NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Facing a ranked opponent on the road to open the season is no big deal for Louisiana-Monroe, which has Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops concerned.
Louisiana-Monroe struck a blow for the oft-overlooked Sun Belt Conference last season when the Warhawks waltzed into Fayetteville and stunned then-No. 8 Arkansas 34-31 in overtime. They took another Southeastern Conference foe, Auburn, to overtime on the road the next week before losing 31-28, then threw a scare into Baylor before falling 47-42.
So when the Warhawks visit No. 16 Oklahoma on Saturday for the season opener for both teams, they don’t figure to be intimidated by a foe coming off a 10-3 campaign.
Louisiana-Monroe is “a team that is very used to coming into stadiums in places like this and playing and playing well,” Stoops said. “They’re used to winning.”
Louisiana-Monroe is opening its season against a ranked foe for the sixth straight year. The Warhawks have 17 starters back from a team that went 8-5 and played in the Independence Bowl, the program’s first bowl appearance since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1994.
Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry, an Oklahoma native who said he appreciates “the monster” that is Oklahoma football, said the Warhawks have long since stopped worrying about who and where they play.
“I think part of that mantra of ‘put a ball down’ that we’ve coined over the last few years, it doesn’t just speak to guys showing up and playing, it speaks to the opportunity to play,” Berry said. “If you’re a good player, you don’t care who you play, you just care about having the opportunity to play. I want our standard of performance to be such that it doesn’t matter if we’re playing a tremendous team like Oklahoma or the North Monroe Pee Wees, our standard of performance doesn’t change. The expectation of how we play doesn’t change.
“Obviously, they are heavy favorites. It doesn’t make any difference. Saturday, someone is going to put a ball down and whoever the real players are will show up.”
Here are five things to watch when Oklahoma takes on Louisiana-Monroe:
EXPERIENCE AT QUARTERBACK: Louisiana-Monroe senior quarterback Kolton Browning was named the Sun Belt preseason offensive player of the year after passing for 3,049 yards and 29 touchdowns and leading his team in rushing with 488 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior. He’s thrown 60 touchdown passes during his career and scored 16 himself. Stoops said he agrees with the assessment of Browning as the Sun Belt’s top player. The Warhawks have been known to use two quarterbacks in the backfield simultaneously, which could mean freshman Brian Williams could see playing time.
INEXPERIENCE AT QUARTERBACK: Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight will make his debut as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback under a considerable microscope, after beating out the presumed favorite for the job, junior Blake Bell. As a senior at Reagan High School in San Antonio in 2011, Knight passed for 2,092 yards and 27 touchdowns with three interceptions, while rushing for 943 yards and 15 touchdowns. Knight’s coaches and teammates have praised his versatility and mobility, the latter an asset the Sooners haven’t had in abundance with Sam Bradford or Landry Jones at quarterback the past six seasons.
UP FRONT: Louisiana-Monroe’s probable starters on the offensive line have a combined 87 career starts, including 30 by center Josh Allen and 25 by left tackle Joseph Treadwell. With projected starting defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue serving a one-game suspension after an offseason arrest, the Sooners’ probable starting defensive linemen will have a combined zero starts. Depth could also be an issue for the Sooners on a day when game-time temperatures likely will be in the high 90s.
ON THE REBOUND: A major question for the Sooners is whether their defense can right the ship after three atrocious performances (against West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M) in the final four games of the 2012 season. Oklahoma will be without a probable starter at cornerback, Cortez Johnson, who, like Ndulue, will be held out against Louisiana-Monroe after an offseason arrest. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said he’s curious to see how the Sooners react to Louisiana-Monroe’s multiple formations and movements.
WHO’S IN THE BACKFIELD?: Oklahoma has plenty of depth at running back, with four seniors who have good track records of production. Tailbacks Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams and fullback Trey Millard all figure to play. Co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said he thinks all four seniors need touches because they play effectively and they’re experienced. For what it’s worth, the depth chart issued this week had “Clay or Williams” on top, followed by Finch at tailback. Millard, who also can be used at tight end, is the No. 1 fullback.