The first quarter passed without quarterback Baker Mayfield coming his way for a completion. Midway through the second quarter Saturday against West Virginia the ball finally spiraled in his direction.
He was wide open, thanks to a collective effort from the Sooners, and he waltzed into the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown score. By no means had Shepard been locked down, emphatically stating after the game that he hadn’t been shut down despite just two catches.
And he hadn’t been. Oklahoma’s offense just didn’t constantly have to look for him, like it did all of last season and for parts of the non-conference slate. They shouldn’t have to after the receiving corps collectively gashed a defense that came into the game boasted as one of the top in the nation.
It’s an evolving group of receivers that is taking the burden off of Shepard’s shoulders.
“We’ve got guys that can go,” Shepard said. “. . . It’s just any given day. Anybody can get those yards any day. You just never know who it’s going to be with this offense.”
Dede Westbrook had a team high five catches and 107 yards. Mark Andrews caught his third touchdown in the past two games, and Durron Neal hauled in his first score of the season. Even Michiah Quick got involved after having not registered a reception through the first three games of the season.
It’s not the first time the pressure has been taken off Shepard, either. In the season-opener against Akron, Shepard was fourth on the team in catches.
“We're not an offense that just specifically targets guys,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “We can't go out and we're just going here or going there. There are read progressions in every route concept, and the way they cover, . . . you can't force the ball in this offense and execute it well.”
No. 15 Oklahoma (4-0, 3-1 Big 12 Conference) didn’t need to look Shepard’s way in key spots Saturday, and it won’t moving forward because of the growth of the receivers as a group.
Westbrook made a big catch down the middle to convert a first down, and Quick made two grabs on the sideline in the first quarter before hauling in a big catch with the Sooners backed up to their own five-yard line, ahead by only three points and coming off a West Virginia touchdown.
Oklahoma needed to answer the Mountaineers score, and Quick started a drive that ended two plays later with a 71-yard touchdown grab by Neal.
“They’ve shown ton of growth,” Stoops said. “Baker finds them in the right spots. It is encouraging. In this offense, you can’t rely on just one or two receivers. You have use them all. It’s the only way you can space the field. We have more guys stepping up and making plays and executing in the right way.”
Last year without Shepard turned in a catastrophe. Shepard accounted for at least 50 percent of the passing yardage in all but three games and accounted for less than 35 percent only once.
Shepard hasn’t accounted for more than 40 percent of the yardage this season and has been more than 30 percent of the production just once. On Saturday, he was just 10.9 percent of the passing yardage – even against one of the best early-season defenses in the country.
West Virginia came into the game with a top-20 pass defense and top-five pass efficiency offense. They were the top scoring defense in the nation. The Oklahoma receiving corps took that to heart.
“We did take it personally,” Westbrook said. “. . . We felt as if they haven't played anybody of our caliber. We're loaded really at the receiver spot. You're not going to play us one-on-one. That's total disrespect, and we came and we proved ourselves.”