Oklahoma Sooners: Jalen Saunders
This is not a final list, just an early rundown of who we know that has decided where to showcase their skills in front of the NFL scouts.
REESE'S SENIOR BOWL (Jan. 25, Mobile, Ala.)
- Mike Davis, WR, Texas
- Ahmad Dixon, S, Baylor
- Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma
- Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
- Kirby Van Der Camp, P, Iowa State
- Aaron Colvin, CB, Oklahoma
Also, TCU quarterback Casey Pachall will take part in the inaugural Medal of Honor Bowl on Jan. 11 in Charleston, S.C.
Unlike previous campaigns, Oklahoma’s offense was not the envy of the rest of the Big 12 this season. The Sooners running game was second to none and provided a foundation that allowed OU to stay in games, control the ball and create opportunities in its passing game. But it’s lack of explosiveness through the air, leading to poor offensive balance, made this year’s offense one of the worst in Norman, Okla. in recent memory. Yet the Sooners limited turnovers and mental mistakes while running the ball well enough to earn 10 wins, which should quiet critics considering a double-digit win season was unexpected heading into the season.
Quarterback: C+. Where are all the Landry Jones haters now? A quick glance at the Sooners passing stats (186.67 ypg, No. 99 in FBS) makes this grade seem way too high. But a quick glance at the win column makes everything clear. OU never got consistency from the position, as Blake Bell and Trevor Knight each had their moments of success and failure. Bell was the starter in Sooners’ losses to Texas and Baylor, and looked uncomfortable in both games, but played a key role in road wins at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State. And Knight showed flashes of big-time upside but also showed the inexperience of a redshirt freshman. Through it all the Sooners found a way to get 10 wins and the quarterbacks played a key role in that success. A significant drop off from Jones yet OU finished the regular season with the exact same record Jones led them to as a senior.
Running back: A+. Who knows how the Sooners’ season would have ended up if it wasn’t for a talented and deep group of running backs led by Brennan Clay. The senior led the Sooners with 913 rushing yards, averaging 5.78 yards per carry, but Damien Williams (553 rushing yards) and Roy Finch (347 rushing yards) joined him as quality threats in the backfield. The Sooners running backs brought a physical running style and game-breaking ability which helped offset OU’s ugly passing attack.
Receiver: B-. The quarterbacks shouldered a bunch of the blame for OU’s passing troubles, but the Sooners receivers deserve their share of the burden. Jalen Saunders performed like an “A” student and Sterling Shepard wasn’t far behind. After those two playmakers, the Sooners receivers left plenty to be desired. Lacolton Bester had good moments but wasn’t the constant threat that Saunders and Shepard were in 2013 and the overall depth seemed nonexistent as young players such as Durron Neal never emerged as difference makers at the receiver spot.
Offensive line: A-. OU rushed for nearly 3,000 yards yet didn’t feature a single 1,000-yard rusher, speaking volumes for the offensive line. The only reason the Sooners’ starting front didn’t get a A+ was lackluster efforts against Texas and Baylor, helping to contribute to OU’s only losses. Center Gabe Ikard was the anchor and star of the offensive front, but tackle Daryl Williams made an overlooked but valuable contribution as the other all-Big 12 level performer on the squad. Tackle Tyrus Thompson, guard Nila Kasitati, guard Bronson Irwin and guard Adam Shead each played well while helping pave the way for OU’s running game and limiting opponents to 15 total sacks.
Overall: B-. The lack of balance keeps this grade from being higher but OU averaged more than 31.8 points and 5.84 yards per game, ranking them in the top half of the Big 12. The Sooners running game was superb and overcame the passing game struggles while protecting the football. OU's offense is not an national championship-level offense, but it's not as bad as it appeared at various times either.
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.
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.
Most intriguing game?
Jake Trotter: Kansas State-Michigan could end up being a wild shootout in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, and the AT&T Cotton Bowl features two evenly matched, high-quality teams in Oklahoma State and Missouri. But anytime you can get two of the most storied programs together on the same field, it automatically becomes very intriguing. Even if the Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite over Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Brandon Chatmon: Oklahoma against Alabama in a BCS game? Sign me up! Nobody thinks the Sooners have a chance, and they might not. But these two tradition-rich programs don’t meet often and there’s a bunch of prideful people in both locker rooms who will want to represent their conferences well. OSU-Missouri is interesting, Texas-Oregon should be fun but nothing tops a meeting between two of the winningest college football programs of all time.
Max Olson: Oklahoma State-Missouri in the Cotton Bowl. I’m sorry, I can’t choose the Sugar Bowl, because the Sooners have no chance in that game. The Big 12 realignment storylines aside, OSU-Mizzou is just a really nice pairing of balanced teams who are both BCS bowl-caliber. In fact, both would’ve been playing in BCS bowls had they not suffered losses last weekend. And Dorial Green-Beckham vs. Justin Gilbert should be worth the price of admission.
Least intriguing game?
Trotter: Even though it’s a double-digit underdog in three of its six bowl games, the Big 12 doesn’t have a game that’s not intriguing. But I’m not sure Central Florida can hang with Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, which could end up resembling the Oklahoma-UConn siesta of 2010.
Chatmon: Watching Baylor is never boring. Yet their Fiesta Bowl matchup with UCF sits at the bottom of the list of games that will make you want grab a seat and some popcorn with the knowledge you’re going to see a battle. The Bears offense is explosive and fun to watch but things could get out of hand if Bryce Petty and Co. are operating as efficiently as they have for the majority of the season.
Olson: Kansas State-Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The obvious answer is probably the Fiesta Bowl, but Blake Bortles and UCF could make that one interesting. Michigan has lost four of its last five and that lone victory came in triple OT against Northwestern. Kansas State probably has to like this matchup and its chances of getting its first bowl win since 2002.
Of Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech, who has the best chance of pulling an upset?
Trotter: It would be great if the Longhorns could send Mack Brown out with a win over Oregon, but I just don’t see enough points in the Texas offense. I’m not sure Tech can slow down Arizona State, either. So I’ll go with Oklahoma. Who knows what’s going on with Nick Saban, and it’s possible Alabama isn’t as locked in for this game having gotten knocked out of the national title game in the Iron Bowl.
Chatmon: The Red Raiders will have the best shot because beating Arizona State isn’t the same task as bringing down Oregon or Alabama, two teams that have cemented themselves among the nation’s top 10 for the past few seasons. Texas Tech is coming off a five-game losing streak to end the year but still features an explosive offense with the potential to create problems for any defense. And Kliff Kingsbury will have a creative trick or two up his sleeve.
Olson: Texas Tech. The other two games are such mismatches that I have to go with the Red Raiders, even despite their five-game slide. If any Big 12 team needed a month off to regroup, review and improve, it’s Tech. We saw what Kliff Kingsbury did to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl last year when given several weeks to prep. If he can get the quarterback situation figured out and Matt Wallerstedt can get his defense to defend the run much better, an upset wouldn’t shock me.
Player to watch?
Trotter: The only way Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State was with big plays from Jalen Saunders. The only chance the Sooners have against Alabama is if Saunders can pull off more big plays, both at receiver and in the kicking game. He is OU’s best chance in this game.
Chatmon: Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. How could you not be looking forward to watching Gilbert take on Missouri’s receivers, particularly Dorial Green-Beckham ? The Cowboys senior has played like an elite corner this season and DBG is emerging as the type of receiver everyone expected him to be when he was one of the nation’s top recruits in the Class of 2012. Basically, it’s an opportunity to watch two future NFL players compete on one of college football’s top stages.
Olson: Baylor RB Lache Seastrunk. Of all the Big 12 players going bowling, it’s Seastrunk and Jace Amaro I’ll be watching because both could opt to go pro early after one final game. Seastrunk will be 100 percent healthy by January, Baylor won’t be afraid to run it 60 times if it’s working (remember the UCLA game last year?) and a huge game on this stage could help his draft stock and sway him to enter the draft. If he comes back, it’s huge for the Bears and for the Big 12.
OU finished the season 10-2 including a 7-2 Big 12 record as some likely and unlikely candidates stepped up to make a difference during a season that was initially billed as a rebuilding year but will end with the Sooners playing in a BCS bowl.
Here is a regular season review of the standout players and coaches during OU’s BCS journey.
Offensive MVP: Center Gabe Ikard. It’s not often that an offensive lineman is the clear MVP of a 10-win team. But Ikard’s not your normal offensive lineman. A four-year starter, Ikard’s experience and intelligence helped the Sooners overcome an season-ending injury to fullback Trey Millard, a quarterback carousel and multiple running backs taking turns as the lead ball carrier. Through it all the offensive line helped the Sooners average 235.83 rushing yards per game and allowed 15 sacks with Ikard’s leadership and example.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Frank Shannon. The sophomore fought off injuries to play in all 12 games and lead the squad with 85 tackles along with seven tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception. When senior linebacker Corey Nelson was lost for the season in early October, Shannon went from an understudy to a on-field leadership role. His presence also helped true freshman Dominique Alexander excel in Nelson’s absence.
Special teams MVP: Jalen Saunders. The senior receiver changed the game with punt returns for touchdowns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State during the Sooners’ three-game win streak to end the regular season. Without those two returns, who knows how those games could have turned out. He averaged 16.78 yards per punt return and had five punt returns for more than 20 yards.
Assistant coach of the year: Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery. The season began with a defensive line full of unknowns and inexperience. Yet, it performed like a veteran group and even shook off an season-ending injury to Jordan Phillips to finish No. 1 in the Big 12 in yards allowed per game. Several inexperienced players including Charles Tapper and Jordan Wade played important roles under Montgomery's coaching.
Undervalued contributor on offense: Receiver Sterling Shepard. The sophomore wasn’t the No. 1 guy like Saunders, but when he wasn’t involved OU’s passing attack wasn’t as potent. He finished with 44 receptions for 540 yards and six touchdowns. His 67.7 completion percentage (44 receptions in 65 targets) led the squad. Shepard stepped up in key games and provided a quality big play threat when teams focused on Saunders.
Undervalued contributor on defense: Linebacker Eric Striker. The Florida native helped transform the Sooners’ defense with his relentlessness and quickness off the edge. Playing a standup linebacker who consistently blitzed on passing downs, Striker proved to be one of OU’s top pass rushing threats with 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He wasn't among the team leaders in tackles but he was always active when he was on the field.
Newcomer of the year: Alexander. The coaching staff had raved about Alexander since the preseason but his opportunities were limited until Nelson’s injury. He had 10 tackles in his first four games but had 19 tackles in his first start against Texas after Nelson was sidelined. He finished with 75 tackles, second on the squad.
Most improved player: Tapper. The defensive end stepped on campus as a raw former basketball star with plenty of potential. He ends his sophomore season leading the Sooners in sacks (5.5) and tackle for losses (9). His size, speed and quickness will make him one of the Big 12’s most feared defenders in 2014.
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.
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.
In 2012, Saunders had 10 receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yard punt return, as the Sooners took out Oklahoma State in overtime, 51-48.
Saturday in Stillwater, Saunders didn’t have the same kind of numbers. But in Oklahoma’s 33-24 Bedlam victory, he did deliver the same big plays, taking a major role in the Sooners’ first three touchdowns.
Saunders returned a punt 64 yards for a score in the first quarter to put the Sooners on the board and tie the game, 7-7.
In the third quarter, he took a double reverse 37 yards around the edge to set up Oklahoma’s fake field goal touchdown, which evened the game again, 17-17.
Then with 19 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, Saunders hauled in a pass from Blake Bell in the corner of the end zone from seven yards out, giving the Sooners a 27-24 lead.
Saunders’ two-game Bedlam career will go down in the annals: 15 receptions, 201 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns, 49 yards rushing, two punt return touchdowns -- and the hero in two dramatic, come-from-behind victories.
Team of the week: Baylor was unranked to begin the season and picked to finish fifth in the Big 12. Instead, with a convincing 30-10 victory over Texas, the Bears won 11 games for the first time in school history to capture the program’s first outright conference title in 33 years. Baylor will cap its magical season against Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Disappointment of the week: Oklahoma State had a chance at a second Big 12 title and BCS bowl berth in three years. And all the Cowboys had to do was beat Oklahoma in Stillwater as 10-point favorites. Instead, despite shuffling through three quarterbacks and not scoring an offensive touchdown until 19 seconds left in the game, the Sooners knocked off their instate rival yet again. The Cowboys have lost 10 of 11 to Oklahoma, but given the circumstance and the ending, this one hurt worst of all.
Big (defensive) man on campus: Cornerback K.J. Morton returned from an abdominal strain to deliver the exclamation point to Baylor’s season. Morton picked off Texas quarterback Case McCoy twice, returning the second 57 yards in the fourth quarter for an apparent touchdown. The score was nullified on his celebration penalty. But by then, the party had already begun in Waco.
Special teams players of the week: The field goal tandem of Grant Bothun and Michael Hunnicutt converted Bob Stoops’ first successful fake field goal attempt in 11 years. After their drive stalled at the Oklahoma State 8-yard line, the Sooners lined up for a field goal. Instead, Bothun, the holder, took off running with the ball left and threw the ball to Hunnicutt, the kicker. Hunnicutt backed into the end zone before getting belted by two Cowboys, tying the score 17-17.
Play of the week: Cornerback Justin Gilbert appeared to have ended Bedlam with an Oklahoma State victory, as he came down with an apparent interception on a jump ball to Lacoltan Bester. But instead of landing on the turf, Gilbert landed on Bester, who tapped the ball out of Gilbert’s hands at the last moment. Officials ruled it an incompletion, and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy inexplicably didn’t challenge the call. Five plays later, Bell hit Saunders for the game-winning score.
Stat of the week: As Oklahoma State’s head coach, Gundy’s record against Oklahoma is 1-8. Gundy’s record against the rest of the Big 12: 44-22
Quote of the week: “A defining moment for our program and one I think we'll be able to repeat many times." -- Baylor coach Art Briles, after the school’s first Big 12 championship
Quarterback Blake Bell: The Sooners quarterback didn’t fold under the pressure of taking the field with under two minutes remaining and OU needing a touchdown. Instead Bell excelled. He led OU down the field, going 5-of-8 on the drive, capping it with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Saunders. He was 9-of-14 for 134 yards and one touchdown for a raw QBR of 91 in the fourth quarter. He played the majority of the second half after starter Trevor Knight was injured and was superb in backup duties. Quite simply, he played his best when the Sooners needed it most.
Receiver Jalen Saunders: In addition to his game-winning touchdown catch, Saunders returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown. His punt return completely changed the momentum of the game and gave the Sooners hope when they were facing a 7-point deficit and hadn’t accomplished much on offense.
Receiver Sterling Shepard: Bell and Saunders stole the show but Shepard was the Sooners most productive offensive player. The sophomore finished with seven receptions for 112 yards including four receptions for 92 yards in the final 15 minutes. As clutch as Bell and Saunders were, the Sooners probably don’t win the game without the explosive play of Shepard.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops: The Sooners held OSU to 2 of 13 on third down, essentially stopping the Cowboy attack by making the key plays when it mattered in third down situations. OSU quarterback Clint Chelf entered the game leading the Big 12 in third down QBR at 91.8 (on a scale of 0-100 with 50 being average). The Sooners held him a total third down QBR of 9.3.
Oklahoma knocked off Oklahoma State 33-24 at Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday. Here’s how it happened:
It was over when: Blake Bell lofted a perfect pass to Jalen Saunders for a 7-yard touchdown with 19 seconds left in the game. It capped an eight-play, 66-yard game-winning drive, although the Sooners added a touchdown as the clock ran out, when OSU’s last-ditch attempt at laterals ended with a fumble return for a touchdown by Eric Striker.
Game ball goes to: Bell. The junior was outstanding on OU’s final drive. He stepped up when it mattered, going 5-of-8 on the final drive and finding Saunders. Bell finished 10-of-16 for 140 yards and one touchdown after Trevor Knight did not return after halftime because of a hand injury.
Unsung hero of the game: Saunders caught the game-winning touchdown and had a 64-yard, momentum-changing punt return for a touchdown in the first quarter.
Best call: The Sooners had several terrific play calls in the game, but the best was a fake field goal that resulted in an 8-yard touchdown catch by kicker Michael Hunnicutt in the third quarter.
What it means: Baylor and Texas are playing for the outright Big 12 championship later Saturday, and Oklahoma has a legitimate chance to earn a BCS berth after this win. The Sooners also ruined the BCS hopes of their rivals from Stillwater with the upset.
Oklahoma visits Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla., to take on Oklahoma State on Saturday (Noon ET, ABC). Here are some storylines, interesting stats, players to watch and a prediction:
Can Trevor Knight match his performance at Kansas State? The Sooners redshirt freshman quarterback was outstanding against the Wildcats. He used his quickness and speed to create havoc as a runner while being accurate and decisive as a passer. If he plays that way against the Cowboys, he will create problems for their defense.
Will OSU continue to dominate at home? The Cowboys have outscored opponents by 28.4 points per game while going 5-0 at Boone Pickens Stadium. OSU is 18-1 at home in its past 19 games, so winning in Stillwater is harder than many people realize.
Who wins the turnover battle? Whoever wins the turnover battle probably will win the game, particularly if the chilly weather makes everything harder on the offenses. OSU has forced 22 turnovers during its seven-game win streak, while OU has forced 16 turnovers in its nine wins.
Key stats, courtesy ESPN Stats & Information
Clint Chelf's running: OSU quarterback Clint Chelf isn't known for his running ability, but the Cowboys have used his mobility to terrorize defenses. Chelf is averaging 5.4 rushing yards before contact and has gained 258 total rushing yards before contact, ranking second on the team. OSU will look to continue to pick and choose the times to unleash Chelf, while OU likely will have a plan to stop his running.
Players to watch
OSU linebacker Caleb Lavey: The senior is making a strong case for Big 12 defensive player of the year. He has done it all for the Pokes this season, from tackles to interceptions to tackles for loss. He has 82 tackles this season and can cap off his player-of-the-year campaign with a strong game against an OU rushing offense that is one of the conference's best.
OU linebacker Dominique Alexander: The true freshman has played remarkably well in his first season in crimson and cream. He has 25 tackles in OU's past three games and will need to play well if the Sooners hope to force the Cowboys to throw by taking their running game out of the equation.
OSU quarterback Chelf: He has played as well as any quarterback in the nation during the past four weeks, accounting for 15 touchdowns and 305.8 yards per game. If he continues to operate the Cowboys' attack that efficiently, it might not matter what OU does.
OU receiver Jalen Saunders: The Sooners are going to need Saunders and his running mates at the receiver spot to create opportunities to make big plays. OSU will come out to stop OU's running game, likely leaving one-on-one opportunities on the outside. If OU hopes to win, the Sooners' receivers must win the majority of those battles.
Prediction: OSU 34, OU 24. Both running games will have success, but the Cowboys' ability to keep OU's defense honest through the air without turning the ball over will be the difference.
That question was on the minds of Sooners fans as they watched redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight lead the Sooners to a 41-31 win over Kansas State in his first ever road start on Saturday. Coach Bob Stoops and the rest of the OU coaching staff named Knight the opening-day starter after he won the job with a stellar performance during preseason camp in August.
“Now maybe some people are seeing some of what we’ve seen through these years working with these guys.”
Knight was outstanding, going 14-of-20 for 171 yards with a 90.3 adjusted Total QBR against the Wildcats. His performance in OU's last two games could be setting him up as the Sooners’ signal-caller of the present and future. Let’s use a little film study to take a closer look at five plays that show Knight’s long-term potential and should have OU fans excited about the future.
Knight’s first completion of the game: On OU’s second play of the game, Knight rolled out after a play-action fake, then found Jalen Saunders on the sidelines. It was a superb, accurate throw on the run. The fact Knight could throw a dart on the run is a scary development for OU opponents. If he starts proving he can do it consistently, a scary development turns into a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, particularly with his quickness and running ability on the perimeter.
Knight’s touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard: Great read, great throw. On 3rd-and-goal from the Wildcats 12-yard line, everyone knew it was a passing situation yet Knight found a wide open Shepard in the end zone. KSU played zone and rushed four defenders but an excellent play call by offensive coordinator Josh Heupel was able to isolate Shepard in a one-on-one situation with KSU cornerback Randall Evans. Knight saw it, was decisive and made a terrific throw that would have been tough for anyone to defend. It should make Sooners fans excited because of Knight’s decisiveness, timeliness and accuracy with a strong throw. It’s the kind of play that should make anyone questioning his ability to run a pass-heavy offense think twice before continuing to question his talent.
Knight’s interception: Huh? Yes, what happened during and after his interception is a great sign for the future. First of all, he made the right read and throw, but Saunders, for some odd reason, went behind the defender instead of in front of him as Knight expected. But, most importantly, Knight didn’t run off the field after Evans intercepted his pass. He went straight to Saunders to ask why the senior changed his route. A clear sign that Knight, as a freshman, already considers himself a leader who isn’t scared to hold others and himself accountable. Quite possibly a better sign for the future than any one throw he made all afternoon.
Knight’s 20-yard run early in the second quarter: Knight rolled left looking to pass after a play-action fake. When Kansas State safety Dylan Schellenberg realized Knight still had the ball and was looking to pass, he scrambled back to get into coverage despite being two yards from the line of scrimmage with nothing between him and Knight. As soon as the Sooners quarterback saw him retreat, he was decisive and tucked the ball, easily outrunning K-Stte linebackers to gain 20 yards including an extra five yards with some nifty open field running. That’s an element to OU’s passing game that the Sooners simply haven’t had in previous seasons. Knight’s ability to adapt to the defense on the fly is another great sign for the future. He scored on a eight-yard run on the next play to cap a 98-yard scoring drive.
Knight’s 20-yard completion to Shepard before halftime: With the Sooners driving to try to take the halftime lead, the San Antonio native found Shepard on 3rd-and-10. Knight zipped the ball into a window between two Wildcats defenders playing zone in the secondary. The velocity and accuracy of the throw allowed Shepard to secure the ball before he was hit and the decision to throw to the sophomore showed good anticipation. Knight was confident in what he saw and made a quick decision.
OU has a bye week before getting the chance to ruin Oklahoma State’s Big 12 title hopes during their Bedlam battle on Dec. 7. And if Knight plays the way he did against the Wildcats, OSU’s road to winning its second Big 12 title in three seasons might be filled with more potholes than most people think.
Team of the week: Oklahoma State took command of the Big 12 title race with a commanding 49-17 win over No. 4 Baylor. Behind the most dominant defensive performance in the Big 12 this season, the Cowboys limited the nation’s highest-scoring offense to just three points over the first three quarters. Oklahoma State also rolled up 594 yards of offense, too. The Cowboys are now 9-3 versus AP Top 25 teams going back to 2011, and after winning just one conference title from 1953 to 2010, Oklahoma State can win a second in three seasons with a victory over Oklahoma in two weeks.
Big (offensive) men on campus: Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf, Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay, Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett and Iowa State quarterback Grant Rohach.
Chelf unleashed the best performance of his career, completing 19 of 25 passes for a career-high 370 yards and three touchdowns. Chelf also had a 48-yard reception on a trick play. For the second consecutive week, Chelf posted the second-highest QBR in college football, delivering a score of 97.8 (scale zero to 100) against Baylor. He is now seventh in the FBS in QBR.
Clay also had a career day, rushing for a personal-best 200 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries, with Damien Williams suspended, to lead OU to a 41-31 win over Kansas State.
Lockett had a monster performance, too, in the game, hauling in 12 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns. Lockett’s 440 all-purpose yards broke Darren Sproles’ school record and were the second most ever in a Big 12 game.
Rohach, who had not thrown a touchdown pass in his five previous games, finished 15-of-20 passing with scoring throws of 58 and 15 yards to lead Iowa State to a 34-0 rout of Kansas.
Big (defensive) men on campus: Oklahoma State cornerbacks Tyler Patmon and Kevin Peterson.
Baylor’s pass-catchers entered the night leading the country in 30-, 40- and 50-yard receptions. Against the Cowboys, they had just two such receptions.
Even with All-American cornerback Justin Gilbert limited to spot duty because of a shoulder injury, the Cowboys still locked up Baylor’s receivers. Why? Patmon and Peterson, who held up remarkably well in man coverage on the outside against Baylor's Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood. With Patmon and Peterson taking away the deep ball, the Cowboys were able to commit more bodies to pressuring QB Bryce Petty and shutting down Baylor’s rushing attack.
Patmon also delivered the Oklahoma State defense’s exclamation point when he scooped up a Petty fumble in the fourth quarter and raced 78 yards for a touchdown to put the Cowboys up 42-10.
Special-teams player of the week: Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders. For the second consecutive week, a Saunders punt return proved to be the turning point in an OU win. With the Sooners up 27-24 early in the fourth quarter, Saunders fielded a short punt on the fly and dashed 30 yards to the K-State 3-yard line. Clay scored a touchdown on the next play, and the Wildcats never recovered from the special-teams swing.
Play of the week: Midway through the first quarter in Stillwater, QB Petty pulled the ball on a read-option and appeared to be on his way to a 27-yard touchdown. Instead, Petty’s feet got tangled up and he stumbled to the turf at the OSU 1. It proved to be a critical stumble. Two plays later, Shock Linwood tried to extend the ball over the goal line, but before he could, Cowboys defensive tackle James Castleman batted the ball out of Linwood’s hands and recovered the fumble. The Cowboys countered with a 99-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-0 lead and remained in control the rest of the night.
Stat of the week: Baylor has lost 35 straight road games to ranked opponents dating all the way back to 1991.
Quote of the week: "Without question, there are rodeos, and this is not their first one."
-- Baylor coach Art Briles, on Oklahoma State after the Cowboys defeated his Bears 49-17
QB Clint Chelf, Oklahoma State: What a masterful night for Chelf, who connected on his first 12 passes for 238 yards and finished the night with 370 yards and three scores on 19-of-25 passing. He added a rushing touchdown to help lead a 49-17 romp of No. 4 Baylor and put the Pokes one win away from a Big 12 title and a trip to their second Fiesta Bowl in three years.
RB Brennan Clay, Oklahoma: The Sooners needed a big-time performance on the ground with Damien Williams suspended, and Clay delivered that and a whole lot more in a 41-31 win over Kansas State. Clay ran for a career-high 200 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries, highlighted by a 64-yard dash in the second quarter. He's now No. 4 in the Big 12 in rushing yards with 843 and has six touchdowns.
DT James Castleman, Oklahoma State: Baylor was closing in on the first score of the night with a Shock Linwood dive up the middle. As Linwood reached the ball toward the goal line, Castleman had the savvy to swat it out of Linwood's hands and into Oklahoma State's possession. The game ended up being a blowout, but Castleman's forced fumble proved to the be a major momentum swing, leading to a seven-play, 99-yard touchdown drive that put OSU up 7-0. It was all downhill from there.
WR Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma: Saunders caught seven passes for 95 yards, but it was his 30-yard punt return that ended up sending Oklahoma to victory. Saunders took the punt back to the K-State 3-yard line in the fourth quarter, setting up a Clay touchdown run that put the Sooners up by 10.
QB Grant Rohach, Iowa State: The best antidote for the Cyclones' season-long issues on offense ended up being a meeting with Kansas. Rohach, a redshirt freshman making his third start, threw for a career-best 300 yards on 15-of-20 passing with two touchdowns and an interception in a 34-0 win. ISU got its first Big 12 win of the year and, perhaps, a reason for optimism from its quarterback situation going forward.
He talked with ESPN.com this week about the differences in playing at OU and Fresno State, his ties with the current Bulldogs and what he's learned during his time in Norman:
When you came to Oklahoma from California when did it kind of hit you, "I’m not on the West Coast anymore?"
As soon as I landed. I could tell by the humidity; it was something that was really different, of course. You know you’re definitely outside of California.
Was it a culture shock? How was the transition?
It felt like more of a football environment as soon as I touched down in Oklahoma. It was definitely different than California football. I just love it out here.
You never know how much it means to people who are cheering for OU. I really noticed that in my first season playing and how many people support us. I played for a great team and great people, it’s one of those things in life where you have to appreciate what was given to you.
What is the biggest difference between the two places you’ve played in college?
The conference play is very different and the football atmosphere is completely different. It’s hard to explain it, but if you went to a Fresno game it’s totally different than a OU game. Nothing against Fresno -- I loved playing for them and Pat Hill -- but I came here after he left because some situations had come up [Saunders was cleared to play immediately at OU because of a medical condition) so I’m really happy with the opportunity [OU coach Bob] Stoops gave me here.
Do you keep up with Fresno?
I still have friends on the team. Me and Derek Carr and a couple of their receivers I I grew up with, Josh Harper and Isaiah Burse, those were my two roommates during freshman and sophomore year. We were really tight. I still keep in touch with them. We talk every week about twice a week.
So it feels good to see them have so much success this year?
Definitely. I’m never against anyone. I always like to see them get what they want to accomplish.
What has been the best advice you’ve received since coming to OU?
I’ve heard a lot of different things. Coach Jay [Norvell], my senior year, he’s been harping on me being a leader and doing things the right way. I love the direction he’s pointed me in. He’s helped me down the right path and I really appreciate it.
What do you want your legacy to be?
The toughness I brought to the receiver room this year and last year. A lot of people look at me different because of my size. I always told everyone I would play like I have the biggest heart on the field.
What are your career goals after leaving OU?
My thing was always to get a degree. The school is paying for my education, so I wanted to get my degree and my mom has been on my back about that since I was five years old. I always told her I wanted to play pro football and she told me I’m not going to allow you to play pro football if you don’t get your degree. That’s the first thing first: Get my degree. If the NFL gives me a chance, I’ll take that opportunity.
Is there any one thing you want people to know as you leave OU?
I loved OU since the day I took my visit. A lot of greats came from this school. OU will always be OU. They’ll always have this legacy.
Alabama, Oklahoma To Meet In Sugar Bowl
BIG 12 SCOREBOARD
2:00 PM ET Washington State Colorado State 3:30 PM ET 20 Fresno State 25 USC 5:30 PM ET Buffalo San Diego State 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State