WACO, Texas — The two men who felt most responsible for what seemed an impossible task for Oklahoma on Saturday looked each other in the eye coming out of the halftime locker room.
Having surveyed the scoreboard — a 21-point deficit to Baylor — Sooners defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and quarterback Jalen Hurts sized up the situation.
“It’ll be a hell of a story,” said Grinch, “if we come back and win this football game.”
“We’ll just add another one to the list,” Hurts said.
What seemed an impossible burden became instead an historic opportunity.
Grinch rallied his defense to its finest hour, and Hurts stopped giving the ball away, and No. 10 Oklahoma completed the greatest rally in the program’s 125 years of football, a 34-31 victory over No. 13 Baylor.
It was, as Grinch predicted, a hell of a story. It was the first time in major college history that a 9-0 team had blown a 21-point halftime lead, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“I know who they are,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who watched his team’s perfect record fizzle into the Waco night. “You don’t win that many championships in a row without fighting back. I expected it be a battle.”
OU improved to 9-1 overall and 6-1 in Big 12 play, and a rematch seems likely in the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 7.
With ESPN’s “College GameDay” originating from the banks of the Brazos River, and with McLane Stadium sold out all week, Baylor and its fans swarmed the Sooners early and built a 28-3 lead.
Never before had an Oklahoma team come back from more than 21 down.
“Y’all didn’t think we were gonna come back,” Hurts said.
No one did.
Except the Sooners.
“You still have to make it happen,” said head coach Lincoln Riley, “but the belief for a comeback like that is where it starts.”
Oklahoma outscored Baylor 24-0 after halftime (17-0 in the fourth quarter), with Grinch’s defense collecting two critical takeaways — their first in 5 ½ games — and Hurts putting together his most memorable performance of the season.
The Sooners also fell behind by 25 in their last road game, 48-23 at Kansas State. They rallied to within a controversial onside kick in that one but fell short.
This one swung for good on Gabe Brkic’s 31-yard field goal with 1:45 to play, and ended when Nick Bonitto intercepted Charlie Brewer’s final pass with 29 seconds left.
It was the Sooners’ 19th consecutive November victory — they call it “Championship November” — and it puts them within one game of earning another trip to the Big 12 Championship Game, where a fifth straight Big 12 crown awaits.
Does it put them closer to their fourth College Football Playoff appearance in five years?
Maybe. Maybe not.
“You have to win,” Riley said. “I know all the people all TV talk about style points, how much you win by, how much you lose by. I just think you have to find a way to win. That’s all I know. That’s been a decent formula for us the last few years. You’ve got to win the tough ones like these.”
It was as tough as anything Riley has won in his three seasons at Oklahoma, and as tough as anything Hurts won in his three seasons at Alabama.
Hurts finished 30-of-42 for 297 yards with four touchdowns — and he did it without All-American candidate CeeDee Lamb, who missed the game with what Riley termed a “medical decision.” Hurts also rushed for 114 yards on 27 carries.
Against the Big 12’s most formidable defense, Hurts’ halftime deficit seemed a Himalayan climb — especially with his two fumbles and interception in the first half.
But he pulled it off — with the help of Grinch’s defense, which was hapless against the Bears in the first half. Baylor scored on five of its six first-half possessions, including drives of 5 seconds and 7 seconds after Hurts turnovers.
“My ball security sucks,” he said.
The second half, with Hurts hanging onto the football and Grinch’s defense forcing its first turnover in more than a month (Parnell Motley’s strip of JaMychal Hasty and Pat Fields’ recovery) and three straight three-and-outs, the Sooners surged. Oklahoma held the football for more than 41 minutes, including 24:20 in the second half alone.
Meanwhile, without Lamb, Hurts was getting the football to receivers who hadn’t caught it all season: freshman tight end Austin Stogner scored twice, freshman Theo Wease opened the fourth quarter with a touchdown, and H-Back Brayden Willis tied it up at 31 with 5:25 to play on his first career TD. Those three had combined for just 15 catches all season.
“I give our kids credit,” Riley said. “They made so many phenomenal plays. It would have been easy to pack up the tent tonight. We didn’t do it.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. 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 co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.