NORMAN — With 7:27 left in the game, TCU began a possession with 113 total yards and a chance to win the game Saturday night.
Has Big 12 football gone kooky or what?
The Sooner defense had put a beatdown on a foe unlike anything seen since that Bedlam game back in 1993, when the Cowboys had one first down all game long and Pat Jones was just trying to get out of town alive.
At halftime, TCU had no first downs, just 16 total yards and a 13-0 deficit that seemed as insurmountable as 63-0. But that deficit was trimmed to just three midway through the fourth quarter, and trepidation lorded over Owen Field.
“When you're down to a one possession game and you've got a quarterback like that (scrambling Trevone Boykin), it's scary,” said OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “Then they're just one play away from tying it or winning.”
Not even a TCU punt four plays later improved the mood much. That duty was left for Brennan Clay.
With one play, the senior tailback sprang to life an offense that had slumbered throughout the second half. Clay took a handoff from Blake Bell, cut back almost immediately and within three yards of the line of scrimmage found himself in the clear.
No one this side of San Diego knew Clay could run that fast, but blaze he did, to a 76-yard touchdown run that gave the Sooners the 10-point lead they needed in an eventual 20-17 victory.
Welcome to 2013. Gone are the 50-point shootouts that defined the Sooners a year ago. In their stead are tight games won with a play or two in the fourth quarter: 16-7 over West Virginia, 20-17 over TCU, they all count the same.
They won't get the Sooners a lot of love in the polls. But they do have OU atop the Big 12 standings going into Texas Week.
“Championship teams finish games as a complete team,” said OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. “Offensively, the last couple of weeks, we've been able to eat up the clock and not put our defense on the field in critical situations.”
A week ago at Notre Dame, the Sooners prevailed 35-21 with a dominant fourth quarter of ball control. That, too, was led by Clay, not exactly a workhorse throughout his career but who suddenly is becoming a prime timer.
“If they put the ball in your hands, they trust you,” Clay said.
The Sooner running game had been so-so to that point. But on second-and-4 from the OU 24-yard line, Bell checked to a different play, which gave Clay the option of taking the handoff and finding his own hole. Which he did.
Clay made an immediate cut, the TCU safety stepped in just a little too far and Clay was in open range.
“The safety was a little flat-footed, he made a stutter step and I just took it to the crib,” Clay said.
Clay spent most of the 76 yards checking out the jumbotron for potential bushwhackers, but the only person he saw catching him was teammate Jalen Saunders, who provided protection the final 15 yards or so.
And Clay has emerged not only as OU's dependable back, but OU's top rusher. He's got 450 yards through five games.
“He's done a great job taking care of the football,” Heupel said. “You trust him in critical situations. He's proven he's going to do it and do it well. The way he finished Notre Dame speaks to that.”
How much did OU need that play? The Frogs themselves showed us that, answering Clay's touchdown with a five-play, 75-yard TD drive that took barely two minutes and reminded us of the ancient days of 2012, when defenses were soft and the Sooners couldn't stop much of anybody or anything.
With 2:26 left, TCU still had life and so much confidence that it didn't even try an onside kick. The Frogs kicked deep and took their chances.
It didn't work out. Bell bulldozed 13 and 17 yards on successive second-and-long plays, and the Sooners had yet another gut-it-out victory.
“I'm very pleased and excited that we were able to make the plays that we did to win the football game,” Bob Stoops said.
“Both teams were kind of … who's going to pop something? Who's going to get the play? I love it. It shows some character. Fact that guys are in good shape, ready to finish.”
The Sooners best be ready to finish some more. This Big 12 season doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon. Tight, tense and waiting for someone, like Brennan Clay, to make the big play.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.