Sorry for the delay in a Sugar Bowl blog. Rose at 6 a.m. Friday, hopped in a taxi from downtown New Orleans to the airport, stood in line 55 minutes to check luggage, got to my gate with five minutes to spare, flew to Dallas, went to the Cotton Bowl hotel, got online for a video chat, grabbed some lunch, laid down for what I hoped was a nap but turned out not to be, caught a bus for JerryWorld and covered the Cotton Bowl.
So Friday was a long day. I jotted down some Sugar Bowl thoughts throughout the day, which actually worked well. A game that good deserves as much contemplation as you can give it.
Here’s what I saw and heard.
* Trevor Knight came into the game with the passing reputation of someone like, I don’t know, Danny Bradley. J.C. Watts. Somebody like that. Then against Alabama, he looked like Aaron Rodgers.
From the beginning, Knight was firing the ball with confidence, throwing into tight spaces, looking anything but scared.
Knight’s best aerial game had been at Kansas State — 14 of 20 passing, 171 yards, one TD, one interception. Knight’s second-best game is hard to pinpoint. I guess I’d go with Iowa State — eight of 14 passing, 61 yards, no TDs, no interceptions.
Then he throws like this: 32 of 44, 348 yards, four TDs, one interception, one sack.
“He showed the whole country what we’ve been watching for two years in our practices and our scrimmages,” Bob Stoops said. “The game has started to slow down for him, where he’s really starting to feel comfortable in what he can do. He’s got a very live arm with great legs.”
Said Knight, “The more snaps you get, the more comfortable you feel. The more completions you get, the more comfortable you feel. And it’s all about just getting in that rhythm, hitting a few shots early, set the rhythm, the tone for the game. The more snaps you get, the more comfortable you are. Moving forward from that, you know, going into next year and everything, that’s what we’re going to ride on.”
* Josh Heupel devised a fabulous gameplan and called a great game. It was his finest moment as offensive coordinator. Bama was kept constantly off balance. Hard to blame the Tide, who had no way of knowing they needed to prepare for Aaron Rodgers.
“Throughout the bowl preparation, we had the plan of going fast, putting in a few new wrinkles with the huddles there,” Knight said. “I felt when we came out from the very beginning it was working for us, and we kept going with it. It easily could not have worked and go back to our old stuff, but I felt like our plan was great. Hats off to coach Heupel and coach Stoops for developing that plan, and then hats off to our guys for executing that plan. Things were just clicking tonight, and hats off to the seniors. What a way to go out for them. It’s really something special.”
Among the additions for OU was an increased uptempo. Looked like the old days for the Sooners. “We knew they didn’t see it, they hadn’t seen a lot of tempo teams,” Stoops said. “And the ones that did gave them trouble. So we felt that would play into a positive way for us. So we knew in the first half we weren’t worried about clock. We wanted to move the football. We didn’t punt the first half, and the second half really we didn’t even think about slowing down until the last five, six minutes, is when we started, ‘all right, we’re two scores ahead, let’s do what we can to use the clock.’”
* OU’s offense was fantastic. And I liked the last drive best. A drive that ended with a punt. The Sooners, protecting a 38-31 lead, ate up 51/2 minutes, giving Bama the ball with just 56 seconds left.
OU ran 11 plays — Alabama ran 10 in the entire fourth quarter — and converted two third downs.
After Brennan Clay gained just one yard on first down, Knight threw four straight passes.
Think about that. In crunch time, trying to milk the clock, four straight passes by a redshirt freshman quarterback who until hitting New Orleans had shown no great propensity to pass.
Three underrated plays in this game:
1. On 3rd-and-9 from the OU 13-yard line in that drive, Knight dumped a screen pass to Clay. Clay made one guy miss, then was hit about the 20-yard line; he twisted and lunged to the 23. First down. It was Clay’s last drive as a Sooner. He’s had bigger games. He hasn’t had finer hours.
2. On 2nd-and-10 from the OU 23 came Heupel’s best call of the night, a middle screen to Roy Finch. First time all game the Sooners had dumped the ball in the middle. Finch scampered 15 yards, and that’s when the realization sunk in that OU was going to win this game.
3. On the next play, Clay took a shotgun option handoff and bounced outside for 12 yards to midfield. That one cut Bama to the quick.
“Really proud of our guys who came off the 10-yard line and get all the way to the other 40 or 45, moving the ball and eating the clock,” Stoops said. “They use all their timeouts. We put together I don’t know how many first downs in a row. That was big.”
* The officiating was OK. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Shepard after his second-quarter touchdown was ridiculous. There was no throat slash. But give the ACC crew credit. With the game on the line, a back judge threw a tough, but correct, flag on Bama’s Jarrick Williams, who clearly was holding Shepard on a slant route.
* That was an NFL-level pass rush, from Eric Striker (three sacks) and Geneo Grissom (two). Seven OU sacks in all. And I counted two or three AJ McCarron throwaways, trying to get away from coverage. Plus three McCarron scrambles.
“Our pressure was exception,” Stoops said. “We were on the quarterback all game. Mike (Stoops) and defensive coaches, with our blitzes, were really timed up well and executed well. Got to them and forced them into some bad plays.”
The first sign that McCarron might not have his way with the Sooners came in the first quarter, score tied 7-7. Third-and-goal at the OU five-yard line. Mike Stoops ordered a blitz, McCarron had to unload the ball and chose a fade in the corner to DeAndrew White. Mama Kass Everett covered White well, the ball fell incomplete and Bama settled for a field goal.
“Oklahoma did a good job of mixing things up,” McCarron said. “Showing us some things we hadn’t seen.”
The OU pass rush was so effective, by game’s end, the blitz wasn’t even needed. On Bama’s last possession, OU didn’t blitz — but Striker reached McCarron anyway, forced a fumble and Grissom picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown.
“I did feel they would have to have to throw the ball to have a chance,” Stoops said. “And I love the way we were rushing. We already had I don’t know how many sacks. I felt and I know Mike felt we didn’t necessarily have to blitz them to get to them. And, sure enough, we’re not blitzing on that, Eric comes off the corner and strips him on the very first play. “
* It didn’t hurt OU, but the Sooners did the SEC no favor by creating a monster. Bama freshman Derrick Henry almost was untackleable in the fourth quarter. Henry finished with 100 yards on eight carries, including a 43-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and a 61-yard TD play off a short pass in the fourth.
“Derrick had a really good bowl practice,” said Saban. “We decided that he was our second-best back (behind Yeldon) going into this game, and we were going to give him an opportunity based on his performance in practice and the confidence that he had gained throughout the course of the season … I think he has a bright future.”
If you ask me, the Tide’s best chance at victory with 56 seconds left, taking over at its 18-yard line, would have been getting the ball to Henry. Instead, Alabama went conventional, with McCarron dropbacks, and OU made him pay.
* For all the talk about the SEC homefield advantage in the Superdome — and it is indeed prevalent — the Sooners have now made seven Sugar Bowl appearances. That’s the most of any non-SEC school.
* OU’s offense stagnated with four straight punts in the third quarter. But did you realize that Bama punted on four of its first five possessions of the second half? Bama’s only touchdown came on Henry’s run, which came on a play in which Eric Striker jumped from one side of the line to the other, right before the snap, then got an earful from the Brothers Stoops when he got to the sideline.
But that was big-time defense. Alabama had just six second-half first downs. Both TDs were just big plays by Henry in which the Sooners didn’t tackle well.
Come to think of it, that’s really how Bama hurt OU most in the first half, too. Missed tackles. There was no out-of-position in this game. The Sooner defense was mentally prepared.
* Saban: “I was really proud of the way our players played in the second half. We could have, being down 14, especially with the turnover right before the half and the missed field goal — when I walked in the locker room, I thought maybe these guys weren’t going to go out and do what they needed to do in the second half, but I thought they responded really well, went out and played one play at a time, got several stops on defense, got back in the game, scored a touchdown, put a good drive together and had some other opportunities and never took advantage of them. You’ve gotta give Oklahoma some credit for that.”
* Counting the final-minute squib kick that OU recovered, the Sooners had five takeaways. And committed only one turnover.
“Coach Stoops told us before the start of the game that turnovers would be huge,” Grissom said. “Without turnovers it would be harder to win the game. We were able to get those turnovers, and luckily the ball popped out right in front of me both times.”
* The OU defensive mentality proved to be a winner. But it came at a cost. Lots of points and yardage allowed. Alabama’s 516 total yards were the fifth-highest in Sugar Bowl history; its 7.94 yards per play was the fourth-highest in Sugar Bowl history.
But the constant pressure created negative plays for Bama and positive energy for OU.
“We probably gained enough yards,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, “but we had four turnovers that led to 28 points, and one turnover in the red zone, and one missed field goal in the first half, and those things probably were a big difference.”
* Knight’s four touchdown passes tied the Sugar Bowl record, held by Florida State’s Chris Weinke (1999 season) and Illinois’ Kurt Kittner (2001). Knight became the third quarterback to throw three first-half TD passes in a Sugar Bowl, joining Florida’s Tim Tebow (2009 season) and Georgia Tech’s Pepper Rodgers (1953).
* Stoops is fired up about the criticism of his defensive line early in the season.
“I remember, Geneo, in two-a-days, right, remember me calling the group up, and I said all I’ve heard for half the year is we don’t have any D-linemen?” Stoops said. “I said I count 10 of you right here. I guess we do have a D-line, huh?”
Said Grissom, “We have a lot of talent on our D-line, a lot of guys that can make plays. It’s a matter of time before we were all able to get in a groove and execute.”
* Heck, let’s just list the other plays that sailed under the radar but should not be forgotten.
1. First OU snap. Double-tight end formation. Knight fired an eight-yard curl to Lacoltan Bester. That play set up two things. The establishment that Knight would throw into tight coverage, and that Bester would be a playmaker.
Bester had 21 catches all season. He had six for 105 yards in the Sugar Bowl, including two monster plays that you haven’t forgotten: A) 45-yard TD pass in the first quarter in which Bester ran an out pattern, sidestepped Bama DB Landon Collins and pranced to the end zone, scoring with an athletic move at the goal line. B) A 34-yard completion on 3rd-and-15 from the Bama 43, early in the fourth quarter, setting up OU’s final TD.
2. Knight’s eight-yard TD pass to Jalen Saunders late first quarter. That gave OU a 14-10 lead. It was 3rd-and-5, and Bama star Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was all over Saunders. But Knight fired the ball on a beam, Saunders speared it and stretched the ball across the goal. Big-time play.
3. Derrick Woods. Early second quarter, OU faced 3rd-and-12 from its 43. Shepard got banged up and had to come out of the game. The seldom-used Woods replaced him. Knight fired a rope at Woods, but too high. Woods went way up to get it, was hit and held on as he tumbled to the Superdome turf. Twenty-yard gain, setting up Michael Hunnicutt’s field goal that tied the game 17-17.
4. Hunnicutt’s field goal. It came from 47 yards out. The guy is very reliable, but Stoops rarely asks Hunnicutt to kick one that long. Hunnicutt came through.
5. Zack Sanchez’s knockdown of a McCarron deep ball. Sanchez, picked on much of the game, already had given up a 63-yard bomb to White, in one-on-one coverage. This time, McCarron smelled a 52-yarder and threw it on target for Amari Cooper. But Sanchez leaped and tipped the ball at the last second. At that point, McCarron had completed six of eight passes for 207 yards, in only 19 minutes. The rest of the game, McCarron completed 13 of 22 for 180 yards, in 41 minutes.
6. T.J. Yeldon’s fumble. Yeldon banged for a first down on 3rd-and-1 from the OU 11-yard line, but he lost the ball. Dominique Alexander was credited with causing the fumble, though some thought Yeldon’s own man knocked it free. Either way, the ball fell, lay on the ground for a second with no one noticing and finally Grissom picked it up and went 26 yards with the return. Not only stopped a likely Alabama touchdown, reversed field position a little.
7. Bob Stoops’ reconsideration. Late second quarter, OU faced 4th-and-1 at the Bama 43. Stoops sent out the punt team. But he let the clock wind down, then called timeout and sent the offense back on the field. The Sooners came out in a fullhouse backfield, but shifted two of the backs to slotbacks and then ran Clay up the middle. He fought for two yards. On the next play, Saunders ran a double move — out and up — and Knight hit him with a gorgeous pass right at the pylon. The touchdown gave OU the lead for good.
8. All-out blitz. With Bama facing 2nd-and-10 from the OU 48, Mike Stoops ordered an all-out blitz. Heavy safety blitz, from the wide side of the field. McCarron immediately went to his checkdown pass — a slant to Cooper — but instead, Sanchez was there. The Sooners gambled correctly that McCarron couldn’t throw deep with such a blitz, so Sanchez keyed on the slant and was in perfect position. His 43-yard interception return went all the way to the Bama 13-yard line. Shepard scored on a reverse on the next play.
“Another redshirt freshman out there competing,” Stoops said of Sanchez. “You have to have a short memory in the secondary if you’re going to play the whole game. And he had his opportunity. He jumped it and had a great return with it. So you play out there long enough over an 80-play game, in the secondary, you’re going to have some plays on you. So you just gotta fight back and make yours on some third down, fourth downs, or come up with a pick here or there and a key deflection, and they did that.”
9. Missed field goal. Alabama drove into OU territory and set up for Cade Foster’s 32-yard field goal. But Foster missed wide right; he had missed three in the Auburn game, counting one blocked. All the momentum stayed with the Sooners. Foster went into the Auburn game having made 11 of 12 field goals.
10. Sanchez’s open-field tackle. In a punt-dominated fourth quarter, Alabama still threatened. It had cut OU’s lead to 31-24 and produced three quick first downs. But on 2nd-and-7 from the OU 35, McCarron tossed a quick pass to Cooper, who had given the Sooners trouble in the open field all game. Sanchez knifed in, Cooper sidestepped him and Sanchez reached out an arm to trip Cooper, who fell for no gain. On the next play, blitzing free safety Gabe Lynn caused McCarron to throw away the ball, he was called for intentional grounding and Bama had to punt.
11. Jordan Wade’s sack. Bama again had great field position, taking over on its 46 with 1:26 left in the third quarter. But on 2nd-and-10, nose guard Jordan Wade sacked McCarron, then the Sooners played great coverage, allowing Grissom to get a third-down sack. The Alabama levy had officially broken.
12. Knight’s perfect pass. The 34-yard completion to Bester came on a 3rd-and-15 play from the Bama 43. Bester just ran a go route, running right past cornerback Eddie Jackson and signaling Knight to throw it deep. Jackson closed fast, so Bester didn’t have many steps on Jackson, but Knight dropped in the pass perfectly. Bester caught it in stride just before he went out of bounds at the 9-yard line. Two plays later, Knight threw the nine-yard TD pass to Shepard to give the Sooners a two-touchdown lead.
“That was a key moment,” Stoops said. “Trevor threw two great passes, in particular the one that’s third and forever and he hits with Colton, gets behind everybody and he runs it down. So Trevor put it where he had a chance to go run it down, and he did. He had enough air under it to give him that opportunity.”
13. Alabama’s mea culpa. Taking over at its 31 with eight minutes left, down 38-24, the Tide ran the following five plays — Yeldon run, Yeldon run, Yeldon run, Yeldon run, swing pass to Henry for a 61-yard TD. No more McCarron dropbacks. No more allowing the OU blitz to pin back its ears. The Tide was willing to chew up precious clock, even with a 14-point deficit, to prevent McCarron from be a target of the Mike Stoops blitz.
* Focus is always a concern for a team that sought a better bowl landing than it received. Alabama had its sights set on the Big Bowl. Instead, it settled for New Orleans. But Saban didn’t express displeasure with his team’s preparation.
“Well, we practiced well,” Saban said. “I can’t blame it on that. I thought our team late in the season from the LSU game on maybe didn’t have the focus we needed to have. We didn’t pay attention to detail, didn’t do little things right, didn’t practice well. I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game.
“But I actually thought that the players responded in practice pretty well for this game. And we put over 500 yards of offense up. Somebody had to do something right. I don’t think that we played as well on defense as we’re capable of or should have or, you know, we really had a lot of guys that were hurt in the secondary that couldn’t practice all the time, and I think those are some of the areas that showed up not so good tonight in terms of some of the big plays that they made and some of the third downs that we didn’t make.
“But as a team we didn’t play well enough to win, and Oklahoma really outplayed us. And I really can’t blame it on the lack of focus. I just don’t think that our players realized sometimes that they won so much that they realize sometimes what it really takes to win every game and that you can never take anything for granted, and that everyone that plays us has something to prove. And they have to change the way they think, and that’s difficult to do.”
And while Stoops agreed that it was easy to get his team up for Alabama, he said, “I don’t ever remember being disappointed in our guys and their focus in a bowl game or how they prepared. I’ve never had that feeling.”
* Stoops keeps wanting to say that OU was undeterred when it was 6-2 and struggling. Keeps saying that the Sooners didn’t need any kind of energy surge from a victory like this.
“Maybe the outside world will make that of it,” Stoops said. “We never were in a position where the outside world tried to portray us however many weeks ago. That wasn’t us. So this isn’t going to change us. These guys and us in the locker room, you see them nodding their head, we know who we are. These guys held it together. No one flinched. Everybody kept improving.”
Sorry, don’t buy it. That was you, against Baylor, and the first half against Iowa State. Teams don’t show up in the Cotton Bowl stadium and try to beat Texas by doing absolutely nothing, then show up in the Sugar Bowl game and go all-out to beat Alabama, then say we were all the same. No. This team is different now than it was.
Sure, everyone kept improving. Sure, injuries played a part. But the Sooners underwent some kind of transition, definitely mental and maybe physical, sometime in November.
“From time to time, in different years, the more inexperience you have, the more injuries you have, you’re going to have some ups and downs,” Stoops said. “You’re not going to go through undefeated every time. I thought these guys, our assistant coaches, managed the injuries, the inexperience early in the year, the injuries throughout the year, in a really positive way. When you’re playing without six starters, that makes a difference. I don’t care what anyone says. And I can say it now when you’re on the positive side of it. You can’t bring it up when you’re not. But it’s not easy when you’re losing some key players like we have.”
Finally, Stoops admitted much of what we’re all saying. Speaking of the ramifications of beating Bama, he said, “With the young team we have and building on, it is going to be big and make a huge difference.
“We played how we expected to play, to be quite honest. And, again, you’ve heard me start off by I’ve got the absolute utmost respect for Alabama. But we have a lot of confidence in what we do, too. And so with as many young players as we have and inexperience we came into the season to start with and the guys we have coming back to the recruiting class we’ve got coming in, we’ve got a chance to really start, to continue to be special, and that’s what we’re going to keep trying to do.
“It was exciting .. I can’t deny that, to come out and play against a great team like that and play the way we did.”
* Great offensive line showing. Knight was sacked just once. He was flushed from the pocket repeatedly, but that didn’t lead to disaster. The running game wasn’t spectacular but was effective. Tailbacks Clay and Keith Ford combined for 20 carries and 59 yards. Add in Jalen Saunders and Shepard options and reverses, and it’s 24 carries for 77 yards. Not great. But effective at times.
And it couldn’t have happened without all the offensive linemen switching positions and holding up well. Darryl Williams from right tackle to left tackle, Bronson Irwin from left guard to right tackle, juco transfer Dionte Garrett in at left guard.
“It’s been a challenge, but we lost the whole left side of our line, the left guard and left tackle,” Stoops said. “So at practice, all you see guys doing, it’s like musical chairs. Bronson goes to guard, someone comes in for him, he goes to tackle. They just move around every series in practice. And Coach (Bill) Bedenbaugh did an incredible job keeping those guys together. We’re incredibly thin here by the end of the year. But those guys, again, like always, didn’t flinch, kept battling and competed to the end and did a great job. They protected Trevor.”
* Bob Stoops on Mike Stoops: “Mike has brought, obviously when you watch us, great tenacity on defense in the way we play and compete. And I feel the sky’s the limit because nine of those guys are back next year. And we’re going to be better. But he brings great detail, attention to detail in meetings and brings an attitude in the way we want to compete and makes the players happy. You hear him at practice. But I think it makes a difference in their demeanor and the way they compete.”