Oklahoma survives UTEP, 24-7

The Sports Xchange

September 02, 2012 at 12:31 am.

Landry Jones led the Sooners to victory. (Jim Cowsert-US PRESSWIRE)

EL PASO, Texas — A funny thing happened on the way to No. 6 Oklahoma’s season-opening blowout over Conference USA middle-of-the-packer UTEP — a game expected to kick off the final season of Heisman hopeful Landry Jones in style. But, nobody on the Oklahoma sideline was laughing.

Busy keying on UTEP quarterback Nick Lamaison, a C-USA preseason first-team pick, the Sooners’ defense allowed Miners sophomore Nathan Jeffery to run wild from his very first carry. But the OU defense got consistently sticky when it mattered most, not allowing an offensive touchdown in a 24-7 win over tenacious UTEP.

Jones showed his pedigree late. He drove the Sooners 41 yards for the put-away fourth-quarter score, finding tight end Brannon Green on a 19-yard corner route. Damien Williams’ 65-yard touchdown run sealed the harrowing victory.

Jones finished the night 20-of-35 for 204 yards, a good chunk of that coming on a 68-yard hookup with receiver Kenny Stills for Oklahoma’s lone score of the opening half.

Jeffery led UTEP with 177 yards on 21 totes. Lamaison, who didn’t get much help from his receivers, finished a dismal 6-of-23 for a paltry 39 yards.

“We didn’t execute very well,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “It seemed like all of our third downs were third-and-long and not short.”

Said Jones, “Our deal was we just showed flashes of greatness tonight. … We’ve got a lot of young guys out there, but they’re still coming along.”

Jones led his club 41 yards on the initial drive of the second half to break a 7-7 tie. Justin Brown caught a 13-yarder on the first play of the third quarter to give his offense a jump. Michael Hunnicut’s 38-yard field goal attempt was infinitely more successful than an earlier first-half scuttled effort. The latter boot handed Oklahoma a 10-7 lead at the 10:05 mark of the third. It was a lead that the Sooner defense did not relinquish.

Not that three missed field goals by two UTEP kickers didn’t help. After Jeffery’s 71-yard run got UTEP deep into Sooner territory, lefty kicker Steven Valadez, in after first-teamer Dakota Warren missed two first-half kicks, snap-hooked a low-lining potential tying 41-yard field goal with 3:50 left in the third. It was UTEP’s final chance at victory.

“We’re working on it. We’re just a little bit off,” Lamaison said. “We never made those big plays. We just missed them.”

The lone exception was Jeffery’s 71-yard run toward a go-ahead score. Not reaching the end zone might have been the only shortcoming in a sensational debut.

“We went into the game trying to run, thinking that (Oklahoma) didn’t think we could run on them,” coach Mike Price said.

Not so, according to monster back and chief head-splitter Tom Wort.

“Our defense came in wanting to stop the running game,” the 6-foot, 237-pound junior said. “We were just weren’t getting it done.”

But they did vs. the Miner air game.

“Just guys competing after the ball,” Wort said. “Getting pressure, bump-and-run. A lot of guys playing hard.”

The Sooner offense ran all of five plays before it found itself trailing — for the first time in the three-game history between the two schools. Richard Spencer knifed in off the right edge and blocked Tress Way’s first punt attempt. Jeffery, doubling as a special-teamer, scooped up the bouncing ball and carried it the final 24 yards for the opening score with just six minutes off the clock.

“Bad execution on that punt block,” Stoops said.

Oklahoma struck back two possessions later, utilizing the big play to draw even. With an eternity to throw, Jones threw from outside the left hash all the way across the field to Stills, who made a nice route adjustment to get open inside the UTEP 40. After hauling in that moon shot on the move, he continued down the right sideline to complete the 61-yard play, the longest play of the 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior’s career.

The Miners started both first-half quarters strongly, but poor special teams play cost them points. Jeffery carried five times for 45 yards on the Orange’s first possession. But Warren, who missed nine field goals a year ago, missed his first of 2012, a 45-yarder that went wide left, to leave the game scoreless.

Tied at 7-7 in the second quarter, Michael Edwards’ 26-yard punt return got UTEP to midfield. An Aaron Colvin pass interference penalty helped the Miners get as close as the 12 before that drive came a cropper. But Warren pushed his 31-yard attempt for a UTEP lead to the right.

Not to be outdone, Oklahoma had its second kick of the night blocked on the ensuing possession. This time, it was a Hunnicut low-lining attempt that never cleared his offensive line as the teams went to the locker room tied at 7-7.

NOTES: Of the three games now played between the two clubs, this was the first played at the Sun Bowl. … Saturday’s game kicked off UTEP’s 95th year of football. The club was just 42-48-5 at the start of the night, but a more healthy 32-17-3 in home openers. Price was 5-3 in openers with the Miners, heading into his ninth season at the Southwest Texas school.