OU’s stout defense faces West Virginia offense Saturday
NORMAN – Except for a mediocre passing attack, Oklahoma opened the season with a freshman quarterback and an improved defense.
The result was a solid 34-0 win over Louisiana- Monroe – a team that returned 17 starters which last year beat Arkansas, lost in overtime to Auburn and almost beat Baylor.
The shutout was the first for OU since a 52-0 win over Iowa State in 2010 and the first shutout by OU in a season opener since a 37-0 win over Tulsa in 2002.
The shutout was the 250th in OU history and the 14th under Stoops.
Next week a shutout will be tougher.
West Virginia makes its first trip to Norman as a member of the Big 12 Conference. The Mountaineers lost a ton of talent to graduation and struggled to beat William and Mary in its season opener, 24-17.
WVU coach Dana Holgorsen knows that it will be hard to beat Oklahoma in Norman. Last year, the two teams had a shootout in West Virginia with the Sooners winning 50-49.
“We are going to a place where it’s incredibly, incredibly hard to play,” said Holgorsen. “They are very well coached. They’ve got lots of good players. We are very inexperienced.
“I’ve got lots of concerns.”
Knight was the first freshman to start for OU since Sam Bradford started in a 79-10 win vs. North Texas in 2007. Knight is only the 14th freshman quarterback overall to start a game at OU.
Knight had a shaky start and hit only 11 of 28 passes for 86 yards but he threw three touchdown passes with only one interception. Three of his incompletions were potential interceptions dropped by ULM defenders.
Knight led all rushers with 112 yards. The Sooners had 319 rushing yards.
“Anytime you can rush the football that way, over 300 yards, that’s a big positive,” said OU coach Bob Stoops. “Trevor (Knight), of course you saw his ability to run and the opportunities it gives you. I’m sure he will settle down and get smoother with some of his throws. We see him make these throws over and over daily. Some of the ones he missed, we know he is capable of making. We expect him to continue to improve in that part.”
Knight threw his first-career TD pass on a 12-yard throw to Jalen Saunders at the 11:15 mark in the second quarter.
“He carried himself with great body language. Great energy. Not that everything was going right all the time, but he was confident,” said OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. “A young quarterback is going to make some mistakes, but I thought he bounced back and continued to play the next play.”
Knight can do better passing.
“You want to see a better stat line,” Heupel said. “You want to complete more than we did, obviously, and there’s a lot of things that go with that. It’s the quarterback being right in the decision making, the quarterback being accurate, wide receivers catching the ball. It’s us being better in our protection scheme up front. All those things combined to give you the stat line that you have.”
Heupel set a game plan to maximize Knight’s success.
“We got him in a couple of situations that I didn’t want to get him into early,” Heupel said. “We tried to give him a couple he could throw early, but it ended up not working out the way we had assigned it. All of a sudden you’re in tough situations and scrambling trying to make a play, but for him, I think all young quarterbacks, you want to give them some positive energy … We were able to do that. The great thing about that was he continued to play.”
Even though it was his first game, Knight didn’t panic when things went wrong.
“I don’t think anybody was going to hit the panic button,” Heupel said. “I think that’s one of the positives that came out of it. Trevor didn’t have everything go right early, but we didn’t hit the panic button. Offensively the guys around him didn’t hit it, the coaching staff didn’t. We just continued to play ball, and that’s the way it is sometimes early in the season offensively — trying to get 11 guys back as one.”
Knight’s 103 yards on 13 carries is the first 100-yard game by an OU QB since Jason White rushed for 117 yards on 12 carries at Kansas in 2001. Knight is the first OU freshman QB to rush for 100 yards since Steven Collins had 135 yards vs. Kansas State in 1989.
“I think Trevor did a great job,” said OU receiver Jalen Saunders. “He has something we’re not used to seeing, our quarterback take off and use his legs, but it’s very exciting, and it moves the chains.
“I’m really impressed with our run game. It makes the safeties come down because they have to play the run, and then it leaves two cornerbacks on an island, so it’s just one-on-one.”
“In the first game you come out and hope everything goes well,” Knight said. “We struggled a little early, but we got comfortable as the game went on, and we were able to make some big plays. The guys blocking did a heck of a job, so we were able to get it going.”
Knight said the timing in the passing game will improve.
“We’ll work hard this week to get more timing down,” Knight said. “We’ve just got to connect on those deep throws because we have to hit our shots.”
Knight’s three touchdown passes tied Sam Bradford for the most by an OU freshman in a career debut.
ULM coach Todd Berry said OU’s hurry-up offense changed the game dramatically.
“They changed the speed and we panicked,” said Berry. “That was disappointing. We couldn’t get the call in, they weren’t getting lined up – things we had worked on, actually. There was a little bit of maybe just getting tired. We quit bringing our feet on tackles when we were there to make the tackle. We did not tackle very well.”
But the OU defense, which gave up tons of yardage in several games last year, showed signs of great improvement.
“Defensively, it was one of the better games that we have had in a long, long time where all of the assignments and communication were as clean as any we have had and they give you a lot to work on with all of their formations, personnel groupings and empty sets,” said Stoops. “I thought our guys really did a great job of handling all of that. I thought we had great pressure all night. It was pretty evident that they handled the run really well.”
OU held ULM to 47 yards rushing and 128 yards passing.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops is in his second year back at Oklahoma. The players are feeling more comfortable with his system and off-season regimen.
“We certainly got embarrassed last year against West Virginia,” Mike Stoops said. “I am glad we got off to a good start. It gives us confidence. We will be challenged by a much more diverse offense in West Virginia. But I just liked the way we covered. I thought our secondary was excellent all day. I thought our pressure was excellent all day. And our ability to stop the run. I mean that’s really a perfect day in a defensive coach’s mind if you can be successful on that … In every phase we wanted to improve, we improved.”
Senior Linebacker Corey Nelson had eight tackles. De-emphasis on linebacker play in the pass-happy Big 12 kept Nelson off the field in 2012. That should change for all OU linebackers this season.
“For me to be the leader of the defense I have to continue to build that confidence with my defense,” Nelson said. “A lot of times you see teams get tired of getting three and outs, but I had to continue to create that excitement and create that energy [and] so did Aaron Colvin. So the defense and I were excited to keep getting out there and getting those three and outs.”
The defensive players got their shutout when ULM shunned a field goal and failed to get a first down deep in OU territory in the second half.
“It feels amazing,” Nelson said. “Especially after that loss in the Cotton Bowl, to come out here and get a shutout in the season opener is an amazing feeling. We have to keep that chip on our shoulder, remain hungry and always be humble in everything that we’re doing.”
Placekicker Mike Hunnicutt hit field goals of 41 and 35 yards in the second quarter. Hunnicutt is 40 of 47 (.851) for his career.
Kicker Nick Hodgen had all seven of his kickoffs go for touchbacks. Saturday was the second game of his career and first as the starting kickoff specialist.
“I thought our kicking game was very good,” said Bob Stoops. “Nick Hodgson was kicking balls out of the end zone. Michael Hunnicutt was excellent on his field goals and extra points. (Punter) Jed Barnett, I don’t know what he averaged (7 punts with a 43-yard average), but he hit the ball pretty well. I think he will get even better the more comfortable he gets.”
With the win, Bob Stoops reached 150 coaching wins in his 187th career game, the sixth fastest to do so. Stoops’ record is 150-37 (.802) overall.
With 150 victories, Stoops is now eight victories away from passing Barry Switzer (157 wins) for most coaching victories in Oklahoma history.
OU is 5-0 under Stoops in the month of August, outscoring those foes by a combined 206-32 margin.
OU is 5-1 overall in August games. OU is 35-2 (.946) against nonconference foes at home under Stoops.