By Phil Rodriguez
The 3rd-ranked Oklahoma Sooners fell to the 15th-ranked Houston Cougars in their opening game, losing 33-23 at the NRG Stadium in Houston.
Led by dark horse Heisman candidate Greg Ward, Jr., the Cougars have been tipped to be the next big thing in college football from the preseason, while Oklahoma was touted as one of the major college football playoff contenders.
Things looked good early on for OU, as the Sooners capped off a 79-yard drive at the beginning of the game with a 32-yard Joe Mixon touchdown run. Houston and Ward, Jr. took the field right after, only to run into an aggressive Sooner defense and be forced to settle for a field goal on their first drive.
The ensuing drive for Oklahoma again was extremely promising, with Baker Mayfield hitting Mixon with a bomb over the middle for a 60-yard gain, setting up a first down on the Houston 15-yard line. But then things got auspicious, as Mayfield tried to make something out of nothing two plays in a row, only to be pressured into minimal running gains as the Sooners settled for a field goal.
The Sooners again kept the Cougars to a field goal after shutting them down on 3rd and goal, only to go three and out on their drive directly after. Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine left the game with an apparent shoulder injury after taking a monstrous hit from Houston safety Garrett Davis, but he returned later in the third quarter.
Oklahoma managed to keep pace with the Cougars’ high-flying offense through the first half, with Mayfield hitting receiver Mark Andrews for a 64-yard touchdown halfway through the second quarter, putting the Sooners up 17-13. The half see-sawed back and forth, with Houston knocking in a couple of more field goals to make it 19-17 at the half.
In the second half, Houston pulled away due to some big momentum plays. Undoubtedly the biggest play of the game came in the 3rd quarter, when Cougars utility player and kick returner Brandon Wilson returned a missed Austin Siebert field goal 109 yards to put Houston ahead 26-17. The Sooners couldn’t get it going after that, fumbling on the drive immediately following the return touchdown. Ward, Jr. and the Cougars took advantage, and he threw his second touchdown pass to put Houston ahead 33-17, dumping the ball off to fullback Tyler McCloskey.
The game became defensive from there, with Houston stuffing the Sooners and allowing nothing, while Oklahoma’s defense desperately attempted to do the same to keep them in the game. Mayfield and Andrews hooked up for the second time late in the fourth quarter, but the Sooners failed on the two-point conversion and couldn’t recover the onside kick. Houston ran out the clock and took the win, 33-23.
The Sooners face UL-Monroe next week, and must improve on both sides of the ball if they expect to compete with the likes of Ohio State and TCU in coming weeks.
One of the more underrated aspects of Baker Mayfield’s play last year was his mobility and ability to extend plays, and he tried mightily to put it on display against the Cougars. But between a combination of solid mixed zone coverage, quarterback spies and pressure from the outside, Mayfield was frequently forced into high-pressure situations and was sacked five times, fumbling once.
The game was, on one level, a duel of two quarterbacks, with neither team showing a clear advantage offensively until late in the second half. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield completed 24 of 33 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns without throwing an interception, while Greg Ward, Jr. went 23 for 40 with 2 scores and no picks as well. The major difference was the protection for the two quarterbacks. While Ward was pressured, the Sooners’ offensive line was maddeningly inconsistent, and it may have cost them the win.