NORMAN — Last November in Morgantown, Oklahoma's offense repeatedly saved its defensive counterparts, embarrassing series after embarrassing series, in a high-scoring shootout with West Virginia.
The exact opposite was true Saturday night on Owen Field, where Oklahoma's sputtering offense turned the ball over four times inside West Virginia's 35-yard line, starting quarterback Trevor Knight was replaced to loud cheers early in the fourth quarter and the Sooners still managed to escape with a 16-7 victory in their Big 12 Conference opener.
Each time the Sooner offense made a critical mistake, the defense bailed it out with a timely turnover or a three-and-out.
“Some of the red-zone turnovers, they went right out and forced a three-and-out,” said OU coach Bob Stoops. “That was big. That's showing some attitude, as opposed to being down about it, they know they have to go do their job and get off the field.”
The Sooners (2-0, 1-0 Big 12) host Tulsa next week, and then have a bye before a Sept. 28 trip to Notre Dame that looms even larger after Saturday's struggles against the Mountaineers (1-1, 0-1 Big 12).
Oklahoma appeared ready several times to pull away from West Virginia, but a series of careless mistakes allowed the Mountaineers to hang around.
With 9:52 left in the second quarter and the Sooners leading 10-7, Lacoltan Bester caught a pass from Knight and fought forward for a 32-yard gain to West Virginia's 18-yard line before fumbling the ball away.
OU's defense forced a quick three-and-out.
Jalen Saunders gained 17 yards on a punt return, giving Oklahoma good field position with eight minutes remaining before halftime. The Sooners marched to West Virginia's 31-yard line before West Virginia linebacker Brandon Golson blindsided Knight in the pocket, forcing another costly turnover.
OU's defense again forced West Virginia into a three-and-out.
Early in the third quarter, the Sooners had seemingly found their groove on offense, when Brennan Clay gained 34 and 26 yards on back-to-back runs and West Virginia committed a personal foul, giving OU a first-and-goal situation on the Mountaineers' 4-yard line.
It was then, though, that Knight threw the first of his two third-quarter interceptions, once again killing any momentum the Sooners had built.
Five plays later, senior safety Gabe Lynn intercepted West Virginia quarterback Paul Millard and giving OU's offense the ball near midfield.
Clay gained 32 yards, and then was stuffed for a loss of two before another errant Knight pass was intercepted inside the West Virginia 5.
The Sooners' defense — getting little time to rest during the back-and-forth — finally looked winded as West Virginia marched toward the Sooners' end zone. Millard completed a 19-yard pass to Kelvin White, but junior safety Quentin Hayes forced a fumble that Lynn recovered.
“This year it's a different defense,” said senior linebacker Corey Nelson. “We probably would've crumbled (last year).”
Oklahoma's defense wasn't perfect, though. In the first quarter, West Virginia running back Dreamius Smith took a handoff up the middle, broke tackles from Lynn and Nelson and sprinted the rest of the 75 yards for the game's first score.
Outside of that play, West Virginia gained only 94 rushing yards on 23 carries.
“Once you get into the flow of the game, you just felt like it was very uncomfortable,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “It kept our players on edge. We could never separate from them.”