By JOHN SHINN
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and his program came full circle Thursday night in New Orleans. The program, which he thoroughly restored to a consistent winner 14 years ago, was standing tall at the place where the foundation started to show cracks.
It was 10 years ago when OU lost to LSU in the 2004 national championship game at the Superdome. That team — quite possibly the most talented of the Stoops era — was upset. It started a string of disheartening bowl performances that elevated the theory that the Sooners could not close the deal. The five straight BCS bowl losses, including three in national championship games, fueled that fire.
A decade later, it was the Sooners doing the upsetting, pinning a 45-31 loss on No. 3 Alabama.
Did it remove all the demons? Probably not if you were playing for the Sooners back then. But if you’re playing for them now or in the future, perception is reality. The way the Sooners are viewed dramatically changed after they outplayed and outcoached the Crimson Tide.
“We put in our minds that were going to come out here and win it and that’s what we did,” said OU linebacker Eric Striker, who recorded three sacks, with the last striping Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron of the ball and resulting in defensive end Geneo Grissom’s game sealing fumble return for a touchdown. “There was no magic to it.”
Maybe there wasn’t. The Sooners were a young team this season. OU had a small, but productive senior class. Only seven starters played their final collegiate game Thursday. Just two on the defense.
It was a team that fought injuries all season and an unsettled quarterback situation. But a light went off in the final six weeks of the regular season and into bowl preparation.
OU settled on Trevor Knight at starting quarterback and the youngsters around him did as well. It showed on the field in road upset wins at Kansas State and Oklahoma State to close the regular season.
It showed even more Thursday night.
The Sooners used the extra to prepare for the Crimson Tide wisely. They played off their tendencies — the Sooners used a huddle for the first time since 2007 — and used a barrel full of new formations.
Defensively, OU changed coverages, blitz packages and put a lot of faith in its defensive line to provide pressure.
The result was a more polished team than OU had been at any point in the regular season.
“Three weeks is a long time. It’s a full spring practice,” Stoops said. “We had a lot of time to do what we needed to do and get comfortable with it.”
That was thing about Thursday. OU, which entered the game as a 17-point underdog, dictated the pace and pressure for the final 55 minutes of the game.
It gave up a pretty easy four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to Alabama at the start of the game. But after it answered with a touchdown drive, the nerves wore off and a toe-to-toe slugfest ensued with the Sooners seemingly dictating the terms.
OU threw a volumes of new alignments at the Crimson Tide on both sides of the ball. They never seemed to get a hand on any of it. For weeks, it practiced for OU quarterback Trevor Knight — the runner. The pocket passer that arrived at the Superdome was a complete mystery. The 348 passing yards and four touchdown passes — both career highs for the redshirt freshman — show how he flustered the Crimson Tide.
Hard to believe the Sugar Bowl was just his fifth career start and just the second time in his career he took every offensive snap.
“The more snaps you get, the more comfortable you feel. The more completions you get, the more comfortable you feel,” Knight said. “And it’s all about just getting in that rhythm, hitting a few shots early, set the rhythm, the tone for the game. The more snaps you get, the more comfortable you are. Moving forward from that, you know, going into next year and everything, that’s what we’re going to ride on.”
How could the Sooners not feel euphoric over what took place in the final weeks of the 2013 season? The win over Alabama was undoubtedly their biggest bowl victory since claiming the 2000 national championship.
Back then OU was a program ascending at a blistering pace. It returned to Norman with the same feeling.
Stoops argues that feeling never left. He never talked up the fact that OU was a massive underdog — at least publicly.
“We weren’t coming in on a load of wood. We’ve won some games around here,” he said.
But his team played like one bent on playing like one in that it was focused, determined and unafraid to stick its neck out.
Knight completed 32 passes to seven different receivers. Derrick Woods and tight ends Brannon Green and Taylor McNamara combined for three catches during the regular season. All three had critical catches Thursday night.
Unheralded defensive end Geneo Grissom was the game’s defensive MVP and had two sacks and two recovered fumbles. Players who started the season as projects put together dominant performances on the big stage against an elite team.
For the first time in years, OU closed a season giving every appearance that its best years are still ahead. Stoops was thinking about the future, not the past by Friday morning.
“To me it’s already gone,” he said. “I’m on to what’s coming next year all ready.”
Based on what happened in the Sugar Bowl there’s no reason not to. No one was talking about the Sooners’ postseason failures or even that they finished second in the Big 12 Conference title race. The ending overwhelmed everything that preceded it.