LAWRENCE, Kan. — After a quarter-and-a-half Saturday, Oklahoma’s offense looked lethargic; its defense appeared helpless; and suddenly, Kansas’ first conference victory in three years didn’t seem too far out of the realm of possibility.
Desperately in need of a spark — anything to inject some life into a game that was teetering near apocalyptic for the Sooners — coach Bob Stoops morphed back into the Riverboat Gambler he once was, taking heavy risks on back-to-back, second-quarter plays that ultimately shifted the momentum for good.
Oklahoma blocked a punt deep in Kansas territory for a safety, then scored on a 49-yard reverse pass from receiver Lacoltan Bester to Sterling Shepard that gave the Sooners a lead it wouldn’t relinquish in Saturday’s 34-19 win inside Memorial Stadium.
“When things happen like that, turnovers or touchdowns, those are momentum shifts for either side,” Bester said. “It depends on who gets them. I was glad those were on our side today.”
The Sooners hope to carry that momentum into next Saturday when they host Texas Tech. Oklahoma probably won’t have as easy a time recovering if it starts slow against the unbeaten Red Raiders.
Many of Oklahoma’s biggest issues from last weekend’s loss to Texas seemed to carry over into the first quarter Saturday, when the Sooners were unable to get anything going offensively and were gashed by Kansas’ run attack defensively.
Jayhawks senior running back James Sims, who averaged 78 yards per game before Saturday, finished with 129 yards — including 85 in the first quarter — and two touchdowns.
The Sooners found themselves down 13-0 less than a minute into the second quarter, putting them at risk of becoming lowly Kansas’ first Big 12 victim since 2010.
Oklahoma seemed to find its footing on defense early in the second quarter, though, and scored a touchdown midway through the frame to cut into the Jayhawks’ lead, but even that was followed by a rare missed extra point from kicker Michael Hunnicutt.
After another Kansas three-and-out, the Jayhawks lined up to punt at their own 14-yard line when Oklahoma called for a punt block. Freshman Matt Dimon blew through the line and blocked the kick, forcing a safety.
Stoops doesn’t usually like being that aggressive on punt blocks, but said first-year special teams coordinator Jay Boulware saw something in Kansas’ protection that made it susceptible.
“After that thing happened, man, our team just never looked back,” Boulware said.
Roy Finch returned the ensuing kick to Kansas’ 49-yard line, and that’s when offensive coordinator Josh Heupel dialed up a trick play he’d carried in his back pocket all season.
Blake Bell handed off to Brennan Clay, who flipped the ball back to Bester. Bester delivered a perfect strike down the field to Shepard, who coasted into the end zone to give Oklahoma its first lead of the game.
The Sooners have practiced the trick play since fall camp, but never felt comfortable using it in a game. Senior center Gabe Ikard said they’ve had it called a few times, but always checked out of it because of what the defense looked like.
“It did not look that good in practice — I can guarantee you that,” Ikard said. “For him to throw it like that in the game was very impressive and I’m glad he did it.”
On its first second-half offensive series, Bell found Shepard for a 10-yard touchdown, capping a six-play, 58-yard drive that seemed to put Oklahoma in firm control of the game with a 25-13 lead.
But the Jayhawks wouldn’t go away, intercepting a fourth-down Bell pass on the Sooners’ next drive.
Then early in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma backed itself up when Bell was called for intentional grounding and threw two incomplete passes, setting up a fourth-and-24 from the Sooners’ own 18-yard line.
Kansas blocked Jed Barnett’s punt, and Sims scored a play later to pull Kansas within six points.
Jordan Wade, though, blocked Kansas’ extra-point attempt, which was recovered by Aaron Colvin and returned for two points.
“It’s like we preach all the time, you know, special teams plays can change the momentum of a game,” Boulware said.