Analyzing the finer points of Oklahoma’s 24-7 win Saturday at UTEP:
• I had high hopes for OU’s special teams. But this was the most disastrous special teams performance in a long time. The Sooners had a punt blocked for a touchdown, a field goal blocked and repeatedly turned Michael Edwards loose trying to cover punts. Had UTEP’s field-goal kicking not been even worse, the Sooners might have lost. It’s too soon to write off OU’s special teams. Michael Hunnicutt did nail a 38-yarder, and Tress Way otherwise had a strong night punting, pinning UTEP inside the 20 three times. But let’s not act like OU’s special teams issues have been solved either. Special teams didn’t get OU beat Saturday. But they almost certainly will down the line if they don’t improve.
• Had OU’s offense been much crisper, we’d probably be harping more on how improved Landry Jones’ footwork is. Jones’ work with QB tutor George Whitfield this offseason has really paid off. Jones would not have been able to deliver the 68-yard bomb he threw across his body to Kenny Stills along the opposite sideline last season. “After that TD, I told Landry, ‘You look great,’” Stills said. “He worked really hard in the offseason, and he looks great and has a lot of confidence.” Jones got outside the pocket more times in one game than he did all of last season. On one play in the second quarter, Jones sidestepped the blitz, then delivered an off-balance strike to Dominique Whaley. Had Whaley not dropped the pass, he might have scored.
• Considering he’s been one of OU’s most consistent playmakers over the last two seasons, it’s crazy to think that Roy Finch didn’t get a single offensive snap Saturday. Not one. The Sooners had designed a package for Finch in the slot full of screens and reverses, but didn’t go to it once. They didn’t give him a look in the backfield, either. I asked co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell why Finch was relegated to the sidelines once again, especially on a night in which the offense struggled to make plays. “We have a lot of playmakers that can do a lot with the ball,” Norvell said. “Roy is going to have to work harder to where he gets himself in the mix.” Evidently, Finch is still not getting it done in practice. Until he does, the Sooners are not going to play him. No matter how many plays he’s made in the past.
• Whaley returned from last year’s broken ankle to mixed results. He ran for 54 yards on 11 carries, but didn’t display the same elusiveness and power that made him one of college football’s best stories in 2011. “I felt great ankle-wise, conditioning-wise,” he said. “But my performance could have been a lot better.” It might take a couple of games for Whaley to find his footing. He started to run harder as the game wore on. That was a positive sign.
• More positive was the play of Whaley’s backup, junior-college transfer Damien Williams, who was OU’s best back on this night. Williams ran for 104 yards on nine carries, including a 65-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Williams broke tackles, and showed plenty of elusiveness in the open field. “We’re excited to complement Dom with Damien,” Bob Stoops said.
• The Sooners brought back the “Diamond” formation after a one-year hiatus. The formation, which was so effective late in 2010, was shelved last season. But offensive coordinator Josh Heupel reintroduced the package, this time using fullbacks Trey Millard and Jaydan Bird and either Whaley or Damien Williams. The Sooners caught UTEP off-guard on playaction off the package, as Jones hit Stills on a post pattern inside the Miners 5. Whaley, however, was flagged with a chopblock, wiping out the play. “I saw a defender who outweighed me,” Whaley said, “so I decided to go for the chop.” Guard Adam Shead was still engaged with the defender, though, resulted in the penalty. It will be interesting to see how much the Sooners use the Diamond going forward. But if it can augment what was an inconsistent running game Saturday, it should become a mainstay.
• Three times when the game was still in doubt, the Sooners turned to Belldozer on third-and-short. Three times, the Sooners got first downs. Bob Stoops said he would have liked to use the Belldozer more, but because of the inconsistency of the offense, OU rarely was in third-and-short. More times, the Sooners were in third-and-long. For the Belldozer to be utilized, OU has to do more on first and second down.
• OU was awful early on in its perimeter blocking on the bubble screens. For those plays to work, Justin Brown and Trey Metoyer can’t whiff on cornerbacks. A couple of times, that got Whaley clocked. Eventually, that will lead to turnovers and injuries.
• The Sooners added a new wrinkle to the offensive play-calling: placards. Unlike Oregon, which is quite creative in its placards to signal in plays, OU’s were quite ordinary, using only numbers and colors. I’m not sure if the placards slowed down OU’s offensive tempo. But if they did, they need to be revisited. When the Sooners were going fast, they moved the ball. When they weren’t, they didn’t.
• UTEP’s Nathan Jeffery nearly became the first back to rush for more than 200 yards against OU since Missouri’s Brad Smith in 2002. Jeffery, who also returned the blocked punt for a TD in the first quarter, was sensational, finishing with 177 yards on 21 carries. "I'm disappointed we didn't play the run game better," said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. "We bent a little, but we didn't give up any points. It's good to be tested. We don't have to hear everybody telling us how good we are." Otherwise, though, the defense was pretty stout. The secondary, which was spectacular, didn’t give up any big pass plays, and outside Jeffery's 71-yard run, the defense made UTEP earn its way down the field. Welcome back, Mike Stoops.
• The unsung play of the game? Caleb Gastelum’s tackle on UTEP’s fake punt in the fourth quarter. That all but sealed OU’s win.
• Despite the hype of this freshmen class, very few made it onto the field. CB Gary Simon, LB Eric Striker and DE Michael Onuoha all watched this game from the sidelines. Defensive end Charles Tapper didn’t get in until late in the game. Running back Alex Ross made the trip, but didn’t play either. He’s a strong redshirt candidate. The three freshmen who did play – WRs Trey Metoyer, Durron Neal and Sterling Shepard -- made little impact. Neither Neal nor Shepard recorded a catch in limited action. Despite his sterling spring, Metoyer struggled to assimilate into the offense. He finished with four catches for 21 yards. Metoyer did make a circus catch along the sideline that would have resulted in a TD, but he couldn’t get the first foot in bounce. “The timing was bad,” he said. “We just weren’t connecting.” Honestly, this should have been expected. Jones’ rapport with his freshmen and Penn State transfer Justin Brown will improve. Developing chemistry only comes through playing games together.
• Speaking of Brown, while he didn’t very involved in the offense (4 catches, 32 yards) he flashed off his potential as a punt returner. Breaking tackle after tackle, Brown weaved his way through the UTEP coverage for a 26-yard punt return. Brown has the potential to go the distance at any time. The Sooners have needed more breakaway threats on special teams. Brown appears to be just that.
• You have to admire how hard David King played in his first start at defensive tackle. With Casey Walker and Stacy McGee both in Norman, King carried the line by disrupting UTEP’s pass protection with his quickness. Play after play, Miners QB Nick Lamaison had to back peddle then throw the ball away because King and others were in his face. Despite never coming off the field, King played a spirited game all night, finishing with three tackles, including one for loss that forced UTEP to settle for a field goal attempt on its first drive. King also had a game-high two QB hurries. UTEP had success running Jeffrey up the middle, but a lot of that transpired because OU’s ends and linebackers didn’t close on the bend-back run quickly enough. OU’s d-line is hurting for depth. Think about where they’d be without King, and his ability to swing to tackle in a pinch.
• DT Jamarkus McFarland and deep snapper Daniel Franklin were both dinged up during the game. Both appeared to fine afterward heading to the bus. Franklin had to be helped off the field after taking a crack-back block to the chest. But he returned to the field to deep snap on OU’s next punt attempt.
By the numbers
48: The OU defense held UTEP to just 48 yards passing, the fewest passing yards the Sooners have allowed since limiting Oklahoma State to 47 in 2009.
65: Damien Williams’ fourth quarter TD run, the longest run by a Sooner since DeMarco Murray’s 70-yard dash against Texas A&M in 2008.
104: UTEP’s national defensive rank last season.
222: With his passing yardage total Saturday, Landry Jones (12,601) moved past Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury (12,429), UTEP's Trevor Vittatoe (12,439), Missouri's Chase Daniel (12,515) and Louisville's Chris Redman (12,541) to 14th place in FBS history.
“We need to make a lot of improvements, obviously. Just very inconsistent, especially offensively.” – Bob Stoops
“We have a great opportunity and we played our hearts out. I’m very proud of this group, their character and the fight that they have is tremendous.” – UTEP coach Mike Price
“We were inconsistent all over the board.” – OU QB Landry Jones
“This is where we are. It was good enough to win tonight. We’ll try to build on it going forward.” – OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel
“Obviously we have got a lot to work on.” – OU center Gabe Ikard