NORMAN — With Baylor no match for the Oklahoma Sooners this time, the Big 12 Conference championship remains up for grabs for the next three weeks.
First up, seven days hence, OU at West Virginia.
“Always a challenge,” coach Bob Stoops said Saturday after OU beat up the Bears 45-24. “An exciting challenge. They’ve always got a raucous, rowdy crowd at West Virginia. It’s a challenging place to go play.”
The Sooners remain undefeated in league play, now 7-0 (8-2 overall). WVU is 5-1 (and 8-1).
“We’re in control of our own destiny right now,” said OU quarterback Baker Mayfield. “Like I said, it’s on to the next one and one game at a time. It’s really exciting to go to Morgantown. They always bring it. It’s going to be a great matchup.”
Baylor won its first six games this season and once was considered a league contender, but now has lost its last three.
So the Big 12 race has come down to three combatants: OU, WVU and Oklahoma State. The Sooners advanced by beating Baylor. The Mountaineers held on to beat Texas. The Cowboys outlasted Texas Tech in Stillwater.
Now if OU survives on the banks of the Monongahela River and OSU wins next week in Fort Worth, the league’s championship comes down to Bedlam on Dec. 3.
Saturday at Memorial Stadium, a noisy gathering of 86,248 kept the heat on Baylor, which had won two of the last three meetings and three of the last five. OU previously had never lost to Baylor, so to Sooner Nation, this was getting a little old — especially the fact that the BU program has become such a blight on college football, and that the last two beatings (41-12 in 2013, 48-14 in 2014), were so lopsided.
“That was embarrassing,” said senior linebacker Jordan Evans. “At the same time, we didn’t talk about last year either because it’s a new team. They just had two losses, Texas and TCU, so we knew they were looking to come back and redeem themselves. We were just focused on the tape from this year and just focused on being prepared.”
OU was plenty prepared this time around. Joe Mixon ran for 124 yards and a touchdown and Samaje Perine ran for 100 yards and two scores, and Baker Mayfield completed 20-of-25 passes for 300 yards and two TDs. Mixon led the Sooners with five catches for 63 yards, Dede Westbrook caught four passes for 88 yards and two TDs, and Mark Andrews caught four for 53.
Oklahoma converted its first six third-down plays and finished 12-of-17, averaged 7.6 yards per play and had more than 11 minutes more time of possession.
But OU’s offensive productivity against a struggling Baylor was a given. On this day, it was with defense — still plenty troubling at times — that Oklahoma won this game.
The Sooners had two interceptions, two quarterback sacks (incredibly, all by Evans), forced two fumbles, recovered one fumble and broke up nine passes. OU came into Saturday having just nine takeaways all season: just four fumbles (only one in its last four games) and five interceptions.
“Sometimes,” Bob Stoops said, “you get them in bunches.”
Stoops got testy Saturday during postgame interviews when probed about improvements on his defense.
“We haven’t changed defenses,” Stoops said. “Guys are playing better.”
But why are they playing better? Better practice habits? Better preparation during the week?
“Next question,” Stoops said.
“Nothing has changed in our preparation,” said safety Steven Parker.
So what gives? Fattening up on a couple of turkeys like Kansas and Iowa State is one thing. But why the sudden turnabout versus high-powered Baylor?
“The difference is, I’ll just say, want,” Parker said. “I feel like everybody on the defense, we want it. Everyone on the team wants it, and that want is to go ahead and try to compete for a Big 12 championship, and we’re trying to get another one this year.”
Parker said the team’s record-smashing performance against Texas Tech (59 points, 854 yards) left players “kind of shocked, definitely embarrassed.”
Baylor certainly had its moments. The Bears ran 91 plays, rushed for 212 yards and passed for 292, which might have been much more had starting quarterback Seth Russell not suffered a grotesque broken leg. KD Cannon caught seven passes for 122 yards and two TDs, including a 62-yarder. In addition to converting 10-of-22 third-down plays, Baylor also made 4-of-6 on fourth down.
The Bears had scoring drives of 10 plays-65 yards, 18 plays-57 yards, eight plays-80 yards, 17 plays-75 yards, and nine plays-74 yards.
“Fourth downs, they probably got 20 snaps off fourth-down conversions,” OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “That’s the hard part with them, they’re a high-risk, high-reward kind of team. Giving them an extra down, they take advantage of it.”
Now the Sooners’ attention shifts to WVU. Can OU win its next two games, become the first Big 12 team to win all nine regular season games and bring home Bob Stoops’ 10th conference championship?
“They’re a top team in the Big 12 so it’s always a physical game with them,” Mayfield said. “They bring it. They like to blitz. They stick with their game plan. They run with it. So we need to know what we’re getting into and it’ll be an exciting one.”
“Love it,” said offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. “Hopefully it’s at night. We love it. It’ll be a great atmosphere.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.