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NORMAN — The buzz that surrounded Owen Field earlier in the night had long faded. Most of the fans had already headed for the exits as Oklahoma’s bench erupted midway through the fourth quarter on Saturday.
The Sooners already had a 69–point lead on overmatched Western Carolina when OU defensive end Ethan Downs punched the ball free from running back Carlos Davis and linebacker Shane Whitter recovered. The turnover ended the Catamounts’ lone scoring threat.
“We threatened the guys in the second half and told them we were going to run them on Monday if (Western Carolina) scored a touchdown,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said with a slight chuckle.
OU’s starters had long exited the game. The ultimatum — real or not — was given for a season.
“That was motivation for those older guys to help those younger guys out,” Grinch said. “I don’t know if they were thrilled with the takeaways as much as the drive stopped. I thought the energy level was good with some of the older guys leading the younger guys.”
The third-ranked Sooners’ 76-0 victory was about two things: energy and focus. After seeing his team muted and inattentive in the season-opening, 40-35 victory over Tulane, OU coach Lincoln Riley made some changes. There was no doubt the staff was going to play every available player, but all needed to be locked into the task at hand.
Players said the five days leading up to Saturday night were tense. Limits were pushed and egos were ignored. The road to becoming a tougher, smart team isn’t a freshly paved route.
And, in reality, beating an FCS team like Western Carolina (0-2) isn’t the ultimate goal. The Sooners (2-0), who moved up a spot to No. 3 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 rankings on Sunday, are trying to build a squad that can win in the College Football Playoff. Talent is essential to doing that. But toughness and discipline are essential as well.
“I do think we took some positive steps this week,” Riley said. “I mean, I think, we were locked in and responded to some of the challenges and, so, proud of the way that we handled it. The thing for us is, it’s not easy, you got to go do it, but it’s pretty obvious to everybody in here that we needed to go have a great week based on how we played in the second half in the first game.”
Offensively, outside of taking a knee on the final possession of the first half, OU scored 10 touchdowns and kicked two field goals in 13 possessions. The one punt was midway through the fourth quarter.
Defensively, the Sooners allowed just 2.8 yards per play and forced three turnovers.
“The whole week of practice, we practiced finishing, finishing, finishing, every play, every rep, just going in and doing what we need to do, focusing on the fundamentals and realizing that everything else will come,” defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey said. “It felt good to have a shutout. We wish we could’ve kept the rushing yards negative, but maybe next time.”
The next challenge is the long-anticipated meeting with Nebraska (2-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Owen Field. The historic rivalry is the first edition since the 2010 Big 12 championship and the Cornhuskers’ first trip to Norman since 2008.
Of course, it will be the legendary meetings in the 1970s and 1980s that will permeate through the minds of older fans over the week. OU-Nebraska was once one of the great annual games in college football.
Many of OU’s players hadn’t checked out their first shoulder pads the last time the Sooners and Cornhuskers met on the field. How much the rivalry once meant is just a side note. Nebraska is the next obstacle.
“I know it’s a big rivalry, was back in the day,” OU quarterback Spencer Rattler said. “It’s gonna be a big, fun atmosphere, especially being at home. It’s just another game, though. We’ve gotta go in and prepare this week and see what they do on the defensive side and practice it to perfection and then come out Saturday and play our best for four quarters. It sounds boring and bland, but that’s how it is.”
Save the excitement for Saturdays. Until, then the Sooners have work to do.