NORMAN — Oklahoma needed overwhelming offensive firepower to win shootouts over West Virginia and Oklahoma State.
It only gets harder in the Jan. 4 Cotton Bowl, where the Sooners face the daunting challenge of keeping up with Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy-finalist quarterback.
Convincing the NCAA to clear Jalen Saunders for eligibility this season was difficult enough; now, OU will likely be without its star receiver — who was arrested early Sunday morning and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession — when it battles Johnny Manziel and the Aggies.
OU hasn't released a statement regarding Saunders' arrest; an athletic department spokesman has also declined to comment, but coach Bob Stoops has typically issued one-game suspensions in the past under similar circumstances.
Since gaining his eligibility days before the Texas game, Saunders' impact has been remarkable.
Saunders joined the Sooners after playing his first two seasons at Fresno State; he transferred after a coach Pat Hill was fired, and after learning the school is located in an area making him susceptible to San Joaquin Valley Fever, which his father suffers from.
New Mexico State coach DeWayne Walker knew from two years of experience what Saunders was capable of on the football field. In 2011, Saunders caught 7 passes for 174 yards against Walker's squad. He rushed for a 15-yard touchdown and also scored on 59- and 64-yard receptions.
Walker caught wind of Saunders' transfer and placed a call to his old friend and co-worker, Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell.
“He was defensive coordinator when I was at UCLA,” Norvell said days before the season finale. “He said, ‘Hey, this kid's gonna transfer, and you guys need to get on him.' ... We watched his game film and watched his highlights, and we were really impressed with him.”
Saunders had just returned home from a visit to Texas A&M when Norvell made his first contact.
“He called me on a Wednesday or Thursday, late evening,” Saunders said last week.
“I was just chilling, laying down, watching TV. I just got a random phone call from an Oklahoma City number.”
Saunders joined the Sooners in May, and quickly made an impression. Through summer workouts and fall camp, he impressed his new teammates and coaches with his incredible athletic ability, speed and quickness.
The NCAA denied his initial waiver request for immediate eligibility; Saunders sat out Oklahoma's first four games awaiting a decision on his appeal, which was approved the Wednesday before OU played Texas.
“It's mostly sitting around and playing the waiting game, waiting to hear back from the NCAA,” Saunders said of the season's first several weeks. “These last few weeks, I've just been getting molded into the offense more and getting more confidence.”
Norvell said of Saunders and Penn State transfer Justin Brown, “In 25 years, I've never really had a transfer even close to as good as these two kids.”
Saunders caught a school-record eight passes in the first quarter alone Oct. 27 against Notre Dame, and over the Sooners' final three regular-season games, he hauled in 24 catches for 393 yards and three touchdowns.
In OU's 51-48, overtime Bedlam win, he even returned a punt for a touchdown.
Saunders' arrest came hours after OU clinched a share of the Big 12 championship at TCU, where Saunders caught a touchdown to go with his 108 yards.
Saunders has been instrumental in helping the Sooners keep up with high-powered offenses late in the season. For now, though, it seems Oklahoma may have to find other ways to hang with Johnny Football and his team in the Cotton Bowl.