EL PASO, Texas — Late last season, with Landry Jones and his receivers unable to connect for touchdowns, Blake Bell and his unstoppable power-running attack became Oklahoma's sole option for six points.
If the Sooners' 24-7, season-opening win at UTEP on Saturday is any indication, the Belldozer may have a new primary purpose for 2012: the conversion of third-down attempts.
Many of the problems in the Sooners' final, Ryan Broyles-less four-and-a-half 2011 games stemmed from Jones' inability to connect with Kenny Stills, who replaced Broyles in the slot and struggled there.
With Stills in the slot position Saturday, he and Jones often showed signs of potential.
With just over five minutes left in the first quarter and the fourth-ranked Sooners trailing 7-0, Jones showed mobility and vision drastically improved from last season, stepping to the right, looking downfield and finding Stills, who crept behind the UTEP secondary and caught a beautiful 68-yard touchdown pass.
“It was kinda broken,” Stills said of the play. “Landry got flushed out of the pocket; he's usually not the guy to throw from hash to hash, but he made that throw. He saw me wide open and we were able to capitalize on it.”
“We've been working our tails off to be on the same page, and I felt like we were today.”
Other, less experienced receivers, though, had trouble getting open. Freshman Trey Metoyer, who is thought of as a budding superstar, underwhelmed in his college debut. He didn't make a catch until the third quarter and finished with four receptions and 21 yards.
“I was kind of frustrated for a moment,” Metoyer admitted. “But, hey, as coach kept on talking, we're a team. We won. Whatever I gotta do ... to win, I'm down.”
Jones spent some of his offseason learning from renowned quarterback coach George Whitfield, Jr., with much of their work focused on the Oklahoma quarterback's mobility and his skills in transitioning from scrambling to throwing.
Judging from Saturday's game, it was time well spent. With UTEP defenders — part of a unit that ranked 104th in total defense last season — Jones wasn't given any time in the pocket. He was forced to shift, twist and run to avoid Miner pass rushers, and often he was unsuccessful. Jones was sacked three times Saturday without protection from an offensive line that lost two seniors — Ben Habern and Tyler Evans — earlier this month, and their 59 career starts along with them.
“You've got a bunch of young guys that haven't played before at various positions,” said co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.
“It wasn't pretty; we know that, but it's a ‘W.' A lot of things we can go back and work on. It's not big-picture things; there are a lot of fine detail things we have to continue to iron out.”
Coaches insisted that the line would be OK despite its sudden youth and inexperience, but it's clear the line has work to do. If the OU offensive front can't keep Roy Robertson and Germard Reed off their quarterback, how can anyone expect it to stop Texas All-America candidates and defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor?
“We'll see when you watch it on tape,” said coach Bob Stoops. “I think, whether it's experience, whether it's communicating ... I believe the guys up there are talented enough in what you need to get it done. We just have to do a better job of them executing it, and us getting them to execute it.”
Bell, who was recently named Oklahoma's second-team quarterback to Jones, waited until early in the third quarter for the first of his four carries. He plowed through UTEP's defense for a first down before being met, smacked and upended by UTEP linebacker A.J. Ropati.
“I was actually excited,” Bell said of the hard hit he sustained. “The first time I get in there ... you want to get in there and get the juices going. For me, it was awesome.”
His other three rushes all came in the fourth quarter, and they all converted third downs.
Take those away, and Oklahoma's third-down conversion rate was 2 of 13.
Perhaps its summed up best by two Sooner drives in the fourth quarter. On one, Bell came in and converted two straight third-down attempts, and after the second one, Jones found tight end Brannon Green on a perfect touchdown pass to put OU up 17-7.
On the next drive, on third-and-9, Jones was sacked for a loss of nine yards to give UTEP back the momentum with almost four minutes remaining.
“Everybody took their turn being a little bit off tonight — out on the perimeter, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks, everybody,” Heupel said. “That's why we had the performance that we did. But we don't have all year (to get better); we have to have some urgency.”