Oklahoma football: Five takeaways from a Halloween scare that came early

Oct 21, 2023; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Drake Stoops (12) dives for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the UCF Knights at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 21, 2023; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Drake Stoops (12) dives for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the UCF Knights at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

It was far from pretty, but sometimes you have to find ways to win when you’re not playing particularly well. A year ago, Saturday’s game with UCF probably wouldn’t have ended well. But this is a new year and a different Oklahoma football team.

The Sooner offense, which sputtered far more than anticipated, coming into the game as an 18-point favorite and toting the sixth-best FBS offense, finally found enough traction to pull ahead late and avoid falling from the unbeaten ranks, although by the slimmest margin of the season.

Oklahoma (7-0, 4-0) escaped with a 31-29 victory and it’s eighth winning streak of at least seven games since the 2015 season, the most in college football over that span.

As good as the record looks — the Sooners are one of 10 unbeaten teams remaining in the 2023 season –this is far from a complete team and, as head coach Brent Venables reminds us after every game, is still a work in progress with the need to improve in every area.

It doesn’t get any easier going forward. Oklahoma’s next to games are away from home at Kansas and Oklahoma State, in what could be the final game in the Bedlam rivalry for the foreseeable future.

Missed field goals signaled troubles early

Oklahoma’s first four possessions in the game started near the 50-yard line, yet the Sooners were able to reach the end zone on just one. Two others ended in missed field goals of 38 and 43 yards. Those two misses — one wide right and the other missing left — took six points off the board and could have proved costly. Otherwise, the game would not have come down to a failed two-point conversion attempt by UCF to decide the game.

Run game finds its footing at just the right time

Entering the fourth quarter, Oklahoma had managed just 115 yards on the ground against a defense that gave up over 400 yards rushing to Kansas the week before. Inconsistency in the run game and failure to establish a lead running back has plagued the Sooners all season. In the fourth quarter, though, Marcus Major and Gavin Sawchuk combined for 74 yards on two nine-play touchdown drives that proved to be the difference in the game.

The Sooners finished the game with 189 yards rushing, 40 more than the college football’s third best rushing offense.

Drake Stoops a workhorse; posts game-winning TD catch and run

Mr. Reliable, Drake Stoops came through when the Sooners needed it the most on homecoming Saturday. Stoops led all OU receivers with seven receptions, but it was his final catch that was the most important. He caught a Dillon Gabriel pass out in the flat at the UCF 12-yard line and took it to the house, tumbling into the end zone. Zach Schmit added the extra point, giving the Sooners their first lead of the second half, 24-23.

Penalties — one called, one not — could have changed the close outcome

Two penalties — one that was called and one that wasn’t — could have dramatically changed the outcome of the game. Early in the second quarter, the Oklahoma defense had delivered what appeared to be another remarkable goal-line stand, stopping UCF three straight times from the one-yard line. Following the failed third-down try, however, leaving the Knights’ coaching staff to decide whether to go for it on fourth down or settle for a field goal, Sooner linebacker Jaren Kanak was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, awarding UCF a new set of downs at the one-yard line. Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee ran it in on the first-down play, tying the game at 7-7.

With under two minutes to go before halftime and Oklahoma leading 14-10, Plumlee connected with a wide-open Javon Baker on an 86-yard catch and run for a touchdown. It appeared during the play that Baker had blown a kiss to the Oklahoma sideline while he was running unopposed. Baker and another UCF player were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play, but only for their celebration after the score and not for Baker’s apparent infraction during the touchdown run.

These two developments led to 14 UCF points that might not have happened otherwise.

Finishing what you start

Instead of waking up Sunday morning with a 7-0 record, Oklahoma might have been 5-2 or even 4-3 were it not for the ability of the 2023 Oklahoma team to finish games. It took a final-minute touchdown drive of 75 yards against Texas for a come-from-behind 34-30 win two weeks ago, and again on Saturday, at home against UCF, the Sooners found themselves down 23-17 entering the fourth quarter. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel led the Sooners on touchdown drives of 65 and 80 yards that gave OU its first lead since the 1:43 mark of the second quarter.

The Sooner defense also played a big part in OU’s ability finish out the game and avert the upset. UCF gained just 84 total yards in the final quarter, with 75 of that total coming in the closing three minutes when UCF scored to draw within two points at 31-29. That’s when true freshman Kendal Dolby made the defensive play of the game for the Sooners, blowing up UCF’s two-point conversion attempt with an open-field tackle of the Knights’ Xavier Townsend three or four yards short of the end zone.