Oklahoma vs. Louisiana-Monroe: Time to Get Serious

Sep 3, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Mark Andrews (81) makes a touchdown reception during the fourth quarter as Houston Cougars safety Garrett Davis (1) defends at NRG Stadium. The Cougars defeated the Sooners 33-23. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 3, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Mark Andrews (81) makes a touchdown reception during the fourth quarter as Houston Cougars safety Garrett Davis (1) defends at NRG Stadium. The Cougars defeated the Sooners 33-23. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /
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It might have been easy once to overlook Oklahoma vs. Louisiana-Monroe as nothing more than a scrimmage for the Sooners. But all of that changed after last weekend.

Sep 26, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Gore (33) carries the ball against the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide defeated the Warhawks 34-0. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Gore (33) carries the ball against the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide defeated the Warhawks 34-0. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports /

The Warhawks of ULM come to Norman this weekend with a better 2016 record than 14th-ranked Oklahoma. Who would have thought that more than a week ago?

OU quarterback and captain Baker Mayfield shouldered much of the blame for the Sooners offensive breakdown against Houston and vowed to play a lead role in fixing the problems that plagued what had previously been projected to be one of the most prolific offenses in the country.

Louisiana Monroe, which failed to score the last time the Warhawks visited Norman, dropping a 34-0 decision in 2013, is making its second trip to the Oklahoma plains in what could be termed either the best of times or the worst of times.

The best of times in that they catch a Sooner team that could be down and doubting itself a little after being physically outplayed and giving up so many big plays in a stunning 10-point loss to the Houston Cougars, the Associated Press’ 6th-ranked team this week.

On the other side of the coin, however, because of the season-opening loss to Houston, the Sooners can be expected to take their game with ULM much more seriously and make a strong statement both offensively and defensively before taking on No. 4-ranked Ohio State in another national showcase game next Saturday. That more likely scenario could easily result in the worst of times for the visiting Warhawks.

With an opening 38-21 win over Southern, ULM is already halfway to its win total all last season. The Warhawks, a 44-point underdog to the Sooners, according to the Las Vegas oddsmakers, also come to Norman with what has proven to be Oklahoma’s Kryptonite in the Bob Stoops coaching era: a dual-threat quarterback.

Sep 26, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Louisiana Monroe Warhawks quarterback Garrett Smith (13) drops back to pass against Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2015; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Louisiana Monroe Warhawks quarterback Garrett Smith (13) drops back to pass against Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports /

Garrett Smith, a redshirt junior, threw for 208 yards and a couple of touchdowns, completing 20 of 33 passes last weekend in the win over Southern. He also toted the pigskin for an additional 150 yards, including a touchdown run. Smith averaged 10 yards every time he took off on the run.

Louisiana-Monroe gained 325 yards rushing against Southern. That’s  250 more than Oklahoma managed against Houston. Another ULM redshirt sophomore, Ben Luckett, topped the century mark last weekend with 110 yards on the ground.

The Sooners can expect an aggressive Warhawk defense to try to disrupt the OU offensive rhythm and take away the vaunted Oklahoma run game, much like Houston was able to do a week ago. Last week vs. Southern, ULM registered four quarterback sacks as well as seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, arguably the most dynamic backfield duo in college football, both got off to excellent starts in the Houston game, picking up most of the Sooners’ 70 rushing yards for the game in the opening quarter. After Perine sustained a shoulder injury on his sixth carry of the game, however, the OU rushing attack went dormant.

Oklahoma began throwing the ball much more in the second half against Houston, becoming almost one-dimensional. This was a big factor.s that led to Mayfield trying to do too much and holding on to the ball longer than he should have. Look for the OU quarterback to get rid of the ball quicker with shorter passing routes and allowing his speedy receivers to make plays in space.

Sooner players told the Tulsa World’s Cody Stavenhagen that the practices this week have been as intense as ever.

“In order for Bob Stoops and company to sleep well before Ohio State,” Stavenhagen wrote, “the Sooners will need to show enough life (in the game with Louisiana-Monroe) to prove they can still contend for a College Football Playoff spot.”

Bottom line: Oklahoma not only has to win this game, but look good in doing so. That clearly is not a recipe for good times if you are ULM.

The Sooners are 4-0 all-time against teams from the Sun Belt Conference. Oklahoma is 2-0 vs. Arkansas State and 1-0 against ULM and New Mexico State. If you could use a little extra motivation for this Saturday’s game, try this out: The combined score in OU’s four wins over Sun Belt teams is 213-10.

Three Key Factors in This Game

  • Baker Mayfield needs to get rid of the ball sooner, trust his receivers and avoid getting greedy and hoping for a potential bigger play to develop. Several times against Houston, he put his team at risk by trying to get a yard or two extra and taking on the tackler head on. The Sooners have a string of big games to play straight ahead on the schedule, and they need a healthy Baker Mayfield in all of those games to have any chance of winning.
  • Playing at home in newly renovated Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in front of a sold-out, home-opening crowd in excess of 84,000. The Sooners rarely lose at home – only eight times in 104 games under Bob Stoops. Additionally, Oklahoma is 16-1 in home openers with Stoops as head coach.
  • The Sooners need to do a much better job of defending the pass than they did a week ago. Houston totaled 321 yards passing against OU. The Sooners allowed that many yards through the air only twice all of last season. Louisiana-Monroe’s Garrett Smith threw for 208 yards in the Warhawks’ season-opening victory, completing 20 of 33 passes.

My prediction: Oklahoma 51, Louisiana Monroe 10 – This game won’t be close, and it should leave the Sooner faithful with a much better feeling than they had a week ago. The margin of victory could be even higher, but it would be in the Sooners’ best interest to sit its key personnel when the game is well in hand to prevent unnecessary injury going into next week and preparation for Ohio State. The Sooners will absolutely need all hands on deck and healthy to take on the Buckeyes.