By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
ARLINGTON, Texas - In winning seven of the 15 Dr Pepper Big 12 Championships, Oklahoma has had an all-you-can-eat buffet of victories. Close games. Blowouts. Street fights.
But in winning Title Number Seven in the grand finale, the ninth-ranked Sooners (11-2) had to conjure a different method - a comeback. Trailing 17-0 early in the second quarter, Oklahoma applied a tourniquet and rallied for a gritty 23-20 victory over Nebraska.
"It was really exciting to see the maturity of us being down 17-0, no one being rattled, just keep working it," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who has been on the sidelines for all eight of the Sooners' Big 12 Championship games. "I'm proud of our players and how we stepped up and made plays. We answered the bell when we were down."
The victory earns Oklahoma a trip to the Tostitos Fiesta on Jan. 1. The Sooners' opponent won't be known until Sunday night.
The No. 13 Huskers (10-3), who lost last season on Hunter Lawrence's final-play field goal, had their hopes dashed again by a kick. Jimmy Stevens' third field goal, a 27-yarder with 8:28 remaining, provided the winning margin as Nebraska closed out its Big 12 football history with a loss.
"It's pretty obvious what the level of disappointment is," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "We came in here to win the Big 12 Championship. We didn't get it done. The kids are hurting."
The OU defense, led by outstanding play up front, limited Nebraska to 293 total yards - and 127 of those came on three first-half plays. Oklahoma had seven sacks with three by fifth-year senior Pryce Macon. The Sooners used the same "50" front they used last Saturday against Oklahoma State and it befuddled the Huskers, who committed four crucial fumbles.
"We knew they carry the football very loosely and we wanted to attack the football and be very violent going after the football and we got great results," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said." We had to win the line of scrimmage and the turnover battle. That was the game."
The biggest turnover came midway through the second quarter. Oklahoma had cut the score to 17-7 but the Huskers answered. On fourth-and-one from the Oklahoma 45, Nebraska did a distant replay of Texas' famous "roll left" fourth-and-one play against the Huskers in the inaugural championship game. Taylor Martinez faked a hand off and hit tight end Mike McNeill for a 36-yard gain to the OU 9.
But on third and goal, Martinez scrambled to his right and, pressured by Oklahoma's Stacy McGee, threw across his body into coverage. Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis intercepted the floater.
"They ran a route that we expected and we kind of baited him into throwing it," said Lewis, who also recovered two fumbles. "These hands aren't what they're used to be but I caught it anyway. Huge play."
The Sooners drove for a field goal to make it 17-10. Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. - whose 66-yard touchdown run started the scoring - fumbled on the Huskers' next possession. Oklahoma converted that turnover into a touchdown that tied it at 17-all. Alex Henery's 42-yard field goal gave Nebraska a 20-17 halftime lead.
"At halftime, we had given up two big running plays and that was about it," Stoops said. "We worked so hard and I told the kids to feel positive about it because we weren't far off. I told them to just keep playin' ball. That's what we told 'em before the game, just keep playing because it's gonna be a long night."
It was a long night for Nebraska redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez. The speculation regarding his health - he had a bad right ankle and turf toe on his left foot - dominated the week leading up to the game. Martinez was 12 of 24 for 143 yards. His mobility appeared limited as he couldn't avoid the OU pass rush.
"I knew he was going to play on Monday," Pelini said. "He had a good week of practice. He ran around fine. There was no question about his health."
Martinez started and played the entire game except when sophomore Rex Burkhead lined up in the wildcat formation. Burkhead had a 5-yard touchdown pass and gained 90 yards on 16 attempts.
Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Landry Jones, who had five interceptions in Lincoln in last year's 10-3 loss to Nebraska, was 23-of-41 for 342 yards and one touchdown. His only interception was a tipped pass. His accuracy was impressive as he completed passes to eight different receivers.
"They play a man, zone matchup kinda thing," Jones said. "We had a great game plan, great job by the coaches scheming for this game. Our receivers did a great job getting open, beating the man coverage and we were able to get some big plays."
One of the biggest came on the drive that produced Stevens' deciding field goal. After being sacked for a 14-yard loss, Jones and the Sooners faced a third and 24 at their own 40. Jones sidestepped pressure, floated to his left and found Cameron Kenney for a 23-yard gain. On fourth-and-one, Jones and Kenney (who had a team-high six catches for 65 yards) hooked up on an 11-yard slant completion to the Nebraska 26. Five plays later, Stevens provided the game winner.
The third-and-24 conversion was Oklahoma's only success in 16 third-down plays. Last week against Oklahoma State, the Sooners converted 16 of 27 third downs. Again, an example of winning with variety.
Nebraska had two more chances to get kicker Alex Henery an opportunity to tie the game. With just under four minutes remaining, the Huskers reached the Oklahoma 39 (a 56-yard attempt). But on third down, Martinez was sacked for an eight-yard loss.
"We thought we were in range, that is the shame of it," Pelini said. "But you can't take a sack in that situation."
Nebraska's last possession included the Sooners' seventh sack. On fourth and four from the Huskers' 47, Oklahoma's Demontre Hurst knocked away a pass to Brandon Kinnie.
"This is my third Big 12 championship and this one's definitely the sweetest," Lewis said. "The fashion we won the game, we got rattled early but we never panicked. We always pride ourselves that defense wins championships."
And no matter the method, Oklahoma and the Dr Pepper Big 12 Championship has become inseperable.