By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Oklahoma emerged from its cocoon Saturday night as a completely different team from 2012. A program celebrated for throwing the ball became a running team. The same group mocked for suspect defense dominated in a 34-0 victory over Louisiana-Monroe Saturday night at Owen Field.
A metamorphosis is the only to describe what the Sooners displayed on the field.
“Probably fair to say,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “I hadn’t looked at it that way, but yeah, that’s a good assessment.”
The Sooners won and won handily despite only throwing for 124 yards — their lowest total in six seasons.
Instead, OU rushed for 319 yards, riding a bevy of running backs and redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight.
Knight finished with 103 rushing yards and became the first OU quarterback since the 1980s to cross the century mark while running backs Damien Williams (66), Brennan Clay (43) and Roy Finch (44) combined for 151 yards.
The running game mixed with the Sooners’ first shutout since 2010, allowed Knight to settle in after a shaky start. Knight was just 3 for 10 for just 36 yards in the first quarter and OU gained just one first down during that stretch.
But the group that was last seen giving up more than 600 yards to Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, kept forcing punts from the Warhawks.
“That’s what we were expecting,” said linebacker Corey Nelson, who finished the night with OU’s only sack and two tackles for loss. “We wanted the mindset where we came in with a chip on our shoulder. We wanted to show people that we can play Oklahoma defense.”
It’s been years since OU truly relied on it, but it happened Saturday.
Louisiana-Monroe, which beat Arkansas and took Auburn and Baylor down to the wire last season, only had nine first downs and 166 total yards.
Hard to believe defense could overshadow Knight’s first start, especially one where he threw for three touchdowns and delivered on the running ability that’s been touted since he dazzled his teammates as the scout team quarterback last season.
Knight’s passing numbers left a lot to be desired. He completed just 11 of 28 passing attempts for 86 yards. But it was a game where his confidence grew as the game went on.
After the first quarter, Knight was just 3 for 10 for seven yards and had led OU to just one first down. A crowd of 84,911 had every reason to panic.
Nerves calmed when Knight hit Jalen Saunders for a 12-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter. It was the first of four straight scoring drives that gave the Sooners a 20-point lead.
“We got more comfortable as the game went on and made some big plays,” Knight said. “The guys up front did a helluva job. We just got it going and came out on top. It was good.”
It was the running game that got going. The Sooners rushed for 269 of their 305-yard rushing total in the final three quarters.
Even they were stunned they could win a game by cramming the ball down a team’s throat.
“The offensive line played great, getting on their guys and pushing their guys. It just opened a lot of stuff in the running game,” Williams said. “I guess (offensive coordinator Josh Heupel) saw that and decided that we should keep pounding it.”
Late in the game, Clay looked at the offensive total on the scoreboard and saw the Sooners had just barely gone over 100 passing yards. They noticed because OU had a five-touchdown lead and was cruising to a season-opening victory and the backups were on the field.
“I guess things have changed,” Williams said.
The offensive changes might have been expected. OU surrounded Knight with returning starters at every position.
The defense lined up with eight first-time starters Saturday night. The result was something its predecessors failed to deliver.
“We did a good job today, but we still have a lot of work to do,” OU cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “We’re gonna face a lot of good offenses. We played well, but we can always play better.”
Statistically, it will be tough. The Sooners open Big 12 Conference play next Saturday against West Virginia.
Last season, the Mountaineers put up more than 700 yards of total offense in a game OU won because it threw for 554.
The Sooners showed Saturday night they were no longer interested in playing that way. They’re a different team.
“It feels amazing,” Nelson said. “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.”
Something akin to Saturday night will be pretty impressive.
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