The 2014 Sugar Bowl Numerical: Stoops laughs last, Oklahoma prepares for hype
"Big Game Bob" Stoops still has some tricks left in Norman. The Sooners beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, winning their second straight game as a double-digit underdog. They probably won't be underdogs much in 2014.
Yards gained in Trevor Knight's first 90 passes of 2013. The redshirt freshman showed clear potential at times, and the dual-threat tool set was obvious. Still, in the regular season, he completed 47 of 90 passes (52 percent) for 471 yards, five touchdowns, and four interceptions.
And then he went 32-for-44 for 348, four scores, and a pick against Alabama.
Knight looked poised and confident, and the weapons in his receiving corps were functioning at a high level. And while the Sooners had a good offensive line and a decent defensive line in 2013, they dominated Alabama in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Streeter Lecka, Getty
Welcome to the West Virginia Effect, Oklahoma. Each year, a team puts together a stunning, awesome performance in a bowl game (usually a BCS game) and reaps an offseason of hype for it. In the 2012 offseason, it was West Virginia following its destruction of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. In 2013, it was Louisville after its near-flawless win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl. In 2014, it's all but guaranteed to be Oklahoma.
Plenty of influential seniors depart -- receiver Jalen Saunders, corner Aaron Colvin, running back Brennan Clay, and a few offensive linemen -- but Knight returns, and that's enough for the hype machine. This is a dangerous place to be; it assumes that Sugar Bowl Knight is New Knight, and that the first 90 passes of his career now mean nothing moving forward. Knight will have Sterling Shepard, Derrick Woods, and other interesting players in the receiving corps. But whereas a loss would have led to a host of fresh-start-for-the-Sooners story lines in the offseason, OU will now be treated as a national title contender, for better or worse.
AJ McCarron pass attempts.
Kevin C. Cox, Getty
In my Sugar Bowl preview, I tried as hard as I could to give Oklahoma a shot, but I couldn't get past one thing: the Sooners' run defense was terribly mediocre in 2013.
And to be sure, they didn't do a very good job of slowing down the run on Thursday night, especially against big Derrick Henry. Henry and T.J. Yeldon combined to gain 172 yards on just 25 carries (6.9 per carry). But instead of stopping the run, they did something else: they stopped the Tide from getting to run as much.
Late in the first half, in hurry-up, definite-pass situations, Oklahoma pressured McCarron relentlessly, eventually forcing a Zack Sanchez interception that set up a Sooner touchdown with 1:05 left in the first half. And while the Alabama running game got rolling, Oklahoma's offense was just successful enough to keep the Sooner lead intact, and late in the game, when McCarron absolutely had to pass, OU teed off on him again with a sack-and-strip that Geneo Grissom returned for a touchdown.
If you can't stop a huge running game, you have to take advantage of every time the opponent has to pass. And while McCarron had plenty of success through the air, too -- his 19 completions went for 387 yards and two touchdowns, and Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White combined for 12 catches and 260 yards -- the pass rush was incredibly effective at key times.
Kevin C. Cox, Getty
Oklahoma's sack rate on McCarron. The Sooners got to him seven times in those 37 pass attempts. All-or-nothing linebacker Eric Striker was mostly "all," with three sacks and a strip. Grissom logged two sacks, two fumble recoveries, and a pass breakup. Chuka Ndulue and Jordan Wade combined for another takedown. This was the pass rush we grew accustomed to seeing from Oklahoma through the years, not the one that disappeared in 2012.
But seriously, are we sure that was actually Alabama's offensive line? That was the worst in-the-trenches performance I can remember from Alabama in a long, long time. Or, since "worst" denies credit to Oklahoma, we'll say "least effective."
Years since the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
Alabama has made winning look so easy recently that we have more than grown to expect it -- we assume it. When the bowl matchups were announced, and Alabama was pitted against what really was the worst Oklahoma team in either four or eight years, it was easy to assume a repeat of the 2011 Capital One Bowl, in which a frustrated, angry Alabama team that had missed out on the national title game absolutely laid waste to an outmanned Michigan State squad. It was 49-7, and it could have been 70-0 if the Tide had wanted it to be.
Instead, this was a replay of a different "frustrated Alabama" game, and the similarities were pretty stunning. In 2008, the Tide began the season 12-0, fell to eventual BCS champion Florida in the SEC Championship, and got relegated to the Sugar Bowl. Utah ripped off an offensive hot streak early in the game and completely teed off on Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson, sacking him eight times in 38 pass attempts and stripping him once. Utah won the turnover battle, Alabama missed a couple of field goals, and a late Utah score gave the Utes a two-touchdown win.
Kevin C. Cox, Getty
Winning is hard, and while Alabama will do plenty of it moving forward -- hell, the Tide followed up that Sugar Bowl loss by winning three of four national titles -- Thursday night was a reminder of just how hard it is, even when you're ridiculously talented and ridiculously well-coached.
Fumbles. Alabama dropped the ball twice, and Oklahoma did once; the Sooners recovered all three.
Oklahoma earned this win, but never underestimate the impact of turnovers luck. Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon once again lost a big fumble in a big game, losing the ball at the Oklahoma 11 midway through the second quarter. Jalen Saunders muffed a punt early in the fourth quarter, but he was near the sideline, and it went out of bounds. And of course, in the game's final minute, Striker stripped McCarron, and the ball bounced around until Grissom was able to collect it. The ball bounces in a funny way, and if those landed in Alabama hands, this game very well turns out differently.
For the game, Alabama outgained Oklahoma by a 516-429 margin and averaged 2.1 more yards per play than the Sooners (7.9 to 5.8). But turnovers are an equalizer, and on Thursday night, they turned the tables entirely.
Kevin C. Cox, Getty
Wins by double-digit underdogs in BCS bowls this year.
This has been a funny season. Auburn (3-9 in 2012) beat Missouri (5-7 in 2012) in a winner-goes-to-the-national-championship elimination game. Baylor won the Big 12. A redshirt freshman won the Heisman for the second straight year, beating out finalists from Northern Illinois and Boston College. Just about every SEC quarterback not named McCarron got hurt.
And an Oklahoma team that gained 237 yards on Baylor, gained more than that in a half against Alabama. Hell, an Oklahoma team that barely scored 50 points combined against ULM and West Virginia very nearly did it in 60 minutes against Alabama.
It's fitting, then, that we get a crazy set of BCS showcase bowls. Baylor was a huge favorite over UCF in the Fiesta Bowl and lost. Alabama was a huge favorite over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and lost. Hell, Stanford was favored in the Rose Bowl, too, for that matter. We've got two BCS bowls left (and a makeshift sixth BCS bowl in the Oklahoma State-Missouri Cotton Bowl), and while the spreads aren't nearly as big, we could still see plenty of fun and craziness. The 2013 season isn't going down without a fight.
Even amid nationwide chaos, we treat bowls as referendums. The Big 12 was clearly overrated because Baylor lost! The Big 12 was clearly underrated (and the SEC overrated) because Oklahoma won! For now, I'm just going to soak in the silliness. I'll figure out what it means later.
One thing this game did mean, however: "Big Game Bob" still has some tricks left. In my Sugar Bowl preview, the only hope I could muster for Oklahoma was, "Well, Stoops is 2-2 straight up when he's a double-digit underdog." The two losses in that sample were blowouts, yes, but Stoops is still capable of getting his troops really, really motivated when you least expect it. And after a frustrating couple of years, he coached circles around college football's best coach.
Stoops had a pretty fun, mouthy offseason. And when the nation was watching and expecting him to fail, he backed up his words. Hopefully that means we have another mouthy offseason to come. Feisty Bob is my favorite Bob.
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