NORMAN — No. 6-ranked Oklahoma took Oklahoma State’s best shot on Saturday night, and the Sooners stayed on their feet. Even smiled.
OU gave up 640 yards total offense, 501 passing yards, 39 first downs, a last-minute touchdown and then needed a dreadful throw on OSU’s 2-point conversion attempt, plus a missed field goal and a missed extra point to win the 113th Bedlam showdown in an all-time, 48-47 classic at Owen Field.
And yet, the Sooners are still in control of their destiny, still in first place in the race for their fourth Big 12 Conference crown, still in the hunt for a return to the College Football Playoff.
“Gutsy win,” said coach Lincoln Riley. “(It will) be fun for this team to continue to go forward. We’ve got some big goals in front of us and some big games in front of us.”
OU is now 9-1 overall and 6-1 in Big 12 play, tied at the top of the table with West Virginia, which crushed TCU earlier Saturday and will host the Sooners in Morgantown in two weeks — a likely preview of the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 1.
Do the Sooners have what it takes? In the Big 12, of course. But will this game impact Oklahoma’s national perception — particularly with the College Football Playoff selection committee? OU is jostling for position with the likes of undefeated Notre Dame and one-loss Michigan or Ohio State.
The question has been asked before, and there have been attempts to answer it: Would the committee be leery of inviting OU based on a defense that got its coordinator fired at midseason and has underperformed all year and just gave up nearly 700 yards and 50 points to a 21-point underdog?
“You just have to win,” Riley said. “Everybody wants to make these predictions and all that right now … We’ve been through this. We know how it goes, and if we continue to win, we’re going to be in great shape.”
“Great shape” may be a relative term as it applies to Oklahoma’s defense.
The Sooners are better than they were when Mike Stoops was the defensive coordinator. But a handful of shaky moments (and a really lucky break) against Texas Tech and an avalanche of offense (and three really lucky breaks) against OSU mitigates any real progress OU has made in the last five weeks.
“I’m not satisfied,” said linebacker Curtis Bolton. “… I’m not happy with how we played. As a defense, I think we play good in spurts, but we just give up too many big plays.”
“It’s a one-week, week in, week out deal right now,” Riley said. “I mean we’re in the middle of it. I’m not sitting back looking at the previous three or four games right now. It’s looking at the weeks we’re having, looking at the way we’re playing and then trying to just win and be at your very best the next week.
“And so, were we at our best tonight? No. Especially in the first half. I mean, especially there. We did miss more tackles than we have been missing, which was also something that we’re gonna have to do better. But I do think we have improved in some areas. There’s no question. I mean, I really do. Some of our, the way we run to the football, our mentality, I do think there’s absolute growth. And there’s gonna have to be, no doubt. The challenges that we got coming up are gonna be there.
“But the great thing for us right now is that every goal we want to be in front of us is right there in front of us.”
There may not be a greater challenge than what OSU posed on a chilly Saturday in Norman. The Cowboys dropped to 5-5 overall and 2-5 in Big 12 play, but played with a rival’s mettle.
Quarterback Taylor Cornelius completed 34-of-53 passes for 501 yards and three touchdowns and was not intercepted. His 24-yard touchdown throw on fourth down to Tylan Wallace brought the Cowboys within a point with 63 seconds left, giving coach Mike Gundy only one real option: a 2-point conversion.
Gundy’s decision and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s play design were sound, but Cornelius’ throw to Wallace in the end zone was behind his target, allowing Tre Brown space to reach in and knock it down. A proper throw out in front of Wallace would have given Gundy his third Bedlam victory.
“It was amazing, it was surreal,” Brown said. “Last play of the game, got a chance to do something. I was lined up with (Wallace) and I knew they were going to try to go to him with the ball. Seen him go in motion and I knew it was coming after that.”
Instead of a seismic upset, OU savors another insane victory.
“I’m not satisfied,” Bolton said. “I’m not happy with how we played. We’ve got to play better. We can’t give up 50 points and expect to be a playoff defense, a playoff team. We’ve gotta get better on defense.”
Riley was a little more positive with his assessment of the Sooners versus the playoff contenders.
“Oh, I’ll take this team against anybody,” Riley said. “We’re just as capable as we’ve been any year, and I think we all know how close we’ve been, absolutely.”
At least the Sooner offense was up to the task — again. Kyler Murray completed 21-of-29 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown and ran for 66 yards. Marquise Brown caught eight passes for 142 yards and a 51-yard touchdown. But OU’s real stars were its offensive line and running backs. Kennedy Brooks gashed the Cowboys for 165 yards and three touchdowns (11 yards per carry) and Trey Sermon piled up 124 yards and two scores (7.8 average).
“Proud of the way our offensive line continues to play,” Riley said. “I think this is the third game in a row where we had 300 plus passing and 300 rushing. And our front has really led the charge there.”
After nearly four hours of focused conflict and strain, after the tumultuous end of giving up a touchdown and stopping the 2-pointer, Riley shook hands with Mike Gundy, then embraced wife Caitlin and hoisted daughter Caitlin and carried her off the field.
He smiled all the way, taking it all in and embodying his entire team in a tender moment: Physically, the Sooners were drained, but emotionally, they were soaring.
“It’s still a little surreal,” Riley said, “doing all that, at this place, on this field, winning a historic game in the fashion that we did, getting to do this job I get to do every day and then celebrating with my family. It’s as good as it gets. I love it.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.