NORMAN — Contrasted with his three previous starts, Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell's passes were more on target, he appeared more poised and — as a result — he recorded better statistics in Saturday's 38-30 victory over Texas Tech.
Bell connected with Jalen Saunders for a beautiful 76-yard touchdown pass — the Sooners' longest touchdown pass so far this season. The OU offense was also much better on third downs, especially while sustaining impressive scoring drives of 97, 86, 75, 58 and 53 yards.
So what changed Saturday for Bell that allowed him to play at such a high level?
“Just being able to protect him in the pocket,” said senior running back Brennan Clay. “He was comfortable being able to take a shot down the field. We emphasized that they're a blitz-heavy team, so we did a good job of picking up the blitz and making him feel comfortable in the pocket. I think that's what helped out.”
Indeed, Bell's six starts can be split into two three-game groups: In one, Bell was productive throwing the ball; and in the other, he really wasn't.
In the former group of games, opposing defenses sacked Bell once and hurried him five times; in the latter, those numbers are eight and 10, respectively.
For Oklahoma to win at No. 6 Baylor on Thursday, Nov. 7, Bell will have to remain comfortable in the pocket against a defense that ranks eighth in the nation in sacks.
Bell started his first game Sept. 14 against Tulsa, and was remarkably effective throwing the football. A week later against Notre Dame, Bell continued to impress with his arm, this time against a top-notch defense on the road.
But over the next three weeks, Bell's passing numbers — and, along with them, Oklahoma's offensive production as a whole — dipped, causing many to question the junior's ability to lead the Sooners' offense.
In Oklahoma's 36-20 loss to Texas on Oct. 12, Bell completed just 12 of 26 pass attempts for 133 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. But he was also sacked four times and hurried five times by the Longhorn defense.
Both of Bell's interceptions and three of those sacks came in third-and-long situations.
The Sooners protected Bell much better Saturday from the Red Raiders, who didn't record any sacks the entire game.
“I think Blake's played with some confidence the first couple of starts, and he's been playing with some confidence here the last couple of weeks,” said co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel after the game. “I thought he did a really good job tonight of reading the defenses, getting to the guy that had the right leverage.
“We missed a couple of things — our quarterback did — the last week or two. Hopefully the trend that we saw tonight continues.”