One week after an embarrassing Houston loss, the Sooners return to Norman for the first home contest of the 2016 campaign. Wedged between two brutal non-conference matchups, this Louisiana-Monroe game will give OU a sorely needed opportunity to iron things out before the Buckeyes show up next weekend.
While most of the pregame talk will center around the stadium renovation and next week’s game, it’s important for the Sooners not to overlook ULM. This isn’t the Warhawks team of a few years ago, when Kolton Browning made the team a mild upset threat in OU’s 2013 home opener. This ULM squad is rebuilding, even by Sun Belt standards. Under first-year head coach Matt Viator, the Hawks are trying to rebound from a 2-11 season and set the stage for a brighter future. If the Sooners want to start climbing the polls again, they need to beat this team by a few dozen points.
Here’s what to watch for on Saturday night.
When Oklahoma Has the Ball:
- Baker Mayfield will look to rebound from a rocky first start by finding a rhythm with his receiving corps and getting rid of the ball faster. ULM is returning only three starters on defense, and though they played well against Southern with four sacks, five QB hurries and a pick, their rebuilt front seven won’t cause Baker many problems.
- ULM has a handful of proven defenders like sophomore linebacker David Griffith and senior safety Tre’ Hunter. The two racked up 24 tackles between them in ULM’s Week One win, and will be the main obstacles between Samaje Perine and the end zone. Look for OU to reassert its rushing attack against the Warhawks, with plenty of touches for Mixon and true freshman Abdul Adams.
- Expect more big plays like the first half of the Houston game. Mixon and Perine will probably have some long runs, and there’s no one in the ULM secondary who can cover a streaking Mark Andrews or an extra-large receiver like Jeffrey Mead. The Sooners will distribute the ball and try to get everyone involved—it’s their last chance to get a hard look before the schedule turns savage again.
- Viator’s Warhawks run a 4-2-5 base defense with a “Buck” linebacker loading the box or dropping back as needed. Their versatility allowed them to limit Southern, especially in the second half. The Sooners will look to avoid confusion and any miscues and run up the score on this inexperienced ULM defense.
When Louisiana-Monroe Has the Ball:
- One big storyline in this one will be the battle at corner between Dakota Austin and Parrish Cobb. Obviously Austin did not have a good first week, and though he remains above Cobb on the second depth chart, don’t be surprised to see lots of snaps—or even a start—for Cobb in this one. The Sooners will look to give snaps to lots of different defenders, like converted receiver Michiah Quick and junior linebackers Emmanuel Beal and Kapri Doucet. The Sooners need to see some plays at game speed and figure out what they have.
- The Warhawks have a dual-threat QB in Garrett Smith who torched Southern for 208 yards through the air and another 150 on the ground. OU didn’t have trouble containing Greg Ward in pocket—he had to beat them with his arm alone. Smith is no Greg Ward, but the OU front seven will need to stay disciplined anyway.
- Other Warhawks weapons include running back Ben Luckett (6.1 ypc against Southern) and wide receivers Ajalen Holley and Marcus Green. Smith is an efficient, high-percentage passer who manages games well, and after the Houston game will probably try to exploit Oklahoma through the air. OU will have a great opportunity in this game to experiment with the pass rush that didn’t get home often enough in Week One. If they can keep Smith uncomfortable, he won’t be able to burn them.
- ULM, like the Sooners, returns three of five starters on the offensive line this season. Their offense is a much more experienced unit than their defense this year, and will be relied on heavily to rack up points and give the team breathing room. Normally after a first week like Oklahoma’s this would be a concern, but I’m betting on the defense to bounce back and take advantage of their talent gap to stop the Hawks.
- Just no kick-sixes, please.
- This game will be very important to Austin Seibert, who will try to prove himself in front of the home crowd after he started too soon and missed the ultimately-disastrous field goal attempt in Week One.
- ULM’s sophomore kicker Craig Ward is not exactly a fortress of consistency, going 9-for-14 on field goal tries last year.
Again, this game is about not just winning, but looking good while doing it. The position battles that play out over this game will determine a lot about the Ohio State game next week, so keep an eye on the receiving corps and the cornerbacks.
Oklahoma should have no problems in this important home game.