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Sooners look to bury Miners in Riley’s debut

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At 33, Lincoln Riley is the youngest head coach in college football.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Losing a season opener is a bummer for any college football team, but now in the era when every game counts toward the playoffs, a loss is more devastating. Losing to an unranked team would have fans jumping off the band wagon faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100-meter dash.

Last year, No. 3 Oklahoma lost to No. 13 Houston, and many believed a national championship bid was lost that day. Two weeks later, OU dropped to 1-2 with a 21-point loss to Ohio State at home. The Sooners rebounded to win nine straight games including the Sugar Bowl, but no national championship contention.

If OU loses to unranked Texas El Paso on Saturday (2:30 p.m. FOX) in Norman, many Crimson fans might try to jump off the planet. Oklahoma hasn’t lost many season openers. The Sooners are 60-6- 3 when starting the season in Norman. Only twice has a ranked OU team lost to an unranked team to begin a season. No. 9 Oklahoma lost to West Virginia, 41-27 in 1982.

Those Sooners finished 8-4. TCU knocked off No. 7 OU, 17-10, in 2005, and that Sooner squad also finished 8-4.

Those upsets happened under the regime of legendary Oklahoma coaches—Switzer in ’82 and Stoops in ’05. The latter of the two has turned over the reins of the Sooner Schooner to Lincoln Riley.

Riley hopes to win his coaching debut as 16 of the previous 21 coaches have done in Norman. The five who dropped their inaugural game at OU were John Blake (1996), Jim Tatum (1946), Tom Stidham (1937), Fred Roberts (1901) and John Harts (1895).

So, on Saturday, Texas El Paso will try to spoil Riley’s debut, but do the Miners have what it takes to knock off the seventh-ranked Sooners?

Hardly. The Miners were 4-8 last year and had been going downhill in the past three years (5-7 in 2015, 7-6 in 2014). But, if the Sooners look past UTEP to Ohio State next week, the Miners might be able to pull off the upset. An 0-2 start in Norman might bring out a lynch mob to Riley’s house.

UTEP head coach Sean Kugler will have some big shoes to fill after UTEP’s all-time leading rusher Aaron Jones declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. Junior quarterback Ryan Metz completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 1,773 yards with 14 TDs and 4 INTs. The Miners’ top two receivers graduated last year. So, running and passing will be a work in progress for improvement in 2017.

UTEP was nearly balanced last year averaging 195.5 yards on the ground and 183.7 through the air. The Miners will have three starters returning on the O-line including senior left guard Will Hernandez, who was a second-team All-American in 2016. Hernandez is mentioned as a first- team All-American by many publications for this year. A strong line will be vital to buy Metz time to throw and pave the way for the new running back. Jones ran for 1,773 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago.

“Even with all the good teams that we’re going to play this year, I don’t know that we’ll play an offensive lineman individually any better than this guy (Hernandez)for the rest of the season,” Riley said at his weekly press conference Monday. “He’s fantastic. He’s got a bright future and looks like a guy that has a chance to play on Sundays for a long time.”

The strength of the Miners’ defense is the senior-laden linebacking corps. Alvin Jones and Dante Lovilotte will make their return to the lineup and will be joined by Julian Jackson, a transfer from Wake Forest. Jones has 241 career tackles, 29.5 career tackles for loss including 10.5 career sacks.

Sophomore Jayson Vanhook was named to the Conference USA all-Freshman team last year, but he has been beaten out by sophomore Dylan Parsee.

Junior end Mike Sota is the only returning starter to the front in the 3-4 alignment. Three-fourths of last year’s secondary starters return led by junior safety Devin Cockrell, who led the defensive backs with 58 tackles. The Miners intercepted only six passes last year. UTEP’s pass rush must come from the outside linebackers if the INT numbers are going to rise this year.

OU’s senior quarterback Baker Mayfield should be able to exploit the weaknesses in the Miners’ defense. Mayfield, two-time all-Big 12 quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist, is a playmaker.

The Sooners must have new playmakers step up at running back and wide receiver.

The entire offensive line returns and is expected to be one of the best in the country. This should allow Mayfield time to find a “go-to” receiver to replace Dede Westbrook, last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner. Senior wideout Jeffery Mead and junior tight end Mark Andrews return with the most experience. Sophomore Mykel Jones and freshman CeeDee Lamb top the charts at the other receiver slots.

Four running backs have had a productive camp and battling for playing time. Hopefully one will separate himself from the pack. Sophomores Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams, and junior college transfer Marcellus Sutton are atop the depth chart. Anderson has been plagued by injuries the last two years, and Adams (283 yards) played sparingly in 2016.

Sutton was ranked the second-best JUCO running back in the nation last year. Trey Sermon also is likely to see some action on Saturday. Sermon is a four-star recruit from Georgia. Senior fullback Trey Flowers is like having an extra lineman, but he is dangerous running or catching the ball.

An improved defense is another step toward winning another Big 12 Conference title and into the College Football Playoffs. The Sooners will alternate between a 4-3 and 3-4 alignment this year. The line must get pressure to allow linebackers Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Caleb Kelly to come off the edge and disrupt the opposing quarterbacks. Steven Parker has been solid at strong safety, and cornerback Jordan Thomas can shut down good wideouts.

Okoronkwo will often be used as a defensive end opposite D.J. Ward. Matt Romar and Neville Gallimore return to anchor the tackles slots. Kenneth Murray is the first freshman since 1975 (Daryl Hunt) to start at middle linebacker.

The Sooners should come out fast and furious and focus on the game at hand—worry about Ohio State on Sunday. If they do, it could be over before the second quarter begins. Look for OU’s defense to frustrate Metz and force a few turnovers. UTEP’s offensive line might be able to open some holes in the running game early but look for the Sooners to adjust and overwhelm with their talent.

This game should allow many players to get some reps and find out who will step up for the big game next week in Columbus. UTEP just doesn’t have the talent to match Oklahoma for four quarters. This should be a blowout and, thus, no bummed-out fans in Norman.

ETC.

*OU leads the series 3-0.

*OU is favored by 43 points.

*OU is 93-23- 6 all-time in season openers.

*UTEP is 44-50- 5 in season openers.

*OU owns a 10-game winning streak after losing to Ohio State last year.

*Riley’s coaching record: 0-0 (1 st year).

*UTEP coach Sean Kugler’s record: 18-31 (.367) overall.

*OU is 3-0 in games played on September 2 nd including a 55-14 win over UTEP in 2000.

*UTEP is 0-5 in games played on September 2.

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About the Author

Ray Dozier

Ray Dozier is the author of Legends of Oklahoma Sooners Football and two editions of The...

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