Friday, January 3, 2014
Sooners send message they're back
By Jake Trotter
NEW ORLEANS -- After the confetti dropped and the band had belted “Boomer Sooner” one last time, the Oklahoma players huddled at midfield for a team photo and waited for coach Bob Stoops to join them.
They waited and waited. After several minutes, they could wait no more. They dashed over to the ESPN camera stage where Stoops and quarterback Trevor Knight still were. And continued the celebration together there.
The Sooners have been waiting and waiting for a program-affirming victory, to show the world they belong back among college football’s best.
That wait is finally over.
Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Sooners bludgeoned Alabama, the game’s preeminent program of the past five years. With their 45-31 victory, they also sent a message.
Oklahoma football is back.
And armed with a young quarterback who just thoroughly outplayed the Heisman Trophy runner-up, the Sooners intend on staying.
“To come down here and show the Sooners are back,” Knight said, “it's something special.”
In New Orleans, Oklahoma was something special.
But this was no fluke. “Propaganda” had none to do with it, either. The Sooners might have been 17-point underdogs in Vegas, but in New Orleans, they were the better team.
“We played how we expected to play, to be quite honest,” Stoops said.
Defensively, Oklahoma sacked Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron seven times and forced four turnovers. On the Crimson Tide’s last drive and final chance to tie the game, the Sooners achieved both. Eric Striker, who is quickly developing into college football’s version of Lawrence Taylor, came barreling around the edge. He crashed into McCarron’s backside, popping the ball loose. Defensive end Geneo Grissom scooped up his second fumble of the night and bounded eight yards into the end zone to clinch the win.
“This game was huge,” said Grissom, who had two sacks to along with his two fumble recoveries. “We were ready to play.”
No one, however, came out more ready to play than Knight.
The Sooners react after scoring a TD against Alabama.
As a redshirting freshman last year, Knight impersonated Heisman quarterback Johnny Manziel on the scout team during bowl practices to prepare the Sooners’ defense for Texas A&M. The impersonation came rather naturally. And the same way Manziel would in the game, Knight carved up Oklahoma’s defense on a daily basis.
Thursday, he carved up Alabama’s.
“He showed the whole country what we've been watching for two years in our practices and our scrimmages,” Stoops said. “He was just exceptional.”
In just his fifth career start, Knight connected on 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns, shredding Alabama’s secondary the way only Manziel has been able to. Knight threw one interception, but even that pass hit his receiver in the hands.
“We’ve been waiting for him to have this kind of performance,” said receiver Lacoltan Bester, who hauled in Knight’s first touchdown pass. “I feel like he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and next year he’s going to show it.”
In the Sugar Bowl, he showed plenty. Especially during one pivotal sequence early in the fourth quarter. Clinging to a 31-24 lead and slowly losing momentum, Oklahoma faced first-and-30 after two straight penalties.
Even then, Knight delivered.
He lofted a perfect pass down the sideline to Bester for a 34-yard gain and a first down to the Alabama 9. Moments later, Knight rolled right, danced around when nobody was initially open, then flicked a pass across the coverage to Sterling Shepard in the end zone, putting the Sooners back up two scores.
“Yeah, that was a key moment,” Stoops said. “The game has started to slow down for him, where he's really starting to feel comfortable in what he can do and who he is.”
Going into the game, the Sooners were 17-point underdogs for a reason.
Not since 2008 had Oklahoma seriously contended for a national title past October. And after snagging six Big 12 championships over a span of nine seasons, the Sooners had captured only one outright conference title in five years. This season had been more of the same, as the Sooners lost to Texas by 16 points and to Baylor by 29.
But these Super Sooners of the Superdome were not the team of the past five years. And with Knight back to go along with several rising defensive stars, these Super Sooners figure to be the Oklahoma team of the next five years.
“Shows we can play with anybody,” said Stoops, who added he’ll no longer have to dodge punches for calling the SEC’s perceived depth as “propaganda.”
“I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well,” Stoops said of the Tide. “So enough of that.”
Truth be told, Alabama had gone through pretty much everyone the past five years and fared pretty well with national championships.
But Thursday, the Crimson Tide couldn’t go through Oklahoma.
A program that’s been waiting to announce its return to college football’s national stage.