NEW ORLEANS - To be the best you've got to beat the best. To beat the best, you've got to play your best. Oklahoma's best proved – for one game at least – that the Southeastern Conference isn't comprised of invincible super teams.
Maybe the Southeastern Conference will win its eighth consecutive national championship Monday night. Alabama, the two-time defending national champions, came into the game with the No. 3 ranking. Oklahoma was ranked 11th and most assumed the Sugar Bowl would me more rolling by the Tide.
A Knight in shining armor flinging lightning bolts and a relentless defense that forced game-changing turnovers despite allowing big plays and lots of yardage made it a sweet bowl trip for Oklahoma. The Sooners (11-2) took control late in the first half and stunned Alabama, 45-31.
"Everybody doubted us," OU defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue said. "Everybody said they were gods. We shut that up. We pulled it off."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops had shrugged off the pre-game talk of his team being an underdog and also deflected the story line based on off-season comments he had made about the Southeastern Conference. He and his team shut that up.
"We played the way we expected to play, to be quite honest," said Stoops, who became the second coach with victories in the Cotton, Orange, Rose, Fiesta and Sugar bowls. "We didn't just come in on a load of wood. I have the absolute utmost respect for Alabama. We've won some games here and we have a lot of confidence in what we do, too."
Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who had wowed coaches a year ago running the scout team as a faux Johnny Manziel, showed what the OU coaching staff had been talking about. Knight, who was the starter in the season opener but was hurt and eventually replaced by Blake Bell, had completed 47 passes all season.
Against the Crimson Tide, Knight completed 32 of 44 for 348 yards and four touchdowns. He set a Sugar Bowl record with his completion total.
"We know we're Oklahoma, and we deserve to be on top," said Knight, who came into the game completing 52 percent of his passes. "We wanted to shock the world, come in here and take what's ours. A little Sooner Magic.
"It's huge for our program, to get a win like this after no one gave us a chance all year. We've got to ride this into next year."
Knight's only interception came on OU's first series, a pass to Jalen Saunders that could have been a touchdown but was a few inches high and deflected to an Alabama defender. Trailing 7-0 at the time, Oklahoma showed the resolve that served it well the entire game.
Senior A.J. McCarron, the Tide's senior quarterback and a Heisman Trophy finalist, returned the favor with an interception grabbed by OU's Gabe Lynn. Throwing on first down, Knight connected with Lacoltan Bester for a 45-yard touchdown.
"Trevor was exceptional," Stoops said. "The game has started to slow down for him and he's playing like we know he can play. He threw into really tight windows and our receivers made tough, competitive catches."
McCarron had 207 yards passing on his first five completions. The OU antidote was pressuring the pocket. The Sooners' defensive line forced McCarron out of his comfort zone and finished with seven sacks.
"I thought my brother Mike and defensive coaches, with our blitzes, were really timed up well and executed well," Stoops said. We got to them and forced them into some bad plays."
One of those bad plays gave Oklahoma a huge momentum boost. The game had become a tennis match when Knight's 45-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Saunders gave the Sooners a 24-17 lead. McCarron appeared capable of matching anything his counterpart did.
But on second and 10 from the OU 48, a blitz forced a hurried throw from McCarron. Gabe Sanchez jumped the route, made the pick and returned it 43 yards to set up Sterling Shepard's 9-yard touchdown on an end around that gave the Sooners a 31-17 halftime lead.
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel had his best game since quarterbacking the Sooners to the 2000 national championship. The play calling was superb, especially in the fourth quarter. After a third quarter stall, OU put together two Big Boy drives.
One produced a 38-24 lead as the Sooners overcame a first-and-30 and a third-and-15. Knight converted the latter with a picture-perfect 34-yard completion to Bester. The touchdown was produced when Knight bought time with a roll to his right, avoided pressure and found Shepherd in the end zone for a 9-yard TD.
After Alabama freshman Derrick Henry continued his Adrian Peterson imitation with his second long touchdown made it 38-31 with 6:22 remaining, the Sooners responded with a crucial drive that produced no points.
Starting from its on 12, Oklahoma went 42 yards in 11 plays, bleeding 5:26 off the clock and all of Alabama's timeouts. The Sooners punted and Alabama started from its 18 with 56 seconds remaining. Eric Striker's sack and strip of McCarron resulted in a fumble that Geneo Grissom scooped and scored to make it 45-31 and start the Crimson and Cream party in the French Quarter.
"The defensive line knew we were gonna have to play well to be successful," said Grissom who had a sack, batted down a pass on a key third down and had another fumble recovery. "Coach said that turnovers were gonna be the key."
In its three previous bowl games, all victories, Alabama played clean – no turnovers. The Tide had five against the Sooners, who despite giving up 516 yards were able to counter punch every time Alabama had a big play.
"We created most of our adversity," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "We're all responsible for that. As a coaching staff, we've got to do a better job. Oklahoma came out fired up. Everybody that plays us has something to prove."
Oklahoma proved that reputation and respect are earned on the field, not in cable network gabfests or odds makers' number crunching.
"We showed everybody tonight that we are a good team, and we can compete with the SEC and Alabama." Shepard said.
"Anyone who doubted us, they should bite their tongue," Striker added. "Tell 'em all to bite their tongue. Stephen A. (Smith), Skip Bayless, all of 'em."
Oklahoma Bowl History (Record 28-18-1)
|Jan. 2, 2014||Sugar Bowl-Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31|
|Jan. 4, 2013||Cotton Bowl-Texas A&M 41, Oklahoma 13|
|Dec. 30, 2011||Insight Bowl-Oklahoma 31, Iowa 14|
|Jan. 1, 2011||Fiesta Bowl-Oklahoma 48, Connecticut 20|
|Dec. 31, 2009||Sun Bowl-Oklahoma 31, Stanford 27|
|Jan. 8, 2009||BCS National Championship-Florida 24, Oklahoma 14|
|Jan. 2, 2008||Fiesta Bowl-West Virginia 48, Oklahoma 28|
|Jan. 1, 2007||Fiesta Bowl-Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42, OT|
|Dec. 29, 2005||Holiday Bowl-Oklahoma 17, Oregon 14|
|Jan. 4, 2005||Orange Bowl-Southern Cal 55, Oklahoma 19|
|Jan. 4, 2004||Sugar Bowl-LSU 21, Oklahoma 14|
|Jan. 1, 2003||Rose Bowl-Oklahoma 34, Washington State 14|
|Jan. 1, 2002||Cotton Bowl-Oklahoma 10, Arkansas 3|
|Jan. 3, 2001||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 13, Florida State 2|
|Dec. 31, 1999||Independence Bowl-Mississippi 27, Oklahoma 25|
|Dec. 29, 1994||Copper Bowl-Brigham Young 31, Oklahoma 6|
|Dec. 24, 1993||John Hancock Bowl-Oklahoma 41, Texas Tech 10|
|Dec. 29, 1991||Gator Bowl-Oklahoma 48, Virginia 14|
|Jan. 2, 1989||Citrus Bowl-Clemson 13, Oklahoma 6|
|Jan. 1, 1988||Orange Bowl-Miami, Fla. 20, Oklahoma 14|
|Jan. 1, 1987||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 42, Arkansas 8|
|Jan. 1, 1986||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 25, Penn State 10|
|Jan. 1, 1985||Orange Bowl-Washington 28, Oklahoma 17|
|Jan. 1, 1983||Fiesta Bowl-Arizona State 32, Oklahoma 21|
|Dec. 26, 1981||Sun Bowl-Oklahoma 40, Houston 14|
|Jan. 1, 1981||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 18, Florida State 17|
|Jan. 1, 1980||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 24, Florida State 7|
|Jan. 1, 1979||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 24|
|Jan. 2, 1978||Orange Bowl-Arkansas 31, Oklahoma 6|
|Dec. 25, 1976||Fiesta Bowl-Oklahoma 41, Wyoming 7|
|Jan. 1, 1976||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 14, Michigan 6|
|Dec. 31, 1972||Sugar Bowl-Oklahoma 14, Penn State 0|
|Jan. 1, 1972||Sugar Bowl-Oklahoma 40, Auburn 22|
|Dec. 31, 1970||Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl-Oklahoma 24, Alabama 24, tie|
|Dec. 31, 1968||Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl-Southern Methodist 28, Oklahoma 27|
|Jan. 1, 1968||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 26, Tennessee 24|
|Jan. 2, 1965||Gator Bowl-Florida State 36, Oklahoma 19|
|Jan. 1, 1963||Orange Bowl-Alabama 17, Oklahoma 0|
|Jan. 1, 1959||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 21, Syracuse 6|
|Jan. 1, 1958||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 48, Duke 21|
|Jan. 2, 1956||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 20, Maryland 6|
|Jan. 1, 1954||Orange Bowl-Oklahoma 7, Maryland 0|
|Jan. 1, 1951||Sugar Bowl-Kentucky 13, Oklahoma 7|
|Jan. 2, 1950||Sugar Bowl-Oklahoma 35, Louisiana State 0|
|Jan. 1, 1949||Sugar Bowl-Oklahoma 14, North Carolina 6|
|Jan. 1, 1947||Gator Bowl-Oklahoma 34, North Carolina State 13|
|Jan. 2, 1939||Orange Bowl-Tennessee 17, Oklahoma 0|