NORMAN, Okla. – New Oklahoma coach Brent Venables got emotional when athletic director Joe Castiglione presented him with the game ball and the players loudly celebrated his first career victory as a head coach.
Dillon Gabriel passed for two touchdowns and ran for another and No. 9 Oklahoma rolled past UTEP 45-13 on Saturday.
Venables was a full-time assistant for the previous 26 years in stints at Kansas State, Oklahoma and Clemson. He took over for the Sooners after Lincoln Riley left to take the Southern California job last December and brought energy and hope to a stunned fanbase.
Then came the waiting.
“In some ways, it went by really fast in that last nine months, and then in many ways, it seemed like dog years,” he said. “It’s like `When are we going to get to play a game?’ But everything has its time.”
Now, the Sooners have taken a significant step forward.
“At the end of the day, it was going to be about Oklahoma re-establishing the soul and the spirit of this program,” he said.
Gabriel, a transfer from Central Florida, connected on 15 of 23 passes for 233 yards. Eric Gray rushed for 102 yards, Brayden Willis caught two touchdown passes and Marcus Major rushed for two scores.
Oklahoma held UTEP to 316 total yards.
“For the most part, we played a really clean game on both sides of the ball,” Venables said.
Oklahoma jumped out to a 21-0 lead just over eight minutes into the game. The Sooners gained 301 yards to take a 28-10 halftime lead. Gabriel passed for 164 yards and two touchdowns before the break. Reggie Grimes led the Oklahoma defense with 2 1/2 sacks in the first half, including one on the final play of the second quarter to snuff out a scoring threat.
“I thought after we handled the first onslaught, the 21-0 run, I thought we played better,” UTEP coach Dana Dimel said. “From that point on, it was 24-13. We executed and did some things better.”
Oklahoma then held UTEP to 99 yards and three points in the second half.
Dimel said it wasn’t all bad.
“I really feel like we’re a better team leaving the field,” he said. “We played a really good football team today. They executed at a high level and they did some really good things. But I feel really comfortable about our football team and what we gained.”
Venables appreciated the win but won’t be celebrating for long.
“I want them to enjoy this one,” he said. “But on Monday, we’re going to strip this thing down to the studs and start over again.”
UTEP: The Miners couldn’t get anything going. They had just 28 yards rushing on 31 attempts, and the Sooners finished with six sacks and 10 quarterback hurries.
Oklahoma: The Sooners rushed for 259 yards and passed for 233. Oklahoma averaged 8.1 yards per play and 6.8 yards per carry and did not commit a turnover. The Sooners were balanced offensively and protected Gabriel relatively well.
In his first game as the clear No. 1 back, Gray turned in his first 100-yard rushing performance for the Sooners.
Gray transferred from Tennessee before last season, then split time with Kennedy Brooks. With Brooks gone, Gray finally got the kind of work he wanted. The senior had 16 carries and caught two passes, including a 35-yard run and a 24-yard reception.
WHAT A START
Oklahoma true freshman receiver Gavin Freeman took a reverse 46 yards for touchdown on his first collegiate touch.
Freeman attended Heritage Hall School in Oklahoma City, the same place that produced NFL great Wes Welker.
Hardison will wear former Miners tight end Luke Laufenberg‘s No. 2 jersey throughout this season. Laufenberg died of cancer in 2019. Hardison is the second Miners player to wear Laufenberg’s jersey. Players also have worn black stickers on their helmets in his honor since the start of the 2019 season.
Dimel, on playing in a hostile environment: “It was a fun experience. It was a good game for us. It’s what you want to get out of a non-conference game if you’re not going to win.”
UTEP: Hosts New Mexico State on Sept. 10
Oklahoma: Hosts Kent State on Sept. 10.