NORMAN — Jalen Hurts didn’t have his best stuff.
He threw an interception that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown when his receiver slipped. He fumbled on his way to the end zone, again, this time a violent strip as his knees were perhaps an inch off the grass. And he appeared to get stuffed on a third-and-1 quarterback keeper in the final minutes with the game hanging in the balance, and needed the benefit of a fortuitous spot to keep the football.
Yet it was Hurts and the No. 9 Oklahoma Sooners who dominated but somehow needed to survive once again — this time a 28-24 escape of TCU on Saturday night — winning their 20th consecutive November game and clinching a berth in their fourth consecutive Big 12 Conference championship game (dating back to 2010).
OU will face Baylor on Dec. 7 in AT&T Stadium, but up next, Oklahoma State awaits next week’s Bedlam showdown in Stillwater.
First, the stark truth: Neither Hurts nor OU has had their A game since October. Oklahoma was an 18-point favorite in this game and, predictably, couldn’t hold onto a 21-0 lead.
“This one,” said coach Lincoln Riley, “was special for so many reasons.”
Foremost in that it wasn’t a loss. Hurts thanked his defense for that.
“Defense played great all night,” said Hurts. “They made plays at critical times all night.”
And the Sooners keep finding ways to win. Despite their continued peaks and valleys, OU’s College Football Playoff hopes, however improbable, remain alive. Two more dominoes fell on Saturday — No. 8 Penn State lost to No. 2 Ohio State, and No. 6 Oregon lost to Arizona State — and OU figures to move up again in next week’s rankings.
Then again, maybe this team’s ceiling is a fifth straight Big 12 title and a return to New Orleans for a Sugar Bowl showdown with another SEC runner-up.
- OU faced the Big 12’s most prohibitive defense — TCU came in allowing just 329 yards per game — and gained 511 yards total offense, the most allowed by Gary Patterson’s team this season.
- OU faced the league’s stingiest run defense — TCU was giving up just 119 yards per game on the ground and 3.8 yards per rush — and gained 366 rushing yards (Kennedy Brooks ran for 149 yards) at 5.7 yards per carry. The Frogs had allowed more than 190 yards in a game just once all season (301 to Oklahoma State).
- OU compiled 30 first downs and yielded just 11.
- OU had the football for nearly 40 minutes, including 22 ½ of the final 30 minutes and more than 12 minutes in the fourth quarter alone.
- OU was 7-of-13 on third-down conversions against the Horned Frogs and only allowed 1-of-7.
- OU had 85 offensive snaps, while TCU had just 45.
And yet, the Sooners desperately hung on at the end, forcing a three-and-out with 6:34 to play and then getting a fourth-down stop with 1:41 left, an interception for the second week in a row, this time by Brendan Radley-Hiles.
“We found a way to get this one,” Hurts said.
The game finally ended when Hurts — who hit just 11-of-21 passes for a season-low 145 yards and two touchdowns but also rushed for 173 yards and two TDs on 28 carries — was awarded a first down on third-and-1 when it looked like TCU had stopped him with just under 90 seconds to play.
Officials reviewed video of Hurts’ final rush but couldn’t conclude whether the spot of the ball was correct. If Hurts’ run had been ruled short, Riley might have gone for it again on fourth down — he went for it the drive before, and Rhamondre Stevenson was tackled short of the line to gain — or he might have punted it back to TCU with less than a minute to play and one timeout left, leaving the Horned Frogs to go the length of the field against an OU defense that had yielded just four yards and zero first downs in the fourth quarter.
The Sooners gave up just 204 yards total offense to a TCU team that had been held under 400 yards just three times all season. TCU’s previous low output was 308 yards to Baylor two weeks ago.
It was nearly one of the Sooners’ finest all-around performances of the year — big production against one of college football’s most feared defenses, and their own defensive performance that hearkens back to bygone eras.
And yet … those turnovers from Hurts were crippling. Jadon Haselwood also lost a fumble.
“Well, you don’t ever want to turn the ball over, especially in the red zone,” Hurts said. “It happens. Just gotta learn from it and move forward.”
“I’m not gonna say that we do not have to do better with that,” Riley said. “A guy that is handling the ball, making as many decisions that he has to make, you obviously do not want to have the one down in the red zone.”
Hurts had two down in the red zone.
The first was a quick slant throw to CeeDee Lamb on which Lamb slipped coming out of his break as Hurts was releasing the ball. Instead of an easy Lamb catch at the goal line, TCU’s Vernon Scott snagged the ball out of the air, then weaved through blockers past Hurts for a 98-yard runback that cut OU’s lead to 28-24 with 12:43 to play.
Hurts also fumbled at the TCU 7-yard line at the end of a 32-yard run with 7:51 left. It wasn’t so much a fumble as it was Bradford Nook ripping the football away from Hurts as they fell to the ground. In real time it looked as though Hurts’ knee was down. But in slow-motion, Nook gained possession of the ball a split second before Hurts touched the ground. The call was originally ruled a fumble, and replay couldn’t overturn it.
“That’s the name of the game,” Hurts said. “That’s football. It’s a game of inches. After the pick-six, the fumble, whatever way I messed up today, we found a way to save it.”
It was enough to save OU another trip to the Big 12 title game. But was it enough to save a spot in the College Football Playoff?
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.