this was better. Against a good team, they dropped the hammer, then kept pounding away. There was a relentlessness, an aggressiveness that has been missing.
Those are things that Venables has preached.
“Just be relentless to improve,” he has told his players.
It’s a mantra they’ve heard in a variety of ways over the past several months. In offseason conditioning. During spring ball. Throughout the summer.
Improvement, these Sooners have heard, is mandatory, especially as the competition gets tougher and the margin for error gets slimmer. Walker says Venables uses the analogy of the air getting thinner.
Gallery: OU’s 59-20 win over West Virginia in pictures
“You can’t make that many mistakes against great teams,” Walker remembers the coach saying.
But against Kansas and OSU, OU did make mistakes.
“We didn’t let that deter us,” Sooner offensive lineman Walter Rouse said. “We always kept coming back. We always kept pushing each other, holding each other accountable, being relentless.
“It’s a matter of just putting it all out there on the field.”
That’s what the Sooners did Saturday night.
They weren’t perfect, of course. Drake Stoops and McKade Mettauer, veterans who should know better, let their emotions get the best of them and drew absolutely deserved unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Stoops spiked the ball after scoring a touchdown while Mettauer went after a Mountaineer who dared stand over Stoops after a big hit in the end zone.
But even as Venables talked about those plays, you could almost see the twinkle in his eye. An offensive lineman standing up for a teammate? A sixth-year senior enjoying the biggest game of his life?
The coach had to like that even as he lamented it.
Then again, there was a lot to like on Saturday.
“It’s huge, continuing to improve whether (the outcome) is good or bad,” Gabriel said. “There’s two sides of it. Obviously, when things go well, some people can lay a hand off the wheel, and when things are bad, people can be discouraged at times or don’t want to work.
“We’re always chasing, thinking of the future and very rarely stay in the present and just enjoy the moment.”
But on Saturday, the Sooners seemed to enjoy it. They lingered on the field after the game. They smiled and laughed and signed autographs.
This was a good day and not just because of the scoreboard.