Oklahoma football: A look back at 2000 UTEP-Oklahoma — Record temperatures, dissatisfaction and the ‘freshman sensation’

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 18: Running back Renaldo Works #47 of the Oklahoma Sooners runs the ball at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on October 18, 2003 in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 18: Running back Renaldo Works #47 of the Oklahoma Sooners runs the ball at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on October 18, 2003 in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The Oklahoma football games start for real this Saturday.

The first game of the college football season can often produce knee-jerk reactions and snap judgments from the fan base. Grand declarations, many positive and maybe even some negative, will undoubtedly emanate after Oklahoma football kicks off the 2022 season Saturday against Texas-El Paso (0-1) at Owen Field.

It will be the first official in-game look at Brent Venables, the head coach, and history serves as a good reminder that what is witnessed in Week 1 is by no means a finished product.

Look no further than the first Oklahoma-UTEP matchup in 2000, which was also a season-opening game. Venables was a 29-year-old co-defensive coordinator with the Sooners, and there were few, if any, indicators on the field that night to suggest it was the start of a year that would be cemented in Sooners’ lore forever.

While the final result on the scoreboard (a 55-14 Oklahoma victory) screamed “blowout,” it was clear from the postgame attitude among players and coaches that just winning was no longer good enough if victory arrived with a plethora of mistakes.

“Any time you beat somebody 55-14, you’ve done a lot right,” second-year Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops said after the game. “But it was far too sloppy for us to be the kind of team we want to be the rest of the year.”

A new standard was being set.

Much like this season, the 2000 Oklahoma-UTEP contest was awash in fan enthusiasm. Every game on the schedule was sold out in advance. The rejuvenated Oklahoma fan base was anxious to witness what Stoops would produce after his 1999 squad finished with a 7-5 record, the Sooners’ first winning season since 1993.

“These are very knowledgeable football fans,” third-year Oklahoma Athletics Director Joe Castiglione said at halftime of the Fox Sports Net pay-per-view telecast. “They also understand that we are in a rebuilding effort. Only in the second year, but I think the thing that has made them different from a lot of programs in the country is the fact that they are getting behind the program now instead of waiting until there is a success, which is a typical ‘jump on the bandwagon’ sort of fan behavior.

Not here in Oklahoma,” the OU AD said. “They have really come out to support this program. We have asked that of them. From day one. We really believe we can get where we want to be a lot faster if we are all together as opposed to just waiting until something happens.”

A crowd of 74,761 – the largest for a home-opener at Oklahoma since Barry Switzer’s last season at the helm – braved temperatures that reached 108 degrees in Norman that day and, despite the 6 p.m. start time, “cooled” to just 106 at kickoff. It still ranks as the hottest Oklahoma football game on record.

“The fans have been remarkable,” Castiglione said. “You run out of superlatives when you look at our fans and the way they show up and pack the stadium in spite of the holiday weekend and the type of heat we are having.”

Some among the Sooners’ faithful were already predicting an undefeated season, conference and national titles as the Sooners entered the game ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press preseason rankings, which was equaled in 2015 for the worst preseason ranking for Oklahoma football throughout the 2000s.

The Sooners faced a familiar name in first-year UTEP Coach Gary Nord, who was the Oklahoma offensive coordinator under Howard Schnellenberger during the tumultuous 1995 season.

Nord was still the object of ire among Sooners’ supporters after Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Pat Forde quoted him in a Sept. 1995 article as joking at a Rotary Club meeting with, “I should have taken a dentist with me. I didn’t see a full set of teeth the whole time I was on the road. Rednecks,” in reference to the Oklahoma coaches’ introductory summer bus tour through the state before the 1995 season.

“It was kind of a strange season for Gary Nord that year,” Fox Sports Net sideline host Gary Reasons said during the game. “His family didn’t like it here very well. He said the fans were actually obnoxious. They would call him and e-mail him all the time, and he didn’t like it. Actually, they are calling him back at UTEP now. He has had a long affair with these fans here, and it has been a tough thing for him to deal with.”

On the field, Oklahoma was led by senior quarterback Josh Heupel, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate by virtue of a 1999 season in which he re-wrote the Big 12 and Oklahoma passing record books in his one and only season under offensive coordinator Mike Leach, who left before the bowl game to become head coach at Texas Tech.

Heupel struggled at times in the 2000 opener. He threw incompletions on the only three plays of Oklahoma’s first offensive drive, which ended with a punt. In the second quarter, Heupel had a string of seven more incompletions in a row.

“The whole offense was off-rhythm in the second quarter,” Stoops said.

Heupel completed just 50 percent of his pass attempts for 274 yards with one rushing touchdown and two passing scores – one to Antwone Savage, another to Trent Smith – and one interception. One would likely be hard-pressed to find a voter that had the eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up listed No. 2 on the ballot after the first performance.

As a team, the Sooners turned the ball over three times, were penalized nine times for 70 yards, and converted just two of their first 11 third-down conversion attempts.

Hardly the look of a soon-to-be undefeated national champion.

“Far too many mistakes,” Stoops said.

On defense, Oklahoma was without senior middle linebacker Torrance Marshall and Brandon Everage (decd. 2011) due to team rules violations, yet forced a whopping seven UTEP turnovers, including interceptions by J.T. Thatcher and 2022 College Football Hall of Fame inductee Roy Williams, who returned his theft 35 yards for a second-quarter touchdown.

The Oklahoma defense allowed 342 total yards, including 125 on the ground.

Not good enough, in their minds.

“We know we didn’t play up to OU ball,” Williams said.

The inconsistent play cast a sleepy lull over the sellout crowd as Oklahoma led, 34-14, after three quarters, but the collegiate debut of a homegrown freshman tailback brought every fan to its feet in the fourth quarter. Renaldo Works electrified the faithful with three touchdowns in the final frame and finished with a game-high 98 rushing yards via 19 attempts.

But it was Works’ second score, in which he fought through five UTEP defenders and dragged two across the goal line for a six-yard TD, that extended the Sooners’ lead to 48-14 with 7:54 to go and elicited some rare spontaneous conjecture from longtime Oklahoma public-address announcer Jim Smith, who termed the former Tulsa Washington prep, “freshman sensation Re-nal-dooo Works!” over the booming Owen Field loudspeakers, much to the delight of everyone in attendance.

“Renaldo stole the show,” Stoops said.

In the end, the game was largely a forgotten footnote in what became a season that legitimized even the most outlandish of fan expectations – a 13-0 record, the first of Oklahoma’s 14 Big 12 Conference championships, and the program’s seventh national title.

While it remains to be seen what the 2022 UTEP matchup may look like or lead to for Venables and Co., it is important to remember that what everyone sees during a season-opener is often a far cry from what is witnessed at year’s end. The 2000 Sooners not only opened with the unsatisfying UTEP victory but fought for every bit of slow, methodical improvement in unspectacular September home wins over Arkansas State (45-7), Rice (42-14), and Kansas (34-16).

Every fan who lived through it remembers what followed. The famed “Red October” surge of 2000 – consecutive wins over No. 11 Texas, No. 2 Kansas State, and No. 1 Nebraska – announced the return of Oklahoma football from the scuffling 1990s, vaulted the Sooners to No. 1 in the polls for the first time since 1987 and reversed the fortunes of the program.

But not everyone remembers the significant process of September improvement that was necessary to get there. And just like this season, that work will begin against UTEP.