Oklahoma Sooners: A.J. McCarron

Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight played the game of his career and the Sooners defense made key plays in key moments as Oklahoma knocked off Alabama 45-31 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. Here's a closer look, after a re-watch of the game, at five key plays that helped OU pull off the upset.

Safety Gabe Lynn’s interception in the first quarter

The Sooners brought four pass rushers against Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who made a horrible decision, throwing into triple coverage despite not being pressured. The Crimson Tide had single coverage on every other receiver, making McCarron’s decision even worse. He essentially threw the ball as if he didn't see that Lynn was sitting in center field to attack any deep throw.

Lynn, reading McCarron’s eyes, made the easy interception. It was a key play for the Sooners as it came right after Knight threw an interception on OU’s first possession, and it prevented the Crimson Tide from jumping out to a two-touchdown lead.

Knight’s 45-yard touchdown to Lacoltan Bester in the first quarter

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight made several great throws in the upset of Alabama.
An exceptional play by everyone involved. Terrific protection from the offensive line, a great read and throw from Knight and superb athleticism from Bester to turn a 20-yard pass into a 45-yard touchdown.

It started with a play-action pass off a zone-read fake. OU only had two receivers running routes, with Sterling Shepard providing a safety net option after the fake. Without a perfect throw from Knight, this would not have been a touchdown. It was accurate with zip, allowing Bester to gather it in and turn upfield. Bester’s stutter step provided just enough room to dive in for the score. The most underrated aspect of the touchdown was the confidence from Heupel to call a pass on the first offensive play after Knight’s interception.

The fact coach Bob Stoops sought out Knight to congratulate him after the play speaks volumes about the importance of the touchdown. It was at that point the Sooners realized Knight had brought his “A” game and they would be able to take advantage of the Crimson Tide’s focus on OU’s ground attack.

Knight’s 43-yard beauty to Jalen Saunders in the second quarter

Alabama defensive back Deion Belue gave Saunders’ a 10-yard cushion before the snap, and still was beaten deep. This is where having NFL-caliber players on your roster pays off.

Play action helped get Saunders one-on-one against Belue, who bit on Saunders' double move. Knight delivered a perfect throw over the outside shoulder, where only Saunders could make a play on it. The senior receiver made a superb, over-the-shoulder catch while keeping one foot in bounds for the touchdown. Saunders' combination of quickness and acceleration was simply too much for Belue on the play.

Cornerback Zack Sanchez's interception

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Sooners were able to confuse AJ McCarron on occasion with their pass rush.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops deserves the credit for this one. Dime back Kass Everett and Lynn both blitzed on the play, but neither player appeared to be blitzing until six seconds remained on the play clock, and McCarron didn’t have time to change the play. OU rushed seven defenders, leaving its secondary in one-on-one situations.

Everett, who was five yards behind the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped, was in McCarron’s face when the Bama quarterback threw the ball. Sanchez, knowing the blitz was on, jumped the hot route for the interception in front of Amari Cooper, who stopped his route for some reason. Alabama actually picked up the blitz well, but OU just brought too many defenders to block. Sanchez made a great play and Cooper didn’t.

Geneo Grissom’s touchdown to seal the game

Cyrus Kouandjio is probably still waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares of trying to block Sooners linebacker Eric Striker. The sophomore blew past the All-SEC left tackle to force a fumble by McCarron that was scooped up by Grissom and returned eight yards for a touchdown.

The play is notable because it was a mirror representation of the key to OU’s win. The Sooners were able to get pressure on McCarron while rushing four defenders. Striker got to McCarron less than three seconds after the snap and defensive end Charles Tapper, after a stunt, drove his man back into McCarron’s face, preventing him from stepping up into the pocket to avoid Striker. Both players won their individual battles and the result was the game-sealing touchdown.

Allstate Sugar Bowl preview

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
11:00
AM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Thursday night’s Allstate Sugar Bowl (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) matchup between No. 3 Alabama and No. 11 Oklahoma features two of the most storied programs in college football history. Here’s a preview of one of the most intriguing games of the bowl season:

Who to watch: Alabama's AJ McCarron, who, with two national titles, is one of the winningest quarterbacks in the history of the game. Even though the Crimson Tide came up just short of advancing to another national championship game, McCarron has put together another fabulous season. He was a first-team Walter Camp All-American, won the Maxwell Award and finished second in the Heisman voting. On top of owning virtually every passing record at Alabama, McCarron also has a career record of 36-3 as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback. A win over the Sooners in his collegiate swan song would cap the finest quarterbacking career in Alabama history in fine fashion.

What to watch: How Oklahoma performs against the preeminent program from the preeminent conference in college football. Even though the SEC has reeled off seven straight national titles, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has questioned why the SEC is accepted as college football's top conference, even calling it "propaganda." Stoops also has suggested the SEC's defensive reputation has been overhyped, because of substandard quarterbacking in the past. Stoops, however, has never disrespected Alabama, and this week called the Crimson Tide the best team in the country despite their loss to Auburn. Still, the fact remains, the Big 12's reputation will be squarely on the line this game, especially after Baylor's disastrous showing against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Oklahoma's reputation will be on the line, too. The Sooners can prove on the national stage they're on their way back to standing alongside the nation’s elite programs. Or they -- and the Big 12 -- will take yet another perception hit heading into the College Football Playoff era, where perception will be paramount.

Why to watch: This will pit two of the most tradition-rich programs in college football history. Alabama and Oklahoma have combined for 17 national championships, including four in the BCS era. Despite their histories, the Crimson Tide and Sooners have met only four times before: the 1963 Orange Bowl, 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl and then a home-and-home in 2002-2003, which the Sooners swept. Nick Saban and Stoops, however, have faced each other only once, in the 2003 national championship game when Saban was at LSU. The Tigers won that game 21-14.

Prediction: Alabama 41, Oklahoma 17. The Sooners have thrived as the underdog, both in the past, and here late this season. But Alabama is another animal, and Oklahoma, which has been inconsistent offensively all season, will struggle to move the ball against linebacker C.J. Mosley & Co.
Alabama reporter Alex Scarborough and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down the biggest storylines in Thursday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between Alabama and Oklahoma:

The last time the Crimson Tide just missed out on a national championship game and ended up in the Sugar, they didn't seem to be very motivated. Will they be motivated this time?

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIt's hard to imagine AJ McCarron and the Crimson Tide coming out flat against OU in the Sugar Bowl.
Alex Scarborough: With AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley guiding their respective units, I don't think motivation will be a problem. The leadership on this team is too strong for Alabama to come out flat emotionally. There are too many seniors who don't want to go out on a sour note with back-to-back losses. Revenge, even though it can't come in the form of a national championship, is at play against the Sooners. That loss on the road at Auburn has eaten away at the Tide for a month now, and I believe this team is eager to get that monkey off its back and change the narrative of its season. As Brian Vogler told the media a short while back, this game is all about respect and proving again that Alabama is one of the best teams in the country.

Jake Trotter: I don’t think motivation will be a problem for Alabama. Then again, it could be. After all, the Crimson Tide have played in the national championship game in three of the last four years. Playing in the Sugar is a step down. One thing we do know is that Oklahoma will be motivated. This is the biggest bowl the Sooners have played in since the 2008 national championship game against Florida. As a double-digit underdog against the preeminent program in college football at the moment, it’s a guarantee Oklahoma will be fired up to play well.

For OU to pull off the upset, what is the one thing that has to happen?

Scarborough: Aside from Alabama surprising me and coming out flat, I think it comes down to the defense. McCarron, T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will put up plenty of points on offense, but can Mosley and the secondary rebound after what was a testing season defensively? Alabama was excellent in terms of production this season, but our colleague Edward Aschoff was wise to focus on the importance of the Tide facing another zone-read team as both Auburn and Texas A&M had success moving the ball against them. Even Mississippi State had some success spreading the field and pushing the tempo. Alabama has to set the edge and stop the run early against Oklahoma, forcing Blake Bell, Trevor Knight or whoever plays quarterback for the Sooners into obvious passing situations. If Oklahoma finds itself in a lot of second-and-mediums and third-and-shorts, Alabama will be in trouble because while there's plenty of talent at safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins, there's a significant drop off at cornerback once you look past Deion Belue.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight and the Sooners need to get off to a good start if Oklahoma is going to pull off the upset.
Trotter: The Sooners have got to get off to a good start. Whether Knight or Bell (or both) is at quarterback, this is not an offense built to come back from behind. After falling behind early to Texas and Baylor, Oklahoma had to scrap the game plan and start throwing the ball. And the end-result was a pair of blowouts. Conversely, if Oklahoma can start fast, then hang in the game past halftime, the pressure will swing on Alabama, which is expected to win this game big. And like at Oklahoma State, the Sooners would be a successful trick play or big turnover away from taking the Tide to the wire.

Who is the player to watch in this game?

Scarborough: This is going to be a very interesting game for Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest. He's had a fairly solid junior season, but he hasn't done what many expected when the season began and there was speculation over whether he'd turn pro early. Well, he's already said he intends to return to school, and with Mosley moving on, he'll be the man leading and executing Kirby Smart’s and Nick Saban's defense in 2014. How he does against Oklahoma is an important step in that progression. He needs to show he can both lead his teammates, as well as show the sideline-to-sideline type of tackling that Mosley brought to the table. As more teams go to the zone-read offense, that part of the game becomes more and more important. And if I can add a second player to watch quickly, keep an eye on freshman tailback Derrick Henry. He's a talented big man at 6-foot-3, and the buzz is that he may be poised to pass Kenyan Drake for second on the depth chart.

Trotter: Receiver/returner Jalen Saunders is Oklahoma's X-factor. In the Sooners' upset victory over Oklahoma State, Saunders unleashed a 61-yard punt return touchdown, a 37-yard reverse rush that set up another score and a game-winning, 7-yard touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone in the final seconds. For the Sooners to have a chance, Saunders must deliver another monster performance.

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