NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma’s defense might need to reach midseason form in the opener.
Houston, led by explosive quarterback Greg Ward, Jr., is ranked 15th and looking to make a jump on the big stage against the third-ranked Sooners on Saturday at Reliant Stadium.
Ward went 13-0 as a starter last season and closed by winning most valuable player honors in a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State. A victory for Houston could push the Cougars into the Top 10 and Ward into the Heisman conversation.
Ward finished last season with 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing and 2,828 yards and 17 touchdowns passing.
“Offensively, everything goes through Greg Ward Jr.,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said at the first of his weekly media sessions Monday. “Great player who can run the football — designed runs, a great scrambler and a good thrower as well.”
It will be a challenge for the Sooners to maintain the discipline needed against such a player right out of the blocks.
“You just have to stay strong and stay focused, keep your eyes out of the backfield,” Oklahoma cornerback Dakota Austin said. “The biggest thing he does is take advantage of blitzing teams or D-ends running up field. He’s just going to step up and try to get down field or get a scramble drill going.”
Houston, which uses a run-heavy spread similar to Ohio State’s, ranked 13th nationally in yards rushing per game last season.
The Cougars lost top receiver Demarcus Ayers to the NFL, but they still return four of their top five pass catchers from last season. Chance Allen, who had 56 catches for 752 yards last season, is in line to do more damage this season. Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner both are ready to step into bigger roles.
Ward uses his legs to create for his receivers.
“Especially for the DBs, he can extend the plays,” Austin said. “When you get a route and initially you jump the route and kill the route, the receiver just cuts back up field and it’s a scramble drill and now, you’re beat all of a sudden.”
When Ward can’t find anyone, he runs as well as anyone. He joins Clemson’s Deshaun Watson as the only quarterbacks to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 last season. His 21 touchdowns rushing last season rank second nationally among returning players.
The Sooners return six defensive starters from a unit that led the Big 12 in total defense (364.5 ypg), scoring defense (22.0 ppg), passing defense (202.8 ypg), pass efficiency defense (108.5) and sacks (3.08 per game). Though the Sooners lost experience with sack leader Eric Striker, tackles leader Dominique Alexander and linebacker Devante Bond, defensive end Charles Tapper and cornerback Zack Sanchez, they return an experienced secondary. Safeties Ahmad Thomas and Steven Parker and cornerback Jordan Thomas are back, and Austin has been elevated to the starting lineup.
Linebacker Jordan Evans is the team’s top returning tackler, and the Sooners are expecting big things from linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Those returnees help Oklahoma enter the game with confidence.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Austin said. “If you can pop it off and just get it out the way, you know what you’ll bring to it.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter @CliffBruntAP .