Sooners eager for season to begin

Friday, September 1st 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla.-Any nervous anticipation that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops may have felt before last year's opening game has been replaced by eagerness this time around.

A year ago, Stoops was preparing for his first game as a head coach. He wasn't sure how his players would perform in a real game. He didn't know how well the new offense would click, how the defense would hold up or how smoothly the coaching staff would mesh.

Those aren't mysteries anymore. Stoops and the 19th-ranked Sooners, coming off a 7-5 season and their first bowl trip since 1994, are confident and much more comfortable as the opener Saturday night against Texas-El Paso approaches.

"Knowing our team's chemistry better as a staff makes a big difference," Stoops said. "There's so much more familiarity with each other, better relationships with each other. I think we're a closer team and we understand how our players react in competitive situations.

"There's some comfort to a degree in the work our players have put in leading into the season. Outside of that, I don't know if a coach is ever comfortable."

Saturday's game is the first of four at home in September, all against teams that should allow the Sooners to build momentum heading into a rugged October.

UTEP was 5-7 a year ago and hasn't had a winning season in 11 years. The Sooners also play Arkansas State (4-7 last year), Rice (5-6) and Kansas (5-7) during the month.

Stoops, however, said neither he nor his players are looking past this week.

"We've got great respect for UTEP," he said. "Anyone we play that comes in here, we're going to respect and be prepared to play.

"We want to make sure when we get on the field that we play hard, we play smart, and regardless of who we're playing we play the very best we're capable of playing."

If that happens, then it could be a long opening night for first-year UTEP coach Gary Nord. Nord is familiar with Oklahoma, having spent the 1995 season as offensive coordinator at OU under Howard Schnellenberger.

"I think it might be one of THE toughest places to open up," he said. "I think this can make us a better football team in the long run."

Both teams figure to throw the ball the majority of the time. Josh Heupel set several Oklahoma and conference passing records last year, including 3,460 yards passing and 30 touchdowns. UTEP had two 1,000-yard passers a year ago, and one of them, Mike Perez, is back this year.

The Miners have restructured their scheme in an effort to improve their defense against the run. Opponents averaged 5 yards per carry a year ago, and now the Miners will use an eight-man front instead of a 4-3 alignment.

"Obviously, opening up against a team and a quarterback that threw for about 3,500 yards last year is not the ideal situation you would want after putting this scheme in to stop the run," Nord said.

Nord has eight starters back on offense and six on defense, and said he expects the Miners to contend for the Western Athletic Conference title even though they were picked by league coaches to finish sixth.

They haven't won a season-opening road game since 1982, and have lost nine straight games against teams now in the Big 12.

"With the distractions we're going to see here this Saturday and the atmosphere we're going to be in, it will educate our kids," he said. "And the speed we will see on the field, it will give us a chance to play against a very top team in the country, and I think it will pay dividends for us down the road."


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