Saunders, Shepard key OU's 10-win season

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
11:00
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One play here, one play there.

Oklahoma finished the season with 10 wins but could have lost several close games without big plays in key moments from several different players. Jalen Saunders' punt returns, Brennan Clay touchdown runs and key defensive plays played a role in OU's 10-2 record while two key plays in the Sooners' losses also pushed them down the road to a loss.

Here are the top 10 plays that helped define OU’s season.

1. Jalen Saunders' game-winning touchdown catch in Bedlam. Blake Bell made a perfect throw and Saunders ran a terrific route on the 7-yard touchdown that vaulted OU into the Sugar Bowl with a 33-24 win. It capped off a improbable drive in one of the best Bedlam games in recent memory. This play completely cemented the quality job done by Bob Stoops as his squad reached the 10-win mark in a season that was billed as a rebuilding campaign.

[+] EnlargeCorey Nelson
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsCorey Nelson got the Sooners off to a big start against Notre Dame with an early interception return for a touchdown.
2. Corey Nelson's interception return for touchdown against Notre Dame. The Sooners might not have knocked off the Fighting Irish, 35-21, without Nelson’s big play. The senior linebacker’s return for a score allowed OU to play with a lead from the start, a scenario that cannot be overlooked in Bell’s first road start of his career. That key play helped the Sooners start 5-0 and remind the nation that they can still win high-profile games on the road.

3. Saunders' punt return in Bedlam. There wasn’t a lot going right for OU’s offense when Saunders returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter against Oklahoma State to tie the game 7-7. OU had gained 54 yards in the first quarter, yet entered the second quarter tied with the Cowboys thanks to Saunders. It was an important play in the win that transformed OU’s season from good to great.

4. Red zone disappointments against Baylor. It’s not one play, but this sequence completely changed the game in OU’s 41-12 blowout loss to the Bears. The Sooners were inside the Bears’ 10-yard line on back-to-back drives yet came away with three total points. BU’s headline-making offense had just three points early in the second quarter, so if the Sooners could have punched in at least one touchdown they could have played with a lead against that explosive offense. Instead they were forced to try to score to keep up with the Bears.

5. Brennan Clay's 76-yard run against TCU. The senior running back’s long touchdown run helped create a cushion against the Horned Frogs in a game that saw the Sooners offense struggle to put points on the scoreboard. Clay’s scoring gallop with under five minutes left gave OU an two-possession lead which it ended up needing when the Horned Frogs scored a touchdown late in the 20-17 win. A loss in this game could have transformed OU's season into the rebuilding campaign that many expected.

6. Trevor Knight's touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard against K-State. It wasn’t a game-changing score but it sent a clear message that Knight had brought his “A” game in OU's 41-31 win over Kansas State. The redshirt freshman played the best game of his season, finishing with a 90 adjusted QBR against the Wildcats after opening the game with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Shepard. And it was clear Knight was going to play at a high level after the first drive and touchdown to Shepard.

7. Shepard’s catch-and-run against the Irish. With the Irish threatening to make a comeback bid, Shepard caught a short pass and turned on the afterburners to pull away from the ND defense for a 54-yard touchdown to give the Sooners a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had outscored OU 14-6 in the second half before the sophomore scored that momentum-changing touchdown.

8. Chris Whaley's interception return for touchdown in the Red River Rivalry. The Texas defensive tackle changed the momentum of the Longhorns’ 36-20 win over OU with a key first quarter interception of Bell and return for touchdown. Bell never really looked the same after the play, lacking confidence as the Sooners offense struggled to get anything going throughout the afternoon and Bell finished with a 6.4 adjusted QBR. Whaley's interception made it clear the Longhorns weren't going to get blown out as many expected heading into the game and OU appeared shell-shocked from that point forward.

9. Saunders' punt return against Iowa State. There seems to be a theme here. It’s Saunders, yet again, with a game-changing play for the Sooners. OU trailed Iowa State 10-3 late in the second half and looked ready to head into the locker room trailing a team that was winless in the Big 12. Instead they went into the locker room tied and the Cyclones watched as the Sooners scored 38 second-half points to cruise to a 48-10 win. His punt return pretty much sucked the life out of the ISU locker room.

10. Lacoltan Bester's touchdown pass to Shepard against Kansas. Another theme here ... With OU’s offense struggling, Bester found Shepard for a 49-yard touchdown that gave the Sooners their first lead of the game. It looked like the Sooners might fall in Lawrence, Kan., before Bester’s perfect throw to a wide-open Shepard. OU took it from there and secured the 34-19 win.

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