Carlson: How the Sooners became college football's hottest team — and OU's most complete team in years
NORMAN — After a last-gasp, fourth-down pass sailed over heads and out of bounds, OU linebacker DaShaun White walked to the goal line, planted his feet and crossed his arms.
The Sooners made a stand Saturday night.
Made a statement, too.
OU 41, OSU 13.
“We just wanted to prove we were top dogs,” Sooner standout Ronnie Perkins said.
They did that and then some. On a night the eyes of the college football world were on Bedlam — a primetime matchup on national television — the Sooners not only took control of their own destiny in the Big 12 but also staked a claim as the hottest team in the country. It’s anyone’s guess where the Sooners will land in the initial College Football Playoff rankings this next week, but no team has played better over the past month.
That doesn’t erase the two losses on their resume, something it may not be possible for the Sooners to overcome and return to the playoff. Unlike past seasons when they’ve had a loss or two this time of year and needed three or four things to break their way, they need six or eight this time. That makes the road difficult.
But this is 2020.
Expect the unexpected, right?
That was part of the message Sooner coaches preached after those back-to-back losses to Kansas State and Iowa State. Yes, they had to get better. Sure, they had to correct some big issues. But if they did that, the Sooners might just get back into the championship hunt.
“There was a sense — and again, it’s easy to say this and maybe harder to believe it and execute it — that we really had something good in that locker room and that if we would just kinda hang in there that we could break through,” Sooner coach Lincoln Riley said. “I think we all felt that, even with the intense frustrations and disappointment we had from those two losses.”
The coaches told the players to keep fighting, not to give up, and the players bought in.
Maybe it was an easier sell because everyone inside the program knew how much they’d been set back by quarantines and suspensions and even injuries. Maybe it was easier, too, because of the times we're in.
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“One thing we always say around the locker room is it’s a crazy year in college football,” Perkins said. “A lot of crazy stuff is happening.”
Nothing seems any more crazy, frankly, than this Sooner turnaround because so much had to get better. The offense wasn’t playing up to the lofty standard to which we’ve become accustomed, and the defense seemed to be regressing after taking some promising steps a year ago.
Saturday night, both sides of the ball were spectacular.
Against an OSU defense that came into Bedlam allowing only 169.3 passing yards per game and 10.3 yards per completion, OU nearly doubled those numbers. Sooner quarterback Spencer Rattler threw for 301 yards, and the Sooners averaged 17.7 yards per catch.
The Sooners’ run game was stout, too, with Rhamondre Stevenson rushing for 141 yards.
OU scored 21 points in the first nine minutes of the game; OSU had only given up 21 points in a game twice this season.
But as good as the Sooner offense was, the Sooner defense was even better. It scuttled pretty much everything the Cowboys tried to do. Passing was difficult — OSU quarterbacks Spencer Sanders and Shane Illingworth combined to complete only 15 of 40 passes — but running was even more treacherous.
OSU managed only 78 yards rushing.
Chuba Hubbard and Sanders, the Cowboys’ most dangerous runners, had just 35 yards combined on 13 carries.
Add up all those numbers, and what you have is an OU team that is as complete as any we’ve seen in crimson and cream in more than a decade. This isn’t a team that has to win 62-52 or 48-47, a squad with out-of-this-world offense but hold-your-breath defense. This is a bunch with an offense and a defense that can win ball games.
“Man,” Rattler said of that evolution, “this is a breath of fresh air.”
Frankly, “complete teams” are something the playoff selection committee loves to talk about. I’m sure we’ll hear chairman Gary Barta mention those words Tuesday night when the first rankings are announced. He might not be using them to describe the Sooners — but he sure could.
“Proud of the way we’re improving,” Riley said. “Excited for this closing stretch.
“I wish we had 10 more games.”
That would sure give the Sooners a better chance of building an argument for the playoff, though I don’t think that’s why Riley would like more time with this bunch.
“This team’s fun — a lot of fun — to coach,” he said, “and we’re starting to play some decent football.”
What we saw Saturday night went way beyond decent.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.