No. 3 Oklahoma (2-0) is set to take on Nebraska (2-1) Saturday in its final nonconference game of the 2021 season.
The Sooners’ and Cornhuskers’ matchup is set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Game of the Century. In that contest, No. 1 Nebraska defeated No. 2 Oklahoma 35-31 in what is considered the greatest college football game of all time.
The rivalry has lost some of its pageantry since then, but current OU players are taking the game seriously nonetheless. Here’s five takeaways from midweek press conferences with nose guard Perrion Winfrey, H-back Jeremiah Hall and linebackers Caleb Kelly and DaShaun White:
Caleb Kelly’s Nebraska connection
Over 25 members of Caleb Kelly’s family will be in attendance for Saturday’s game against the Cornhuskers.
Their strong ties to the state of Nebraska leads the sixth-year senior to view this weekend as a mini family reunion, he said. Kelly’s girlfriend, Adriana Maldonado, is a forward for the Cornhuskers’ women's soccer team. He also has a few relatives that graduated from the university.
However, in spite of that, Kelly never really considered Nebraska during his recruitment. He picked OU to pave his own path. When the programs announced their home-and-home series in 2016, the outside linebacker was originally let down.
“I was like, ‘Dang, wish I could (play in) that one,’” Kelly said. “But now, here we are. I’m still here. That ended up working out in it’s own way. … I’m excited for it.”
With the opportunity to face the Cornhuskers, Kelly also gets the chance to play against his former high school quarterback, Adrian Martinez. At Clovis West High School in Fresno, California, Kelly remembers catching 12 touchdown passes from Martinez during his senior year.
That was the only year the two played together in high school, but Kelly knew then that Martinez had the skills necessary to make it to the college level. So far in his junior season, Martinez has thrown for 728 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions on 46-of-74 passing. He also has 34 carries for 256 yards and three scores.
For the Sooners to stop the Nebraska offense, Kelly said they’ll need to contain his former teammate first.
“He’s a crazy athlete,” Kelly said. “It’s going to be really cool to go up against a guy who can throw and run the ball. … You can see how dangerous he is when he’s running the ball. I think that’s the biggest difference this week. We left a lot of plays last week even though we won.
“You heard (defensive coordinator Alex Grinch) say, ‘You can hide behind some of those plays because you might be more athletically gifted.’ So, I think this week we have to clean a lot up. … We still have a lot to improve.”
Perrion Winfrey clogs the middle
The play of OU’s defensive line often determines a win or loss, senior Perrion Winfrey believes. With the challenge of Martinez’s athleticism looming, Saturday’s matchup will be no different.
“It all starts with the d-line,” Winfrey said. “It all starts with us hunting (on) every play. Going out and attacking every play. (We need to) give it our all, knowing that if we dominate the line of scrimmage, there’s nobody in the country that can compete with us on a physicality level.”
Two games into his senior season, the nose guard has recorded five tackles and two sacks. This offseason, Winfrey said he’s worked on his mental game as much as his physical game due to his belief that football “becomes easier” when played with a strong mental focus.
A locked-in mindset is another key to defeating the Sooners’ former Big 12 rivals, Winfrey believes.
“We can’t wait to just get out there (and) put pads on pads,” Winfrey said. “We just want to see the better man win, who’s going to be more physical (and) who’s going to want it more. (Are they) going to want to run the ball at the cost of getting hit, and hit, and hit, and hit? We just want to see who wants it more at the end of the day.”
Jeremiah Hall sees better intensity in practice
Despite OU avoiding a scare and edging Tulane just 40-35 in its season opener, redshirt senior H-back Jeremiah Hall knew his team’s play at the time wasn’t indicative of its potential.
Entering the season ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 Poll, the Sooners were expected to win the game soundly, but surrendered 21 second-half points, while scoring just three. OU later responded with a dominating 76-0 victory over Western Carolina on Sept. 4, after preaching a message of playing all four quarters.
“We had to respond,” Hall said of OU’s performance after its letdown against Tulane. “Obviously nobody felt comfortable about the way we won against Tulane. … Winning’s never easy, but that doesn’t mean we were satisfied.”
Hall said Riley, in response to the game, challenged the team by increasing the intensity in practice. That change in practice is why Hall said the Sooners aren’t worried about playing a Power Five team in Nebraska, after decimating an FCS school that finished 1-8 last season in Western Carolina.
“That’s why we keep things intense in practice,” said Hall, one of OU’s five captains. “No matter the competition, no matter the opponent, we’re always practicing hard. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
DaShaun White’s position flexibility
During the 2019 season, White was moved to the weak side WILL linebacker spot to account for Kelly’s ACL injury. Then in 2020 he was transitioned to the middle MIKE position following Kenneth Murray’s departure for the NFL.
Strangely, White, a senior, began the 2021 season listed as a co-starter at both spots. After splitting time with junior David Ugwoegbu at MIKE last fall, he looked poised to share reps this fall with Ugwoegbu and redshirt junior Brian Asamoah, the entrenched 2020 starter at WILL.
However, that only lasted one week. Before the Western Carolina game last weekend, White was listed as the starter at WILL with Asamoah as his backup. Ugwoegbu has assumed starting duties at MIKE with freshman standout Danny Stutsman as his reinforcement. So far, the latest position change hasn’t been a challenge for White.
“Quite honestly, I’ve done it for so long that I really can’t remember having difficulties with it,” White said. “When (Grinch’s staff) came here (in 2019), I was already learning both positions, so it’s something I’ve had in my toolbox since they’ve been here. It comes with (being) human, sometimes I might mix things up, but for the most part I think I’ve been able to handle it pretty well.”
On Tuesday, White, Asamoah and Ugwoegbu were among a handful of defensive players Grinch said have not improved like he’d anticipated so far this season. In his third year with those players, Grinch hopes they’ll become better versions of themselves, and after a strong practice Wednesday, White believes he and others are beginning that ascension.
“I think the most important thing for us would be to be consistent across the board as much as possible,” White said. “Everybody’s gotta be sort of personalized in your work at practice, and I know that may sound a little selfish, but in this game, you’ve gotta take care of yourself, and you taking care of yourself helps the team. So I think that just having everyone sort of approach practice that way and be that way snap in and snap out, I think that’s really important for us as we’re going forward.”
Big Noon Kickoff arrives
Ahead of OU-Nebraska, Fox College Football began setting up its massive iron stage outside the Sooners’ McCasland Field House on Tuesday. The network’s Big Noon Kickoff pregame show will air live from that set at 9 a.m. CT on Saturday before kickoff at 11 a.m.
Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is among the panelists for the show and will get to make one of his first appearances as a television analyst right in Norman. Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt will be on the call for the game, and the latter is stoked about the reinvigoration of the historic rivalry.
“Getting ready for (Nebraska) at (Oklahoma) this week … Really excited to call this historic rivalry,” Klatt tweeted Monday. “I think this is the best and most storied rivalry we don’t get to see annually.”
Getting ready for @HuskerFBNation at @OU_Football this week...Really excited to call this historic rivalry!!I think it is the best and most storied CFB rivalry that we don't see annually!What are your favorite rivalries that we don't get to see anymore?— Joel Klatt (@joelklatt) September 13, 2021