Oklahoma’s 2014 and 2015 seasons both ended with losses to Tigers.
The stakes were a little lower this time around, but yet another Tigers team waited in New Orleans for this Sooners squad, eager to end the nine-game winning streak OU carried with it. Detractors said the streak was the product of luck and circumstance, a gift from the weakest Power Five conference in college football. OU fans said the streak was the result of improved health and the coalescence of one of the best offensive attacks in college football history.
But there was no way to know for sure until OU got out of conference territory and traveled to play Auburn for just the second time in program history.
The game started disappointingly—Auburn took the opening kick and promptly marched down the field for a 14 play, 75 yard touchdown drive. The Tigers weren’t doing anything we dabblers couldn’t have predicted—handing off to Kamryn Pettway, tossing the occasional short pass—but OU seemed unable to stop it. More than one Twitter account used the expression, “Like a knife through butter.” It looked like Oklahoma was in for a shootout, or worse.
But the defense stiffened. Improbably, inexplicably, the defense held firm for the next few drives even as the offense forced it quickly back onto the field. When OU got the ball for the third time, it finally strung together some positive plays as Lincoln Riley got Joe Mixon involved as both a runner and short pass-catcher. The Sooners got bogged down with penalties in their own half, and it looked like another punt was imminent. But OU overcame a 3rd-and-22 with a sideline pass to Joe and, from then on, the offense had its way with the overwhelmed Tigers.
Auburn could account for one, maybe two of Oklahoma’s weapons at a time. But the Tigers had no chance when Oklahoma began firing on all cylinders.
Mark Andrews hauled in the first touchdown catch to cap that drive, Baker Mayfield finding him, as usual, while scrambling to his right. The Tigers were able to re-take the lead with a deep drive and a field goal, but Oklahoma kept handing off and scored another touchdown before the half. OU would lead 14-13 at the break.
Things were still tense at halftime, but it seemed from every indication that the offense was beginning to find its way. Sure enough, the Sooners took the ball to start the second half, Andrews hauled in another big gain and Dede Westbrook, Mayfield’s go-to target all year, grabbed a 7-yard score to put OU up 21-13. The Sooners wouldn’t look back—and they wouldn’t allow Auburn to score again until the most garbage of garbage times.
The game’s end was its best part—not because Bob Stoops got doused in purple Gatorade, though that was pretty great—but because Sooners stalwart Samaje Perine became Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher, the biggest gainer in a program filled with names like Billy Sims and Adrian Peterson. Perine has taken something of a backseat this year, sometimes injured and often simply overshadowed. But it’s impossible to overstate what he has meant to the OU program. Perine was a rare ray of light in the dark 2014 season that turned into an amazing run under Mayfield. Perine broke the rushing record despite sharing the backfield with one of America’s most talented players the last two years.
Whatever he decides to do now—and I’d love to have one last rodeo with the full gang—Perine’s place in OU history is firmly etched.
And so is this team’s. Lots of people, including me, gave Mike Stoops crap all season, but he finally found a combination—with young studs like Jordan Parker and Caleb Kelly—that keeps the defense respectable. Bob Stoops took a lot of grief for failing, again, to live up to his “Big Game Bob” moniker—but he managed to keep the team on track even though the fanbase said its season was over.
Lincoln Riley quieted the doubters who said he’d taken a step back. Baker Mayfield responded amazingly to iffy early-season performances. The team answered adversity after adversity with nothing but grit.
I don’t think it’s too much to say this team will expect another conference title next season, and maybe another shot at the ultimate prize. But Sooners fans should appreciate what this group did, first. Even when they knew it wouldn’t matter, that there was nothing they could do that would earn them another shot at the title, the 2016 Sooners turned their season around came together.
Here’s to the 2016 Sooners, and the Sooners to come.