Oklahoma football: Four takeaways from a measuring-stick performance for Sooners

Bearcats fans cheer on a defensive stop late in the second quarter of the NCAA Big 12 football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Oklahoma Sooners at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.
Bearcats fans cheer on a defensive stop late in the second quarter of the NCAA Big 12 football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Oklahoma Sooners at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. /

The Oklahoma football win over Cincinnati in the Sooners’ Big 12 opener on Saturday wasn’t particularly pretty, but it was indicative of the big difference in this team over a year ago.

The Sooners probably wouldn’t have won this game last season because of defensive lapses and the inability to finish off close games.

Although Cincinnati was able to advance the ball offensively against the Sooners, the Bearcats were able to produce 376 yards of offense. Even so, this was 150 yards below Cincinnati’s season average. More importantly, the Bearcats were held without a touchdown and just six points in the game. The last time a Cincinnati team scored as few as six points in a game was a 27-6 loss to Alabama in the 2021 College Football Playoff.

The last time Oklahoma scored as few as 20 points and still won was in 2021 in a 16-13 home win over West Virgina. The last time before that was a 20-7 win over TCU back in 2013.

Cincinnati entered its inaugural Big 12 game with the eighth-best rushing offense among FBS teams, averaging 239 rushing yards per game. Against a deep and improved OU defensive front, the Bearcats collected 141 yards on the ground, nearly 100 below their season average, and just 3.8 yards per carry.

The Sooners came into this game determined not to allow history to repeat itself, mindful that it was the beginning of the Big 12 schedule one year ago, losing its first three conference games, that sent OU into its season-long swoon and led to the team’s first losing season in a quarter century.

Mission accomplished. Now, its back home to face Iowa State and with the Sooners’ 17th 4-0 start since the 2000 season, the most of any FBS team.

Here are four takeaways that tell the story of Oklahoma’s win at Cincinnati, its third over the Bearcats in as many games.

Defense, defense, defense: “Can you see me (and believe in me) now?”

All offseason we heard from Brent Venables and others close to the Sooner football program that if defensive improvements could be achieved, this team could win 10+ games in its final Big 12 season and contend for a championship. Well, we are now four games into the 2023 season and OU is 4-0. The game at Cincinnati was billed as the first real test of the season for the Sooners.

Although the high-powered OU offense was held in check for most of the game on Saturday and was able to put just 20 points on the board, it didn’t really matter, because the Sooner defense took over this game and validated what we have seen through all four games this season, albeit against much inferior opponents…until Saturday, that is.

Running back rotation remains a mystery

Coming into the 2023 season, we knew the Sooners were especially deep in the running back room. Four games into the season, however, OU still doesn’t have a settled running back rotation. After weeks one and two, it appeared to be Tawee Walker and Marcus Major. Then in Week 3 against Tulsa, Jovantae Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk got virtually all of the carries. Against Cincinnati, Major handled most of the run-game duties.

Major carried the ball 15 times on Saturday for 63 yards and an average of 4.2 yards per carry. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, asked after the game about the OU running back situation, said, “We really wanted him (Major) to be able to get into a rhythm. He had a really good week, and I wanted him to have the bulk of the carries today.”

Saturday’s performance was the redshirt-senior Major’s most productive of the season and his best rushing game since 2020, when he had 110 yards on the ground against Florida in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

Through four games, Walker has 176 yards on 34 carries and a couple touchdowns, Major has 32 carries for 132 yards and a touchdown and Barnes has 122 yards on 28 carries and a touchdown.

Who will get the call in Week 5 against Iowa State is anyone’s guess at this point.

Wide-receiver group no longer a question mark

Having lost three of their top four receivers after last season, there was widespread concern about who would step up in 2023 among a largely inexperienced group of receivers. That no longer is an issue, with Dillon Gabriel targeting and connecting with an average of nine Sooner receivers every game.

Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony has seamlessly stepped into the role as OU’s leading receiver this season with 21 catches in four games for 371 yards and an average of 17.5 yards per catch. He made a spectacular 41-yard, contested catch against Cincinnati. For the day, Anthony hauled in seven of eight targets for a game-high 117 yards. It makes you wonder why Michigan didn’t get the junior wide receiver the ball more.

Anthony is just one of four Sooners who are averaging at least 40 receiving yards per game Jalil Farooq, Nic Anderson and Drake Stoops along with 12 different OU receivers who have caught at least three passes.

Sooners pick off two more passes for a total of 8 this season

Safety Key Lawrence intercepted a pass in the end zone to take away a potential touchdown from Cincinnati on Saturday. It was the former Tennessee transfer’s second of the season and his third in two seasons at OU. DB Billy Bowman also picked off a Cincinnati pass in the game. That gives Oklahoma 11 takeaways in four games, which is tied for eighth in the county and a turnover margin of +7, tied for fourth best nationally.