September 08, 2015

(AP) - Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops thinks cutting down on penalties will help his team get off to a better start than it did in the season opener.

Stoops will look for his No. 19 Sooners to play a clean game from the outset when they visit No. 23 Tennessee on Saturday.

Oklahoma was held to a field goal over its first six possessions against Akron last Saturday, a slower-than-expected start for the program's heralded "Air Raid" offense under new coordinator Lincoln Riley, before it went on to a 41-3 victory.

Stoops is chalking up the early issues to penalties. Three of those first six drives included a penalty - two false starts and one holding call - and there were two other penalties on early punt returns by the Sooners.

"We emphasize it constantly," Stoops said. "We constantly are talking about it when we watch practice tape and what kind of discipline and technique they are using and what would constitute a foul and what wouldn't and we need to stay away from it."

The good news for the Sooners is they were dominant in the second and third quarters against Akron, scoring five touchdowns. Baker Mayfield passed for 388 yards and three touchdowns, breaking Sam Bradford's school record for yards in a season opener and validating Stoops' decision to name him the starter over Trevor Knight and Cody Thomas.

"For a period of time," Stoops said, "we executed really well and avoided penalties that hurt us and operated like we feel we can."

Somewhat lost in the excitement over Mayfield's performance was Oklahoma's ineffective showing on the ground. The Sooners rushed for only 100 yards, but Stoops isn't worried.

"We're aware every part of the game needs to keep improving but I believe in what we're doing and we'll be able to run it," he said.

Considering the state of Tennessee's secondary, another pass-heavy game plan might be in order for the Sooners. While the Volunteers beat Bowling Green 59-30 in their opener last Saturday, they allowed Matt Johnson to throw for 424 yards without an interception.

Injuries also have ravaged the Vols' defensive backs, who are coached by Willie Martinez, a former Oklahoma assistant. Martinez served a one-game suspension during the Bowling Green game after committing an NCAA recruiting violation.

Tennessee, however, had bigger issues than just Martinez's absence, coach Butch Jones said.

"We had too many mental errors and to play winning football you can't have the amount of mental errors that we had," he said. "Again, first game, going fast, a lot of things happening, but that's inexcusable."

After an encouraging performance in the opener, Tennessee's offensive line is about to discover just how far it has come in the last year.

Oklahoma sacked former Vols quarterback Justin Worley five times and pressured him throughout a 34-10 victory last season. That game set the tone for a season in which Tennessee allowed 43 sacks, the most in the SEC.

The Vols say they're stronger up front this year and backed up that confidence last week by allowing only one sack while supporting a 399-yard rushing performance.

"It gives us a lot of confidence," offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson said. "I think the more confidence you have, the better you play."

Tennessee's linemen already have grown quite a bit since last year's meeting with Oklahoma. The Vols entered last season with six combined starts from their offensive linemen. The trip to Oklahoma marked the first time Kerbyson started at left tackle. The right tackle that night was Coleman Thomas in his first career start as a freshman.

Kerbyson now has a year of experience at left tackle and was named SEC offensive lineman of the week. After making five starts at right tackle last year, Thomas has returned to his natural position at center.

The rest of the first-team line includes Jashon Robertson at left guard, Dylan Wiesman at right guard and Brett Kendrick at right tackle. That line is protecting a more mobile quarterback this year now that Joshua Dobbs has taken over.

Tennessee's improvement up front was obvious last week. Alvin Kamara rushed for 144 yards and Jalen Hurd gained 123, giving Tennessee two 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time since 2009. Tennessee's rushing total was its best since 1994.

Dobbs was just 11 yards away from giving Tennessee three 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time since 1991.

The Vols face a much tougher test this week against Oklahoma senior linebacker Eric Striker, who continually worked his way into Tennessee's backfield last year.

"He's really the heart of the defense," Stoops said. "Eric's a key leader for us. He has the pulse of everybody. He gets everybody going."

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