It would have been hard to find anyone not dressed in crimson and cream who were expecting Oklahoma to cruise down the field in less than two minutes to score the game-winning touchdown in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over Oklahoma State last Saturday.
OU’s offense had three passing first downs and was averaging 4.63 yards per play before that final drive. Yet, the Sooners matched their previous output with three first downs on the final drive, averaging 7.13 yards per play on an eight-play scoring march (they added a defensive touchdown on the game’s final play).
Here’s a closer look at five key plays, after a film study review of the game, that transformed the Sooners from a potential three-loss squad to BCS bowl participant.
Sterling Shepard’s 9-yard catch on the drive’s first play. A good play call and design got Shepard loose on a receiver screen pass. The sophomore faked outside on a swing pass then dipped inside to catch the ball with three blockers ahead of him. Only a terrific tackle by OSU linebacker Joe Mitchell kept the play from being a big gainer. It was the perfect way to start the drive because it gave Blake Bell and the rest of the Sooners’ offense immediate confidence.
Bell’s perfect throw to Shepard on the next play: On the second play of the drive, Bell showed tremendous touch on a 18-yard completion to Shepard. The Cowboys rushed three defenders and dropped eight, hoping to force Bell to thread a pass into a tiny window between coverage in a zone defense in order to get a completion. And Bell did it to perfection with touch on a throw over the outstretched arms of Mitchell but in front of safety Daytawion Lowe. Shepard, the overlooked hero on the drive, did a terrific job holding onto the ball despite Lowe’s hit. It was a clear sign that Bell was stepping up in the moment and sent the message that the Sooners could be on a march for a touchdown, not just a field goal.
OSU cornerback Justin Gilbert’s non-interception: After the Sooners had moved the ball to the OSU 30-yard line, Gilbert appeared to intercept Bell by outleaping Lacoltan Bester for the ball. But Bester continued to fight, pulling Gilbert’s right arm as the pair hit the ground, to knock the football out of Gilbert’s hands. It was a call that could have gone either way, so the awareness to go up tempo and the execution of a play immediately was the difference. That ability took the option to review the play and reverse the on-field call away from OSU coach Mike Gundy and the officiating crew upstairs. Even though OU hasn’t used it much in games this season, it’s unlikely a team that does not practice tempo, or is not prepared to execute in pressure situations, would have been able to eliminate a potential review. The quick recognition of the scenario and ability to run a play that quickly was easily the best thing OU did on the entire drive.
Bell connects with Saunders on third-and-10: The Sooners quarterback had plenty of time to simply stand in the pocket but scrambled anyway and found Saunders for 13 yards just before he passed the line of scrimmage. It was clear Bell was looking the entire way for Saunders, who has been a third-down conversion machine in the second half of the season. But it was actually his decision to scramble that forced the first level of OSU’s zone defense to react, allowing Saunders to get open and make the key reception. Even though there was no reason to leave the pocket with OSU rushing just three defenders, Bell’s decision to do so allowed the conversion to happen.
Saunders’ game-winning touchdown: Give Bell a ton of credit. He knew before the snap that he had the matchup he wanted with Jalen Saunders lined up in man-to-man coverage with OSU safety Lyndell Johnson. Saunders is a nightmare for the Big 12’s top cornerbacks so having him matched up on a safety with a play call that Bell knew would have Saunders running away from Johnson on a corner route took all thinking out of the equation. It was all about the throw at that point. Bell had a clean pocket, thanks to Brennan Clay and the offensive line, and made a perfect throw to the corner of the end zone.
The Boone Pickens Stadium crowd was stunned, Baylor rejoiced and the Sooners seized the opportunity to earn a BCS berth. The silence in the Cowboys’ home stadium -- outside of the section of Sooners fans -- can be matched only by the silence of the critics of Bell and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel after those critical moments. Bell and Heupel stepped up when the program needed them the most, Heupel with a couple of exceptional play calls and Bell with terrific throws and decision-making on the final drive. In less than two minutes, OU’s offense went from preparing to answer questions about why it didn’t show up to being the reason the Sooners are Sugar Bowl-bound.