A Justin Gilbert interception would have given OSU the Big 12 title and Fiesta Bowl berth. But instead, Lacoltan Bester's breakup changed the college football landscape
Josh Heupel looked down upon one of the wildest, coldest Bedlam football games from a warm press box and a hot seat.
His game plan for Texas and play-calling at Baylor had turned a once untouchable Sooner hero into the scapegoat for OU's struggles.
At 2:24 p.m. Stillwater time, on that first Saturday in December, as Heupel was announcing his play into headsets on a frigid Sooner sideline, Oklahoma State was a minute away from its second Big 12 championship in three seasons.
And OU, a double-digit underdog, was on its third quarterback of the day and hadn't scored an offensive touchdown.
So here's what Heupel did:
He asked a quarterback who had been relegated to third string — who took about five repetitions in practice that week — to throw deep into single coverage against a shutdown cornerback who was months away from being picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.
And the target? A receiver coming off a one-game suspension for violating team rules, who minutes earlier had hung another quarterback out to dry. His sin: Not contesting an underthrown pass.
What resulted was probably the worst pass of Blake Bell's OU career.
It quite likely would have been the last if Lacoltan Bester hadn't “made the quarterback right,” hadn't reached in and flipped the script.
"It was the play that changed everything. If Gilbert had held onto that ball, nothing would have been the same for the rest of the 2013 season. Little would have been the same for 2014. Consider how the college football landscape is different in this state and others, had Gilbert made the interception."
That's right. In a Bedlam game that produced a clutch 41-yard field goal during a 4.5-magnitude earthquake, a fake field goal touchdown that evoked memories of Bob Stoops' early years in Norman and Bell's perfect spiral landing like a feather in Jalen Saunders' hands and a dagger in OSU hearts, no play was bigger than Bester's.
Without it, there would have been no cheerleader's leg tripping, no turkey leg flinging. Oklahoma State would be the defending Big 12 champ.
There would be no OU Sugar high, no Trevor Knight for Heisman.
Lacoltan Bester is as responsible as anyone for the way we currently view college football in Oklahoma.
This is the story of his play, The Play That Changed It All.
For a 10-point favorite playing at home for a conference championship, Oklahoma State had struggled throughout much of the chilly game, playing in 20-degree weather that never felt warmer than 12 degrees because of the wind chill.
A 75-yard Desmond Roland touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage was nullified by Charlie Moore's hold on Zack Sanchez.
Saunders returned a punt for a touchdown — the second straight Bedlam in which the speedy wideout stunned the Cowboys with a special-teams touchdown.
Even though the Sooners lost starting quarterback Trevor Knight to a shoulder injury in the first half — and were bouncing between Kendal Thompson and Blake Bell throughout the third quarter — OU led with a little more than four minutes to play.
Four straight Clint Chelf completions changed the looks of everything, covering 84 of an 89-yard drive that gave OSU a 27-24 lead with 1:46 to play and much-maligned OSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich a chance to end the regular season on a high note.
As Oklahoma's offense took the field, the ESPN broadcast showed a promotion for its Sunday bowl selection show.
“If I was to sit there and say what if, how close we could have been to that, what happens if (Baylor’s) Bryce Petty doesn’t trip on the 1-yard line and they punch that in? There’s little things that can sway the momentum of games. We’ll never know. You’ll drive yourself nuts if you think about that stuff.”
Then, just as play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough asked, “Will the Cowboys be going to the Fiesta Bowl?” Bell and Sterling Shepard went to work on an answer.
Back-to-back passes to Shepard and a pass interference penalty against OSU safety Zack Craig quickly moved the Sooners to the OSU 30.
The penalty gave Heupel a few extra seconds to consider his options for the first-down play.
The Sooner offensive coordinator expected OSU to play man-to-man coverage on the outside.
He decided a double-move pass pattern, a pump fake and a deep ball might be just the recipe for a game-changing moment.
“If we're on time and accurate with it,” Heupel said to himself, “we've got a chance for a big play.”
Throughout the entire first half and much of the third quarter that day, Bell hung out by the sideline heaters. It was a miserable way to end the season for a team leader who lost the starting quarterback job in preseason camp, took over and started eight games, then lost it again.
Now here was Heupel, about to give the hero of Bedlam 2012 and Notre Dame 2013 another shot at glory and redemption.
Bell couldn't shake one lingering thought: Don't overthrow it.
Bell took the shotgun snap, gave a quick pump fake and released the ball in Bester's direction along the OSU sideline.
Immediately he realized he'd underthrown the pass. One of the nation's best cornerbacks was in position to intercept.
The ball hung in the air for a full two seconds before Justin Gilbert jumped — carrying Bester on his back — and fell backwards, cradling the ball in his left arm.
As a horrified Bell thought to himself, “oh, no,” Bester was having flashbacks to a very similar moment from the third quarter.
It came just as many Oklahoma fans were finally getting what they wanted: Kendal Thompson in at quarterback during a critical moment.
He'd shown promise in the Sooners' home victory over Iowa State a few weeks earlier, and after Trevor Knight's shoulder injury, Thompson finally was getting his shot in Bedlam.
With the game tied 10-10, Thompson took the first snap of the second half, rolled left and heaved a prayer down the OU sideline. The ball — intended for Bester — was underthrown. OSU cornerback Kevin Peterson intercepted it without any resistance from the receiver.
As Bester headed to the bench, he heard all about it from Sooner co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell.
That play ran through Bester's mind as he wrapped his arms around Gilbert's facemask, trying to get his hands on the ball. Norvell's words rang in Bester's ears as he landed on the turf.
Listen, he put the ball in the air; he gave you a chance to make a play.
You've gotta make the quarterback right.
You've gotta make his decision right. At worst, it's gotta be a breakup.
So with another deep ball in his direction underthrown, another interception seemingly imminent, Bester fought like hell.
As he relayed the play to his audience, OU radio play-by-play announcer Toby Rowland's excitement trailed off.
“... And it is … intercepted ... Justin Gilbert.”
Gilbert, the cornerback who let a sure pick-six slip through his hands in OSU's Bedlam loss in Norman a year earlier, did everything right this time. And that was part of his downfall.
After landing back-first on Bester's leg, Gilbert used spot-on, correct technique. He reached with his right arm to secure the ball as he hit the turf. As the OSU fans and sideline erupted, believing Gilbert had made the game-clinching interception, Bester swatted one last time at Gilbert's right arm.
When the ball spun away, slipping between Gilbert's legs to the ground, Boone Pickens Stadium shook even more than the earthquake a couple hours earlier.
The home crowd's loudest cheer of the day turned to boos as the field judge rushed in, waving his arms to rule the pass incomplete.
Heupel believed the incomplete ruling was the right one, but took no chances. With OSU sitting on three timeouts, Heupel instructed the Sooners to hurry to the line of scrimmage for another snap, quickly eliminating the opportunity for an official review.
Only a year earlier, officials might have given Gilbert the interception, but in April 2013, the NCAA clarified the rules regarding completed catches.
The rules state that a player must maintain “control of the ball long enough to enable him to perform an act common to the game, i.e., long enough to pitch or hand the ball, advance it, avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.” The clarified rules also say that “if a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent) he must maintain complete and continuous control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground,” and “if he loses control of the ball which then touches the ground before he regains control, it is not a catch.”
Gilbert spent the next five plays hoping Bell would test him again.
Every OU and OSU football diehard knows the rest.
Five plays later, as Bell dropped a picture-perfect pass into Saunders's hands, Gilbert and Bester were at the far side of the end zone — Gilbert covering, Bester talking.
The Cowboys retook possession, but a failed, last-second lateral play attempt turned into a fumble that OU linebacker Eric Striker picked up and turned into another touchdown as time expired.
An OSU cheerleader reached out with his leg and tried to trip Striker. Angry Oklahoma State fans hurled trash and turkey legs onto the field as Oklahoma players — one of them Lacoltan Bester — stood taunting them.
Gilbert would later say he wished OSU had challenged the call, though admitting he was uncertain over what the outcome would have been since the ball was coming out as he hit the turf.
“When he (Lacoltan Bester) made a last-second, desperate swat at Justin Gilbert’s arms to break up a sure interception with less than a minute to play, Bester gave himself an opportunity.”
OSU cornerbacks coach Van Malone has dissected Bester's play more times than he can count since last December. If the field judge hadn't been in the perfect position to see exactly when Gilbert lost control of the ball, he might not have ruled it incomplete. If Bester had reacted to an imminent interception the way most receivers do, he wouldn't have swatted the ball loose at the last second.
“Everything worked against us,” Malone said.
Plenty of things turned on that play. OU became the winner of eight of the last nine Bedlams. Knight and the Sooners went on to stun Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl and touch off excitement for the 2014 season, while Chelf and the Cowboys fell to Missouri 41-31 in the Cotton Bowl.
Bester himself has even benefited. He had the game of his life in the Sugar Bowl — catching six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown — against the mighty Crimson Tide, and is now on the Houston Texans' roster after signing as an undrafted free agent.
Funny, because the player that set all that in motion with his final, desperate swat at Justin Gilbert's arm didn't even get a game ball for his heroics until two days later, after coach Bob Stoops reviewed the game film.
Said Stoops, “Often in the locker room, you don't always remember every play.”