Center Ben Habern concluded his career short due to ongoing shoulder and neck issues, while expected starting right guard Tyler Evans tore his ACL.
That forced guards Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin into the fray as starters.
Starting running back Dominique Whaley returned from a broken ankle and his health was uncertain, plus JUCO transfer running back Damien Williams, who has been nothing less than brilliant, hadn’t seen any action in an OU uniform at the time.
Meanwhile, several new wide receivers in Justin Brown, Trey Metoyer, Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal and the latest of which, Jalen Saunders, had to mesh with quarterback Landry Jones.
So, naturally the Sooners struggled some out of the gates.
They didn’t hit on all cylinders for most of the first three games.
They turned it over five times, including three fumbles and two interceptions.
They didn’t post their usual high-octane scoring outputs, finishing with 24 points or less twice in the first three contests when they finished with 24 in a 17-point win at UTEP and 19 in a 5-point loss at home to Kansas State.
The offensive line surrendered eight sacks, nearly two-thirds of the entire total last season.
They’ve hit Texas Tech for 41 and Texas for 63--and it could have been worse--points, respectively, in the last two games.
The line has shored things up with just one sack allowed over the past 8 1/2 quarters of play dating back to the fourth quarter in OU’s 24-19 setback to K-State.
And they’ve turned it over just once offensively when Jones threw a pick-six to Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom last Saturday.
They’re now just working with the type of efficiency a Sooner offense is used to operating with, posting a Red River Shootout record 677 yards of total offense the other day against Texas.
“Guys are just really playing ball,” Jones said. “The offensive line did a great job on Saturday protecting and our guys in the run game, I think it was a total game. Everyone was playing well and everybody was moving in the right direction that we need to be moving right now.”
He attributes the changed play not just to getting familiar with the personnel--though admittedly that has made a difference--but simply getting out there and playing.
In a sense, the offense has started to let things come to them and stopped pressing so much.
“I think it's more that we're just cutting it loose and we're playing ball,” Jones said. “Not thinking, not worrying about if we don't score this many points we're not going to be No. 1 anymore or things along those lines. I think this year we're just out there to win games and how are the games going. We're just going to cut loose and have some fun. You've got to get out of your own way. You've got to just realize that this is a game and it's supposed to be fun.
“Why play tight? Why worry about things that really, you can't control. All you can control is one play at a time and one moment at a time and whether you're going to trust yourself and play ball.”
They’ve obviously started to trust themselves but also each other more.
It starts from up front and translates across the board.
Blockers have started to have faith that their counterparts will be in the right spot and pick up when they need to.
Jones has developed incredible chemistry with his senior Penn State transfer, Brown, and the rest of the guys and vice versa.
Backs are hitting the right holes all the while having faith in their blockers up front and down the field--see Stills’ bone-crushing downfield block to spring Williams for his 95-yard touchdown sprint against Texas.
Simply all across the board it’s coming together.
“I’d say we’re pleased with the way we’ve played, but in no way can we be satisfied with what we’ve done this year,” said center Gabe Ikard. “You know, the key thing for us is that we get better every single week during practice. That’s [what we’re] preaching this week. Everyone that was tearing us down a couple weeks ago is now gonna be building us up, and we just gotta not get complacent and just keep working the way we’ve been working to get us these last couple victories, the way we’ve played. So, we just gotta keep building the way we’ve been building and we should keep playing well.”
There’s no doubt, though, the Sooners have clearly turned a corner.
“Definitely yeah, we’re at the peak right now,” Shepard said. “We just have to work to stay up there. I feel like if we play like we did last two weeks, then we should be good.”
One thing that has also contributed to the more fluid offensive production is the fact that they have a better grasp of who they are and what they want now.
A healthy mix of touches for Williams and fullback Trey Millard, along with the Belldozer package, and the rest in veteran signal caller Jones’ hands has helped this offense find itself.
“I think we're creating more of an identity of what we really want to do and I think Coach [Josh] Heupel is doing a great job getting the game plan, calling plays, getting us into a rhythm,” Jones said. “I think we're coming into our own and starting to build some momentum, but the key is keeping that and building on the games we've played.”
The Sooners will work to continue that trend when they take on Kansas at 6 p.m. Saturday inside Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
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