ORLANDO, FL — In just his second college football game, Gavin Sawchuk made a statement.
After only getting two carries during the regular season, the true freshman running back was thrust into a much larger role in Thursday’s Cheez-It Bowl against the No. 13-ranked Florida State Seminoles.
Playing behind a patchwork offensive line, Sawchuk displayed his top-end speed, rushing for 100 yards and one score on 15 carries in the Sooners’ 35-32 loss in Orlando.
“He has a tremendous future,” OU head coach Brent Venables said after the Cheez-It Bowl. “He is made of all the right stuff. Tremendous character. Great work ethic. Incredibly humble, intelligent, tough.
“It would been easy for a guy like him to kind of check it in and not get better, but he showed up every day and got better all season long.”
Sawchuk thought he had put an exclamation point on his night when he dashed 15 yards to score his first career touchdown putting OU up 25-18 early in the fourth quarter. It would have been his second score of the night had a holding call not negated a 16-yard run in the second quarter.
This past offseason, Sawchuk joined the team in the summer. Without enrolling early, it placed him on the depth chart behind established stars like Eric Gray and his fellow true freshman Jovantae Barnes alike.
Despite the uphill climb to earn playing time throughout the regular season, Sawchuk continued to develop and improve behind the scenes.
Gray’s decision to opt out of the Cheez-It Bowl and an untimely injury to Marcus Major cleared the path for Sawchuk to shine in Orlando, and he capitalized on his big opportunity.
“I thought he looked like he belonged,” OU offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby said. “From an eye test standpoint, he played well for a guy who had literally no playing time.
“… He’s as heartbroken as anybody right now. That’s what I hate more than anything. Our guys don’t get to feel success.”
Sharing the same field with a talented Florida State defense, Sawchuk’s speed still turned the eye.
Standing 5-foot-11 and 187 pounds, he’s not the most imposing figure. But when Sawchuk turned the corner toward the boundary, his speed made him a threat to break off a big play on every touch.
The true freshman averaged 6.7 yards per carry, with his longest run of the night giving OU a much-needed 25-yard jolt on Oklahoma’s final drive of the first half. Kicker Zach Schmit was able to nail a 41-yard field goal at the end of the drive to send the Sooners into the locker room up 17-11 and capitalize on Sawchuk’s strong run.
Barnes also had an outstanding night alongside Sawchuk, leading the team with 108 rushing yards and a touchdown himself, as the duo became the first pair of freshman running backs to cross the century mark in the same game since 1985.
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“I thought Gavin and Jovantae both did a great job, man,” tight end Brayden Willis said. “… I’m so proud of them. That’s a big deal to step up in a bowl game and compete and run the way they did and ran hard. Made great plays.
“I’m so proud of the, but obviously you can see a great future with both of them and I’ve said from the jump that they’re both going to be heck of players.”
Barnes and Sawchuk were excited to play alongside each other in the Oklahoma backfield, and Sooner fans got a taste of the dynamic combination they could form in 2023 on Thursday night.
“If you look at both of our games, we have two different types of styles,” Barnes said. “He’s more the speed guy and juke moves and explosive. I’m kind of more strong body and explosive. I feel like that’s the best two styles of a running back you can have.
“Having that one-two punch. I can back up him. He can back me up. It’s a great feeling to know when he goes in, he’s trustworthy. He’s going to do his thing, too.”
The only damper on an otherwise outstanding night for Sawchuk came in the fourth quarter.
Lebby entrusted Sawchuk with a carry on third-and-2, and it looked as he would once again reward the trust of his play caller.
Sawchuk carried the ball nine yards up the gut, but Seminole cornerback Omarion Cooper planted his helmet on the football, dislodging it and Cooper’s teammates jumped on the turf to recover the fumble.
Florida State cashed the turnover in on the ensuing drive, as Jordan Travis’ 17-yard touchdown pass to Markeston Douglas put FSU up 32-25 with 7:22 to play.
But the totality of Sawchuk’s experience in Orlando will help prepare him to step into a much larger roll next season.
“He has been a great teammate, and he is ready for his opportunity when it presented itself,” Venables said. “Again, really excited for him in some of his production tonight, outstanding. He will be a lot better going into it next year because of it.”
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