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Sooners kick off 125th season in a rare Sunday night appearance

August 29, 2019 ▪ By Ray Dozier

With question marks surrounding the Sooners’ defense again this year, and the answers will come against a quality offense right off the bat. Dana Holgorsen, in his first year as Houston's coach, is an offensive guru and familiar to the Sooner Nation.

No. 4 OU hosts unranked Houston Sunday night (6:30 ABC), and the Cougars (8-5 in 2018) had one of the best offenses in the nation a year ago. The Coogs put up 44 points (No. 5 nationally) and 512.5 yards (No. 7) per game in 2018, including 295.5 yards (No. 16) through the air.

Holgorsen’s offenses at West Virginia gave the Sooners’ defense fits by averaging 34 points the last five years. And, just like at WVU, Holgorsen will bring another stud at quarterback—D’Eriq King. The senior completed 64.5 percent of his passes a year ago for 2,982 yards with 36 TDs and 6 INTs before succumbing to a knee injury late in the season. His 167.04 QB rating was seventh-best in the country. He also ran for 674 yards and ran for 14 touchdowns.

Five UH receivers caught at least 30 passes last year, and four of them return. Those four, led by Marquez Stevenson combined for 180 receptions for 2,534 yards and 28 TDs. Stevenson grabbed 75 passes for 1,019 yards and 9 scores.

Like the Sooners, the Coogs had a scary offense, but a lousy defense. Houston’s defense was worse than OU — No. 119 in points allowed (37.2 average) and 127th in yards allowed (496.8). The Coogs went 8-3 last year before King went down with a knee injury, then got blown out in their last two games without him. The defense gave up a total of 112 points and 1,202 yards in those losses.

Joe Cauthen takes over the defense at Houston after serving the past five seasons as defensive coordinator at Arkansas State. He taught the Red Wolves to play aggressive, which resulted in a combined 146 sacks the last four years. In 2015, ASU led the country with an FBS-era record 26 interceptions, and the Red Wolves logged 22 defensive touchdowns during his five-year tenure.

Five starters and five of the top seven tacklers have graduated or are off to the NFL. Ed Oliver, last year’s Outland Trophy winner, is among them. Both linebackers are gone, too. Safeties Gleson Sprewell and Deontay Anderson, the team’s two leading returning tacklers are back, but the Cougars will need help at the corners, and a couple of transfers figure to get the starting nods.

Thirty-year-old punter and former ice-cream salesman, Dane Roy, returns for his senior season. The senior from Bunyip, Australia has averaged 41.5 yards per kick in his career, including a career-high 42 yards a year ago. Dalton Witherspoon returns for placekicking chores. Last year he hit all 72 PATs and 7 of 9 field goals sharing that duty with the departed Caden Novikoff.

Stevenson will again be the primary kickoff return specialist, and he averaged 22.4 yards per return in ’18. Bryson Smith is back as the punt return specialist. He averaged 7.8 yards per return a year ago.

Oklahoma is looking to replace four-year starter Austin Seibert, who did all the Sooners’ kicking chores. Redshirt sophomore Reeves Mundschau has the nod as punter, and redshirt freshman Gabe Brkic and redshirt sophomore Calum Sutherland are vying for placekick duty.

Cee Dee Lamb, who ranked ninth nationally (15.6-yard average) last year, will again return punts for the Sooners and Tre Brown will again return kickoffs. Brown ranked 38th in 2018 with a 23.7-yard average.

OU’s defensive front line is trimmer compared to last year. Noseguard Neville Gallimore and backup Dillon Faamatau have lost about 30 pounds each. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch emphasizes speed, and the defensive front will need it to be able to run stunts and shoot gaps. If the Sooners can corral King, it will be a long day for the Coogs.

Three years ago, No. 3 OU went to 15th-ranked Houston and was stunned, 33-23, and all hopes of making the College Football Playoff went down the drain.

Houston will put up some points Sunday night, but so will the Sooners, who are more experienced at scoring under Lincoln Riley’s regime (No. 1 in 2018 and No. 3 in 2017).

Sooners 52, Cougars 24.

Fast Facts

  • OU leads the series, 2-1.
  • OU is favored by 23.5.
  • Lincoln Riley’s record: 24-4 (.857) overall; 0-0 vs. Houston; 2-0 in season openers.
  • Dana Holgorsen’s record: 0-0 at Houston; 61-41 (.598) at WVU; 0-7 vs. OU.
  • OU is is 95-23-6 all-time in season openers and 77-15-4 in home openers (including 13 straight wins).
  • UH is 39-33-2 in season openers; 10-16-2 on the road.
  • OU is 2-1 in Sunday games (all postseason bowl games).
  • OU is 3-0 in games played on September 1.
  • UH is 2-5 in games played on September 1.

Articles by Ray Dozier