Oklahoma players gearing up for Big 12 Conference opener

Tuesday, September 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ After breezing through its first three games, No. 14 Oklahoma is again a heavy favorite against Kansas on Saturday. But the Sooners are not short on motivators.

The Jayhawks (2-1) have won their past three games against Oklahoma, the most recent one coming in a 20-17 victory in 1997. Saturday also marks Oklahoma's homecoming game and its conference opener.

``We're playing for keeps now,'' OU offensive coordinator Mark Mangino said Tuesday. ``It's Big 12 time and everybody's got a little bounce in their step.''

Oklahoma has not faced a challenge in its three games so far, winning by an average of more than 35 points against Texas-El Paso, Arkansas State and Rice.

The Sooner offense is averaging more than 490 yards per game. But to a public that has pointed to this year as a return to glory for the Sooners, it has appeared out of sorts in stretches and is not above the occasional turnover.

The meat of the blame for this appears to be falling on the offensive line.

``We've got to continue to develop more toughness and be more physical I think up front in our line play,'' OU coach Bob Stoops said.

The Sooners have yet to feel a real sting from this perceived weakness, allowing just three sacks in three games and averaging more than 5 yards a run and 318 yards per game passing.

But the road ahead is lined with hungry conference opponents, and Mangino considers the problem serious enough to make it clear to his offensive linemen that no job is secure.

``There's a number of kids that could step up and we'll give them that chance,'' he said. ``But I don't want to talk about specific kids at this point in time because we want to see how the week plays out. But we have to get some help and depth on the offensive line to be successful in the conference.''

Quarterback Josh Heupel indicated the coaches seemed off-base in pointing out problems in the offensive line.

``We're comfortable with the offensive line and the job they're doing. All of us are going to get better each and every week,'' Heupel said.

Heupel had one of the most accurate games of his career against Rice, completing 27 of 35 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions and said he is as much responsible for any offensive flaws as anybody.

``There's improvements all of us can make,'' Heupel said. ``I can do a better job taking care of the football. We can do a better job of running out the catch.''

Not the kind of talk one would expect from a quarterback whose offense is averaging 47 points per game, but the Jayhawks lead the nation in passing defense, allowing their first three opponents an average of 84 yards per game. Kansas also has 10 sacks this season in victories over Division I-AA Southern Illinois and Alabama-Birmingham and a season-opening 31-17 loss to Southern Methodist.

``They'll mix it up and bring some heat with their linebackers,'' Heupel said. ``If we don't play better than we have in the past then we're going to be in trouble.''

Still, Stoops and the coaching staff are counting their blessings.

``I realize not everybody's 3-and-0. I realize every year teams that should be don't always do that. So there's a certain amount of consistency and success that I feel good about. I think as coaches we're always overly critical _ especially early in the season and really on through to the end.''