NORMAN — Fans streamed toward the exits, players headed toward the locker room, and still, Caleb Gastelum lingered on the Owen Field turf.
He talked with family. He posed for pictures. He soaked in everything.
Hard to blame him.
The Oklahoma reserve linebacker had a game he could’ve only dreamed about when he arrived on campus as a walk-on. Even though this 48-16 victory against overmatched Louisiana Tech might be soon forgotten in a season many expect to be grand, Gastelum will long remember it.
That’s because he stepped in and played nearly every snap of the game. On a night when one of Sooner Nation’s biggest fears was realized — Jordan Evans was knocked out of the game, ejected for targeting, and the inside linebacker spot already left thin by Frank Shannon’s ongoing legal battle was suddenly a committee of one — Gastelum had a performance that should put many folks at ease.
The fifth-year senior might not have a scholarship — someone needs to get on that! — but he can hold down that position just fine.
“It’s something I’ve been preparing for all week,” Gastelum said. “You never want to see a teammate come out like that, but that’s why it’s so important to be prepared.”
Many wondered what might happen if Evans got knocked out of a game, and less than a quarter into the season, we got to find out.
On a second-and-long, La Tech quarterback Cody Sokol scrambled out of the pocket. Evans came up to meet him, lowering his head and slamming the top of his helmet into the quarterback’s helmet.
Targeting was called, which carries not only a 15-yard penalty but also an ejection.
Sooner Nation held its breath.
A lengthy replay didn’t just uphold the penalty. It confirmed it. The replay official in the booth saw that Evans’ head was lowered; heads-up tackling has become all the rage in these concussion-conscious days. He also saw that Evans’ arms were near his sides; having your arms out and attempting to wrap up a player is another way to avoid a targeting call.
I talked to a longtime official who’s now retired, and he said there was little chance the call was getting overturned.
Sure looked like the right call. It wasn’t popular inside the stadium, but it was textbook targeting.
A homeschool kid who was born in Tulsa, raised in Catoosa and moved to Claremore, Gastelum had a couple small-college offers after playing on a homeschool team in high school but opted to walk on at OU instead.
Even though he has been on campus since 2010, he is a relative unknown to even the most diehard Sooner fan. His action has been limited largely to special teams, so it’s not surprising that his most notable moment before Saturday came on special teams. He recovered a deflected kickoff late in the Sugar Bowl and sealed OU’s upset of Alabama.
Gastelum is no stranger to game action. Saturday night was the 34th game of his career. Only four current Sooners have appeared in more.
Still, none of those other games was like this.
He realized that as he stood on the field waiting for the replay verdict on Evans’ targeting call.
“I was really hoping it wasn’t what the officials had called on the field,” Gastelum said. “It’s not something that I want to see happen to my teammate, but unfortunately, it did happen and … gave me the opportunity to go in.
“And I made the most of it, I believe.”
Others believed it, too.
Linebacker Dominique Alexander: “He took control of the defense, calling the calls. We won’t know until we watch film, but playing along beside him while we were out there, it seemed like he was doing a great job.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops: “He didn’t seem out of position all night. He got a couple 4- or 5-yard runs, but overall … we threw some stuff at him and I thought he handled it all well.”
Head coach Bob Stoops: “Went in there and played a really good game, made his checks and calls and looked to me like he was where he needed to be most all the time. I thought he did a really good job.”
Gastelum played 59 plays, including three on special teams, and finished with three tackles, including one for a loss. He also had a pass breakup on his second play in the game, though he’ll likely remember it as the pass he should’ve intercepted.
“I can’t forget that one,” he said, chuckling.
There are likely many plays and moments and memories that Gastelum will never forget from Saturday night. Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, this was a game to remember.
“The experience in itself is something special,” Gastelum said, a fresh cut on the bridge of his nose and his curly long hair held down by a backward baseball cap after the game. “It’s something that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.