Shaky openers nothing new for OU

NORMAN, Okla. -- The Sooners sure were lucky.

At least that's the way their head coach put it.

"The sorriest exhibition of Oklahoma football I've ever seen," he said. "And I am the luckiest guy in the world."

Last weekend, the Sooners escaped El Paso with a victory that was in doubt until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, setting off sirens all across Tornado Alley.

But if OU fans think the UTEP game was a red flag for the prospects of the season, they should consider 1977. Barry Switzer's Sooners were the preseason No. 1 and opened up at home against Vanderbilt. The Commodores were coming off a 2-9 season and would go 2-9 again in '77.

Vanderbilt, however, had Marciano on the ropes. In the fourth quarter alone, the Commodores had a touchdown called back on a controversial penalty, then a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown -- and still had a chance for a game-winning field goal that was blocked as time expired.

OU prevailed 25-23, though Switzer said, "Vanderbilt deserved to win" instead, and a pall was cast over what was thought to be a promising season.

"The fans seemed to be panicking, but we didn't panic, Coach Switzer didn't panic," said Zac Henderson, OU's All-American safety on that team. "There wasn't one game that we knew we couldn't win if we did what we were capable of.

"Panic never came into it."

Two weeks later, the Sooners calmly knocked off Ohio State in Columbus by way of a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback, setting the tone for a 10-1 regular season.

The lesson, Henderson says? Don't judge a book by its first game.

"The game in El Paso reminded me of Vanderbilt," Henderson said this week. "Sometimes in that first game, you're just trying to get your footing."

Against the Miners, OU collected its footing just in time. The Sooners finally pulled away late in the fourth quarter after a Landry Jones touchdown pass and Damien Williams 65-yard scoring run. But three missed field goals by UTEP helped bail out the Sooners as well, including a 41-yarder that would have tied the game in the third quarter.

"We need to play better," said OU linebacker Tom Wort. "Everyone kind of freaked out first game, but we still need to play better and we will.

"Everyone here has a level mindset -- we'll get better."

These Sooners have had to respond to a "Vanderbilt" moment before. Just two seasons ago, OU was a 34-point favorite in its opener over visiting Utah State. Trailing just 31-24, the Aggies had possession in OU territory in the fourth quarter but couldn't tie the game.

After holding off Utah State, the Sooners bounced back to hammer Florida State by 30 points, then went on to capture the Big 12 championship.

"Everyone is making an assumption off one game that, 'Oh, OU is going to suck this year now,'" said defensive tackle David King. "The reality is, even though everyone expects us to beat everybody by 40 points, that's not going to happen.

"Basing this season off one game is pretty stupid to me."

No one can argue that last weekend was a sorry exhibition of Oklahoma football. But as the '77 Sooners proved, the opener doesn't always foretell the season.

"It's one game and we've got a long year in front of us," Stoops said. "And how you start doesn't always have anything to do with how you finish."