NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops wasn’t about to bite on questions about the future of the quarterback position following a 16-7 win over West Virginia.
The Sooners’ shaky passing game said plenty on its own on Saturday night.
Despite the struggles of freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, resulting in a switch to junior Blake Bell in the fourth quarter, No. 16 Oklahoma put together a second straight winning effort to open the season against the Mountaineers.
It did so behind a career-high 170 yards rushing by senior Brennan Clay, who led the way for a Sooners’ offense that had 316 yards rushing. The senior running back had 22 carries and topped his previous best of 157 yards rushing against Iowa State in 2012, and he carried the offensive load on a night when Oklahoma’s quarterbacks needed a lift.
Knight, who won the starting quarterback position in a preseason competition with Bell, was 10-of-20 passing for 119 yards. However, he threw a pair of third-quarter interceptions — two of four turnovers by the Sooners (2-0, 1-0 Big 12) — and was just 1-of-5 passing in the second half before being pulled in favor of Bell to start the fourth quarter.
Stoops had no interest in talking about Knight or Bell’s status moving forward following the win, but he wasn’t shy about assessing the passing game’s performance on Saturday night.
“I’m not going to detail much of it, but at the end of the day, this was a tight competition,” Stoops said. “And (I) just feel things weren’t quite as good as they need to be in some of the throwing game, so we wanted to give (Bell) his chance.”
Paul Millard was 21-of-42 passing for 218 yards for West Virginia (1-0, 1-1), which scored its only touchdown on a 75-yard run by Dreamius Smith in the first quarter. The Mountaineers had four turnovers of their own, including three lost fumbles, and continued to struggle a week after rallying for a season-opening 24-17 win over William and Mary.
“(Oklahoma) ran the ball 57 times,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It wore us down a little bit, but we kept fighting. I was pleased with how our defense played. They didn’t quit playing; they played physical.”
The game was anything but the offensive showcase the two teams put on last season, when they combined for 1,440 yards of total offense in a 50-49 Oklahoma win.
Of course, the Sooners had four-year starter Landry Jones at quarterback in that game, and West Virginia featured the offensive trio of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Both teams entered this season featuring new quarterbacks, with Knight winning a preseason competition with Bell and Millard taking over for Smith after beating out transfer Clint Trickett. Knight struggled throwing the ball in last week’s 34-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe, but he ran for 103 yards, and Millard threw for 237 yards in last week’s win.
Neither starter looked comfortable throwing the ball through three quarters, when they were a combined 25-of-52 passing for 288 yards — and three interceptions.
Knight threw two of those interceptions, both in the third quarter during a stretch where the two teams combined for four of the game’s eight turnovers. The freshman’s first interception ended an Oklahoma drive that had reached the West Virginia 5, and his second came after the Sooners’ defense had intercepted Millard.
Following two more scoreless drives by Oklahoma, Stoops replaced Knight with Bell on the team’s opening drive of the fourth quarter. The 6-foot-6, 263-pound junior, mostly known for running Oklahoma’s goal-line Belldozer offense last season as Jones’ backup, had a 10-yard run on his first play — leading the Sooners on a drive that resulted in a 32-yard field goal by Mike Hunnicutt to extend the lead to 16-7.
Bell only attempted one pass, throwing an incompletion, while finishing with 21 yards rushing on two carries.
“At that point in the game, the clock is the enemy,” Stoops said. “You don’t mess with, as they say, the football gods. You do what you’re supposed to and burn the clock, so if they do get it they have minimal time to have a chance.”
Oklahoma, however, didn’t need his arm to win as long as they had Clay and Damien Williams, who finished with 95 yards rushing on 21 carries.
“I think the offensive line just did a great job,” Clay said. “I think it was just overall a good effort. I just happened to be the one with the ball.”
Knight threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Trey Millard in the second quarter to give the Sooners a 10-7 lead.
West Virginia, which had to outscored William and Mary 17-0 in the second half last week to come away with a 24-17 win, led early after Smith’s touchdown run. The junior escaped a pair of would-be Oklahoma tacklers in the middle of the field before sprinting down the left sideline for the 75-yard run and giving the Mountaineers a 7-0 lead.
That was all the scoring, however, for West Virginia, which lost three fumbles.
“That’s why this one’s going to be hard to swallow,” Millard said. “We lost the game by nine points, and I know there were a lot of missed opportunities with guys wide open, and I just didn’t make the throws.”