NEW ORLEANS —
A day earlier, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said he didn’t know how to play the underdog card. Luckily for him, his team knew exactly how to play it.
The Sooners were aggressive, opportunistic and above all else confident Thursday in the Sugar Bowl against No. 3 Alabama.
The mixture snowballed into a 45-31 victory over the Crimson Tide, securing the biggest upset victory in Sooner history.
“We played how we expected to play, to be quite honest,” Stoops said. “And again you’ve heard me start off by saying I’ve got the absolute utmost respect for Alabama. But we have a lot of confidence in what we do, too.”
But there were emphatic reasons No. 11 OU (11-2) entered the game as a 17-point underdog — one of the biggest underdogs of the bowl season. One was Alabama’s long string of demolishing opponents in January under coach Nick Saban. A proven quarterback (A.J. McCarron) who had led it to back-to-back national championships and a defensive tradition of suffocating any offense if given a month to prepare.
But the Sooners used the 3 1/2 weeks to to rewrite the script. Quarterback Trevor Knight put on a star-making performance, throwing for four touchdowns and 348 yards. In every sense, he was the quarterback OU billed him to be in late August.
OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel threw the kitchen sink at Alabama and started tossing the pipes as well. The Sooners unveiled a plethora of new formations, huddled for the first time in years along with playing up-tempo in the first half.
“Throughout the bowl preparation we had the plan of going fast, putting in a few new wrinkles with the huddles there,” Knight said. “I felt when we came out from the very beginning it was working for us, and we kept going with it. It easily could not have worked and (we could have gone) back to our old stuff but I felt like our plan was great.
McCarron threw for 387 yards, but he was sacked six times and threw two interceptions.
It was the turnovers — four in total — and seven sacks that proved to be the Sooners’ salvation. Defensive end Geneo Grissom, who was the game’s defensive MVP, scooped up two fumbles, with the last coming after OU linebacker Eric Striker stripped McCarron with 50 seconds to go and Grissom returning it 8 yards for a touchdown. Defensive backs Zack Sanchez and Gabe Lynn also had interceptions.
“Oklahoma did a good job of mixing things up, showing us some things we hadn’t seen,” McCarron said. “But you put it all on me. I had two turnovers, ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14.”
They allowed OU to take control of the game in the second quarter. They rolled off 17 straight points in the final 11:45 of the quarter to seize a 31-17 lead.
Knight hit Jalen Saunders for a 43-yard touchdown pass and Sterling Shepard scored on a 13-yard reverse with 62 seconds left to take the two-touchdown lead.
The flurry left the 70,473 fans — including the Sooner faithful — stunned. The predicted cakewalk for the Crimson Tide was long gone by then.
“As a team we didn’t play well enough to win, and Oklahoma really outplayed us,” Saban said. “And I really can’t blame it on the lack of focus.”
The Sooners won despite giving up 516 yards of total offense and boatload of missed tackles.
Twice Alabama cut OU’s lead to seven. Freshman running Derrick Henry, who rushed for 100 yards, scored on a 43-yard touchdown run and 61-yard swing pass.
But OU matched Alabama punch for punch. Shepard caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from the Knight with 10:44 to go, lifting the lead back up to 14.
The Crimson Tide got the ball back with about a minute left, but Striker blew past Alabama All-American tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and forced the fumble right into Grissom’s hands who delivered the knock-out blow.
It didn’t matter when the confetti starting raining down on the Superdome late Thursday night. The Sooners, who have a well-chronicled history of BCS busts over the last decade, were celebrating one of the biggest wins in the program history.
Stoops didn’t want to label it, but fully understood Thursday’s performance was the shot of momentum it’s been waiting on for several seasons.
The string of 10-3 seasons were over along with the notion that the Sooners couldn’t win a major bowl against an SEC powerhouse.
“And so with as many young players as we have and inexperience we came into the season to start with and the guys we have coming back to the recruiting class we’ve got coming in, we’ve got a chance to really start, to continue to be special, and that’s what we’re going to keep trying to do,” Stoops said.
After Thursday night’s win, anything seems possible. Stoops and the Sooners both got their mojo back.