Re-Scouting the Opponent
Coming into the game, it was hard to get a read on Sun Belt Conference member Arkansas State, a team entering its third season under Butch Jones. Jones entered the season 5-19 as head coach of the Red Wolves, a program that had started to turn around in 2011 under now-Auburn coach Hugh Freeze. That year, Freeze inherited a program that had only won 72 games since 1990 (3.6 wins per season) and went 10-2. Freeze moved on, and Arkansas State became a one-year stepping stone for Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin after two more successful seasons in 2012 and 2013. They found stability in 2014 with Blake Anderson, who coached the Wolves to 51 wins over the next 7 seasons before taking over at Utah State after the 2020 season. Under Jones, however, that program momentum seems to have stalled, punctuated by the 73-0 shellacking by the Sooners on Saturday.
Arkansas State could be considered a respectable Sun Belt program, appearing in nine straight bowl games from 2011 to 2019. But they do seem to be regressing under Jones, and entered 2023 110th in projected SP+ (-14.6). It might be important to some to know that Rice was behind the Red Wolves at 112th (-14.9).
OU certainly made them look like the 110th best team in the country. You could say even worse than that pretty definitively, after the Sooners outscored Arkansas State 73-0, outgained them 642 yards to 208, and held them to 2-12 on 3rd down en route to the largest game 1 victory in OU history.
Arkansas State was outmatched from the gun. Their size – or lack thereof – up front was noticeable from the first snap, perhaps easily the smallest offensive line OU will face all season. Quarterback JT Shrout could not get anything going offensively, and the Red Wolves clearly gameplanned around an improved OU pass rush with max protection and quick pass plays. Shrout has struggled throughout his career, throwing 5 touchdowns and 3 picks in 8 games over 2 seasons at Tennessee before transferring to Colorado. After sitting out the 2021 season in Boulder, Shrout started for the Buffs in 2022 but struggled mightily, completing just 44% of his passes and finishing with a dreadful 98.3 rating. Things did not improve for the journeyman QB on Saturday, and the Arkansas State offense put up a goose egg on the scoreboard.
While Arkansas State may end up one of the worst FBS teams at the end of the year by the metrics, OU did what great teams do to lesser opponents, completely dismantling the Red Wolves in all three phases of the game.
How about this wrinkle right off the bat from Bill Bedenbaugh and Jeff Lebby? Three receivers split to the short side of the field, unbalanced line with Walter Rouse moving to the right side occupying the Y, and Tawee Walker lined up on the strong side. Successful play converting a 3rd and short to a first down.
Here’s the full RPO breakdown:
Andrel Anthony, Jr.
It was just week 1, and just a few plays, and just Arkansas State… but OU fans should feel better about the wide receiver corps in 2023, especially Andrel Anthony, Jr.
In his first catch of the game, Anthony displays his efficient get-off and his relative speed, passing the CB in man coverage within 5 yards, and blowing by him by a full yard within 10 yards. Further into the route, Anthony finds the ball and displays good tracking, hauling it in for a big gain. With the Red Wolves safeties in the box, Gabriel knows the top will be open for Anthony.
Lebby made it a point for Gabriel to find Anthony early, as all 3 of his catches (including this 45 yarder) came in the first quarter.
While a little bit of a bigger athlete, the hair, the style, and the celebration reminds one a bit of former Sooner great CeeDee Lamb.
Special Teams is Back
Is it Special Teams? Or is it Gavin Freeman?
We’re going with a little bit of both.
Freeman is electric, and it was just Arkansas State, but Brent Venables’ renewed emphasis on special teams was apparent on Saturday. For one, it’s refreshing to see a punt return even attempted. Later in the Bob Stoops era, and throughout the Lincoln Riley era, there seemed to be a lack of interest in using the special teams game to flip the field. Special Teams Analyst Jay Nunez was brought in to build the special teams units, and the return game is starting to deliver. Marvin Mims had a decently successful 2022 campaign, returning 10 punts at a 16.0 yards per return average, but was able to deliver a return to paydirt.
Hopefully the emphasis continues throughout the season, and we’ll get to see more beautiful plays like this one. Take an extra look at Sammy Omosigho (#24) and Jayden Gibson (#1) on this play. Effort and attention to detail are important on special teams. It’s a concerted effort. And they delivered.
Gentry Williams Hit
Even though it was already a four touchdown lead in the first quarter, the huge TFL from the second year corner could help establish a physical standard in the DB lockerroom going forward this season. After the health scare during the summer, it was doubly refreshing to see Williams not only play physical, but look like a future NFL star.
Jayden Gibson Catch
Not necessarily for a timely play, or for importance relative to the game, but for the effort in hauling in his second career catch and potentially springboarding his career to the next level. The sophomore receiver from Florida seems to be thriving under new wide receiver coach Emmett Jones. This play might not have been as spectacular of a catch as his later TD haul from Jackson Arnold, but it was a good start to get Gibson’s confidence going.
Similar to Gibson, the linebacker from the 2022 class needs to get some plays under his feet to get his confidence going. Kanak has all the physical tools, including plus speed, you would want from an inside backer. So far, the issue seems to be mental. As the game slows down for him and his natural athletic abilities take over, this defense could see a huge boost. You can see some of that starting to take shape on this play here, reading the QB and reacting to the pass option to the flat. But there were still miscues on Saturday, miscues that will cost this defense against high quality opponents, and there’s only two non-conference games left.
Kani Walker Strip
It was the lone turnover of the day, but at least it was by sheer force of will. Walker had been getting some buzz in camp for his play, and his size fits in well in this defense. If he continues to produce when he’s on the field, it’s going to be hard keeping him off. Props to Peyton Bowen for the assist. Bowen played physical all game and looked like he fit right in.
I say this with some slight hesitation – Gabriel looked great against some lesser opponents last year – but the eye test on Saturday was passed. Gabriel, perhaps with some confidence in his offensive line, looked poised and in control of the offense, executing RPO looks, the QB run game, and the downfield passing game almost perfectly. Anytime you can throw up 300 yards in a half, you are doing something right.
Sometimes injuries present opportunities. With Gavin Sawchuk sitting out and Jovantae Barnes banged up throughout camp, Walker entered the game 1b on the depth chart next to Marcus Major, eventually earning the outright start. The short but stout walk-on displayed an efficient and powerful running style, navigating running lanes with decisive cuts and working through trash. Walker paced all running backs with his 5.5 yards per carry, and capped off his day with rushing two touchdowns.
After two offseasons of hype, the 6’5″ receiver from Florida finally delivered in a game, hauling in two masterful catches, one from each QB. While Andrel Anthony and especially Nic Anderson aren’t small, Gibson stands the tallest and has a Mike Evans-like catch radius. He’s not a burner – not many his size are – but he’s more than fluid enough to get involved in both the short and deep routes. Gibson is also a great special teams player, laying a key block on Gavin Freeman’s return.
All one needs to do is look at the highlight above of his tackle for loss. Williams, whose health scare this summer had everyone worried, seems to be doing just fine physically. Known for his sprinting out of high school, the sophomore from Tulsa has really worked on his body, adding plenty of size to help impact the run game. There was another play later in the game where Gentry, lined up as the boundary corner without a receiver on his side, played his run fit to perfection, forcing the back inside allowing Kanak to hit the back in the hole for a short one yard gain.
Andrel Anthony, Jr
Really this last slot could go to a couple of receivers. We’ve already highlighted Gibson. Gavin Freeman got some love for his punt return, but his action at receiver matched the camp hype. Drake Stoops looked quicker in and out of his breaks before his unfortunate injury. But Anthony came into the season expected to be one of, if not the, top producers at wide out. And as shown above, Anthony quelled a lot of doubt. Blessed with legitimate size (6’2″, 195 pounds) and speed (4.40), Anthony has the physical tools to pull it off. OC Jeff Lebby made it a purpose to feed Anthony the ball in the first quarter. Look for the Gabriel-Anthony connection to only continue to grow.
It was a bit of a surprise to see Barnes listed 3rd on the first depth chart of the year released last week. We heard a bit later in the week that the sophomore from Vegas had been banged up some during camp, so it made a little more sense. But when watching the running backs on Saturday (and a lot of them got carries), Barnes didn’t quite look as natural as some of the other backs. His footwork is somewhat inefficient, he cannot fight through contact consistently, and far too often he ran to contact instead of the open field. It will be an interesting couple of games coming up for the running back room.
The former Gamecock-that-was-once-a-former-Sooner was back in action in a crimson uniform on Saturday. His presence on the field was hardly noted outside of the snap report (31 total snaps), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to blocking. But he wasn’t noticeable in the pass game either. Only two tight ends caught a pass (for two total catches), and the senior from Plano was not one of them. It did not seem like they schemed up any plays for the massive tight end either. Blake Smith looked good in the run game, and Kade McIntyre showed off his speed on his TE screen play. Our prediction for catches and yards are looking a little high, but it is early.
Perhaps it is a little early to have the senior RG on this list. Bill Bedenbaugh’s lines typically need a few games to gel. But with all the hype on Mettauer coming out of camp, we expected to see a little bit more of a steady effort on the right side of the line. Mettauer found himself in the backfield several times on downhill run plays, and wasn’t dominant against an inferior opponent like one would hope. SMU should be a good second test for Mettauer – and the whole line.
After our insider notes over the last year, maybe this name isn’t a surprise. If you remember the video above, Kanak flashes. He has the prototypical size (6’2″, 235) to play MIKE. He has plus speed (sub 10.5 in HS). Sometimes he can overcome mistakes and missteps with those physical tools. But far too often, he missed his cues, or overran his run fit, or took a poor angle. Linebacker was a juggle all the way through Saturday. If Kanak can’t find some consistency against SMU, Kobie McKinzie and Konnor Near are right there.
Started the game. Lead the receivers in snaps. Second on the team in career receptions behind Drake Stoops. But something subtle happened on Saturday that gives one the feeling that Farooq is falling behind. With the influx of talent at the position, whether that’s Andrel Anthony from the portal, Jaquiaze Pettaway from high school, or Jayden Gibson and Nic Anderson from first-season purgatory, Farooq might not have the juice to see a lot of passes going his way this season. Notable – even leading the receivers in snaps, his first game went by without a single catch.
Going into this game, what this team would look like to the eyes was a huge question mark. I think I speak for everyone here at 360 when I say that we all expected a huge leap, which would have been completely understandable. Year two under a new head coach, a head coach with a vastly different personality and philosophy than the prior I might point out, is always where the most improvement happens. But did anyone really expect OU to look THAT good right out of the gates? The improvement from a physical standpoint was incredibly obvious – size, speed, athleticism, did I say size? And from an attitude standpoint? You don’t win games 73-0 against ANY bowl subdivision opponent without asserting your will. What a start to 2023 for Brent Venables and the Oklahoma Sooners. They absolutely have to keep the momentum going this coming Saturday against a sneaky SMU squad. – Matt Burns
Stock Up: Woodi Washington, Gentry Williams, Nic Anderson, Andrel Anthony, Dillion Gabriel
Stock Down: Marcus Major, Reggie Grimes, Zach Schmit (PATs quality), Josh Plaster (holder for PATs), Josh Plaster (not enough punt attempts)
Review: So having watched 23 or so first games under Stoops/LR/Venables, I’d have to say that on Saturday we likely saw one of the top-five debut games. The level of dominance over the first 45 minutes or so was unlike anything seen lately in a first game. Factor that dominance with 87 players seeing the field, and the result is even more impressive regardless of the opponent. Barring a couple of personal foul penalties, this was an incredibly clean execution by both sides of the ball, with a heavy flavor of complimentary football. Obviously the level of competition will increase, but so will OU’s development of so many young and new players. And the biggest addition/improvement for the future is that OU now has two QBs that can win lots of football games, something that cost OU at least two games last year, directly and indirectly hurting their offense overall in the second half of the season.
Stock Up: Gavin Freeman, Nic Anderson, Jayden Gibson, Reggie Pearson, Andrel Anthony
Stock Down: Jalil Farooq, Marcus Major, Jaren Kanak, Austin Stogner, Tyler Guyton
Review: A number of things jumped out from the 2023 Sooner season opener. The most glaring thing to me was just the overall team speed improvement from a season ago. The increase in athleticism was obvious at most every position on the field Saturday. From Safety and Corner to Middle Linebacker and Defensive End, the defense as a whole is longer, faster, and more athletic at every level.
Offensively, it’s hard to emphasize how much the addition of Emmett Jones as WR coach was seen in the opener. The Oklahoma wide receiver group this year is far and away superior to the 2022 group in terms of size, speed, quickness and experience. But I think most fans expected to see a bigger, faster and more explosive WR group this season…yet what stood out with that group was how dominant they were in the perimeter blocking game.
At quarterback, Dillon Gabriel quietly played his best game in a Sooner uniform, throwing for over 300 yards with only 3 incompletions (2 of which could have been caught). Yet despite a nearly flawless outing for Gabriel, it’s difficult to not comment on not only how talented Jackson Arnold looked throwing and running on Saturday, but how poised he was in his first collegiate snaps. Quarterback will continue to be interesting to watch as the season moves along.
As I look at Oklahoma’s matchup Saturday against SMU, in many ways it looks to be the ideal test for a developing Sooner team. Defensively, SMU brought in almost an entirely new starting 11 via the transfer portal, and while they are not a big group on the backend, they do have size along their front that will give the OU Offensive Line and run game a test. Offensively, SMU’s attack will provide a solid test for what looks like an improved Sooner Defense. The Mustangs are likely to spread OU out for more than Arkansas State did and test OU’s DB’s vertically in the passing game, while also looking to stay balanced on the ground with a talented RB transfer LJ Johnson. I will be looking to see if the OU front 7 can take the next step in their development and play a dominant 4 quarters against the future ACC program.
Stock Up: Gavin Freeman, Gentry Williams, Andrew Raym, Jayden Gibson, Andrel Anthony, Jr
Stock Down: Austin Stogner, McKade Mettauer, Jaren Kanak, Jalil Farooq, Javontae Barnes
Review: In Saturday’s OU football game, a standout performance was marked by the participation of 87 different players, providing ample opportunities for film review throughout the week.
The star of the day was undoubtedly Emmett Jones, with his entire wide receiver group leaving a lasting impression. Both quarterbacks exhibited efficiency and a strong command of the offense, while the running backs showed promise, but I’m ready to see Sawchuk’s contribution. On the defensive front, there was a notable increase in size and speed, but some vulnerabilities were exposed that stronger opponents might exploit.
Looking ahead to next week’s matchup against SMU, a formidable offense awaits, serving as a true litmus test for the defense. If they can limit SMU to 24 points or fewer, it would be a significant indicator of defensive progress. Additionally, the performance of SMU’s offensive line offers an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the pass rush. On the offensive side, expectations are high, as they should be able to exploit a vulnerable defense and rack up plenty of points.