NEW ORLEANS — For all of Alabama's remarkable success and defensive dominance of late, one particular type of player has confounded the mighty Crimson Tide: The mobile quarterback.
Oklahoma enters Thursday night's Sugar Bowl a heavy underdog, but it also has a potential weapon that has been like Kryptonite to Alabama's defense the past two seasons, in which only Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Auburn's Nick Marshall have quarterbacked victories over the Crimson Tide.
With nightmarish match-up discrepancies all over the Superdome field, could freshman quarterback Trevor Knight become the Sooners' great equalizer?
Oklahoma still hasn't named a starting quarterback, but coach Bob Stoops said Wednesday that Knight and Blake Bell know what the Sooners' Sugar Bowl plan is. Both quarterbacks could see significant playing time, but Knight's particular skill set appears better suited for Alabama's defensive shortcomings.
“We're gonna try to run the zone read and pick up the tempo a little bit on them just like those teams have done,” Knight said of Auburn and Texas A&M. “Anytime you watch film, you look for stuff that kinda sticks out to you. We've got a great game plan coming in.”
Last season in Tuscaloosa, Manziel carried the ball three times for 35 yards on Texas A&M's opening drive. On second down from the Alabama 43-yard line, Manziel dropped back to pass, quickly pulled the ball down, slipped through the middle of the defense and picked up 29 yards to set up the Aggies' first touchdown in their upset victory.
Manziel finished the game with 18 carries for 92 yards. In the rematch last September, he recorded 98 yards on 14 rushes as the Aggies nearly rallied to upset Alabama again, but fell short in a 49-42 loss.
Auburn struck first in the Nov. 30 Iron Bowl when Marshall kept on a read option play, ran through a wide opening on the left side of the line and sprinted untouched for a 45-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.
Marshall finished with 17 rushes for 99 yards, while only passing for 97 in Auburn's 34-28 win that ultimately propelled the Tigers into the national championship game.
Oklahoma knows all about Manziel, who torched the Sooner defense in a 41-13 Cotton Bowl rout last January. The Sooners spent the offseason installing a new offense centered largely around a mobile quarterback, allowing Knight to win the starting job out of fall camp.
Coincidentally, Knight showcased his ability during Cotton Bowl preparations while playing Manziel on the scout-team offense and frequently embarrassing the Sooners' first-team defense.
On OU's third offensive play of this season, Knight scrambled for a 24 yard gain, and finished the 34-0 rout of Louisiana-Monroe with 103 rushing yards on 13 carries.
Knight was injured, though, the next week and lost his job to Bell, who ran a more familiar version of the Oklahoma offense during his eight games as starter.
Bell left the Sooners' Nov. 16 win over Iowa State with a concussion, and when Knight returned to the field, Oklahoma went back to its option offense, with Knight picking up 123 yards on the ground, including a 56-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Knight started the next week's win at Kansas State and rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown, and senior running back Brennan Clay recorded a career-high 200 yards.
“I think we got away from it a little bit during midseason,” Clay said of the option attack. “But once we got it back going, it's been a weapon for us.”
The Sooners enter the Sugar Bowl averaging 235.8 per game on the ground, making this — currently, at least — the best rushing season of the 15-year Bob Stoops era.
Alabama cornerback Deion Belue said he's excited to face another zone-read attack.
“We're looking forward to that,” Belue said. “In a way, it is great to play that kind of offense again, because we have seen it once already. So, we're just going to go out there and adjust to it as the game goes on.”