Oklahoma’s 2023 season opener couldn’t have gone much better than it did on Saturday. The Sooners absolutely dominated Arkansas State, to the tune of 73-0. OU recorded 36 first downs in the game, held the Red Wolves to just 10, produced 642 yards of offense, to 208, and wasn’t forced to punt until the third-string quarterback was injured with just a couple of minutes remaining in crunch time. It was the type of performance elated Oklahoma fans and literally left Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones in tears.
In the fast-paced world of football you seldom have time to celebrate your victories, or even lick your wounds for that matter. The next opponent is already preparing for its invasion of Owen Field, and SMU is coming off a 38-14 win over Louisiana Tech. So, the door will be closing on this rather quickly and attention will shift to the Mustangs. That said, here are a few thoughts and observations from the Sooners and Red Wolves.
Tawee Walker Getting The Start At Running Back Was Still A Surprise
I know what the depth chart said on Tuesday, and I know what the coaches said as well, but it was still a bit surprising to see Tawee Walker as the running back for the opening possession. I was really expecting it to be Marcus Major and then Walker before getting to Barnes for the bulk of the work. None of that happened! Jeff Lebby’s progression through the running backs went with Walker first, followed by Major, and then Barnes.
Barnes did end up leading the team with 13 carries but the degree of separation between the three backs wasn’t a lot. Barnes ran for 49 yards, Major had 31 yards on nine carries, and Walker recorded 44 yards on eight carries. Walker led all of the running backs with his 5.5 yards per carry average, and he was the only running back to score multiple touchdowns. Now, what remains to be seen is what happens when you throw Gavin Sawchuk in the mix next weekend.
The Andrel Anthony Impact Is Going To Be Huge
I picked Andrel Anthony to lead the team in receiving yards and I was very close to being right. Like most of the starters, Anthony only played in the first half. He finished the day with 66 yards on three catches but his impact was much bigger than that. A big chunk of his receiving yards came on the opening drive when he hauled in a 45-yard bomb from Dillon Gabriel. That set the tone for him stretching the field and from there Arkansas State determined that it would be better just to draw a pass interference call as opposed to allowing him to rip off another 45-yard chunk. What Anthony proved on Saturday is that opposing defenses are going to have to pick their poison in terms of what they do with their safeties. Imagine how much more complicated this gets once Oklahoma add Brenen Thompson to the mix.
The Return Game Is Back!
You have to go all the way back to 2016 to see the last time Oklahoma returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. Sophomore Gavin Freeman ended that drought, following Arkansas State’s first possession, on Saturday. Freeman housed an 82-yard punt to make the score 14-0 just two minutes and twenty-two seconds into the game.
It’s a play that you’re probably going to see a lot this week. First, because it’s spectacular, but secondly because it shows that the return game is once again in play as a tool for scoring points. That part of Oklahoma’s special teams had been wandering in the desert for far too long.
Oklahoma’s Secondary Was Aggressive And Physical
If you’re looking for indicators that the mentality of this team is changing then check out the play of the secondary. I believe that they’re still a work in progress, and I doubt there would be a lot of people to argue with me, but I liked what I saw from them. They were mouthy, they played aggressive, and they were physical at the point of attack.
We need to see them challenged a bit more but you have to be pleased with the early results.
Oklahoma’s Speed Of Play On Offense Was Ridiculously Effective
Imagine getting beat across the board. Man for man, position for position, you can’t stop the guy in front of you or the team that’s coming at you. On top of that, you can’t breathe. That’s where the Arkansas State defense found itself on Saturday going up against the Sooner offense. Jeff Lebby had said multiple times last season that he wanted to play faster. At that time the team wasn’t ready. They very much looked ready in Saturday’s opener. The result was a defense that was gassed and demoralized.
Oklahoma Had A Clear Advantage At Every Position
I wrote about the roster turnover and the added depth multiple times leading up to this game. We finally got to see the results of that on Saturday and it was promising. Oklahoma had a physical and athletic advantage across the board in this game. That’s not something that they enjoyed at all last season, and the quality of depth became even more noticeable as the second unit guys came in. The defense was able to preserve the shutout and the offense was still able to pull of insanely athletic plays.
Follow us on Twitter: @SportsHeartland