By JOHN SHINN
NEW ORLEANS — A day earlier, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said he didn’t know how to play the underdog card. Luckily for him, his team knew exactly how to play it.
The Sooners were aggressive, opportunistic and above all else confident Thursday in the Sugar Bowl against No. 3 Alabama.
The mixture snowballed into a 45-31 victory over the Crimson Tide, securing the biggest upset victory in Sooner history.
“We played how we expected to play, to be quite honest,” Stoops said. “And again you’ve heard me start off by saying I’ve got the absolute utmost respect for Alabama. But we have a lot of confidence in what we do, too.”
But there were emphatic reasons No. 11 OU (11-2) entered the game as a 17-point underdog — one of the biggest underdogs of the bowl season. One was Alabama’s long string of demolishing opponents in January under coach Nick Saban. A proven quarterback (A.J. McCarron) who had led it to back-to-back national championships and a defensive tradition of suffocating any offense if given a month to prepare.
But the Sooners used the 3 1/2 weeks to to rewrite the script. Quarterback Trevor Knight put on a star-making performance, throwing for four touchdowns and 348 yards. In every sense, he was the quarterback OU billed him to be in late August.
OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel threw the kitchen sink at Alabama and started tossing the pipes as well. The Sooners unveiled a plethora of new formations, huddled for the first time in years along with playing up-tempo in the first half.
“Throughout the bowl preparation we had the plan of going fast, putting in a few new wrinkles with the huddles there,” Knight said. “I felt when we came out from the very beginning it was working for us, and we kept going with it. It easily could not have worked and (we could have gone) back to our old stuff but I felt like our plan was great.
McCarron threw for 387 yards, but he was sacked six times and threw two interceptions.
It was the turnovers — four in total — and seven sacks that proved to be the Sooners’ salvation. Defensive end Geneo Grissom, who was the game’s defensive MVP, scooped up two fumbles, with the last coming after OU linebacker Eric Striker stripped McCarron with 50 seconds to go and Grissom returning it 8 yards for a touchdown. Defensive backs Zack Sanchez and Gabe Lynn also had interceptions.
“Oklahoma did a good job of mixing things up, showing us some things we hadn’t seen,” McCarron said. “But you put it all on me. I had two turnovers, ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14.”
They allowed OU to take control of the game in the second quarter. They rolled off 17 straight points in the final 11:45 of the quarter to seize a 31-17 lead.
Knight hit Jalen Saunders for a 43-yard touchdown pass and Sterling Shepard scored on a 13-yard reverse with 62 seconds left to take the two-touchdown lead.
The flurry left the 70,473 fans — including the Sooner faithful — stunned. The predicted cakewalk for the Crimson Tide was long gone by then.
“As a team we didn’t play well enough to win, and Oklahoma really outplayed us,” Saban said. “And I really can’t blame it on the lack of focus.”
The Sooners won despite giving up 516 yards of total offense and boatload of missed tackles.
Twice Alabama cut OU’s lead to seven. Freshman running Derrick Henry, who rushed for 100 yards, scored on a 43-yard touchdown run and 61-yard swing pass.
But OU matched Alabama punch for punch. Shepard caught a 9-yard touchdown pass from the Knight with 10:44 to go, lifting the lead back up to 14.
The Crimson Tide got the ball back with about a minute left, but Striker blew past Alabama All-American tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and forced the fumble right into Grissom’s hands who delivered the knock-out blow.
It didn’t matter when the confetti starting raining down on the Superdome late Thursday night. The Sooners, who have a well-chronicled history of BCS busts over the last decade, were celebrating one of the biggest wins in the program history.
Stoops didn’t want to label it, but fully understood Thursday’s performance was the shot of momentum it’s been waiting on for several seasons.
The string of 10-3 seasons were over along with the notion that the Sooners couldn’t win a major bowl against an SEC powerhouse.
“And so with as many young players as we have and inexperience we came into the season to start with and the guys we have coming back to the recruiting class we’ve got coming in, we’ve got a chance to really start, to continue to be special, and that’s what we’re going to keep trying to do,” Stoops said.
After Thursday night’s win, anything seems possible. Stoops and the Sooners both got their mojo back.
OU football notebook
Stoops, Sooners bolster Big 12's reputation: Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops turned into a punching bag for SEC loyalists starting last summer when he said he was tired of hearing propaganda about the league.
Stoops initially said he didn’t want to go into it again following Thursday night’s 45-31 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. But he couldn’t resist.
“I won’t have to dodge any punches, I guess you could say that,” he said. “But I would say, as I started off, I have the utmost respect for Alabama. And I think this shows that obviously we can play with anybody. So enough of that.
“And I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well. And, again, I admire the way they play, I really do, and Coach Saban and the way they do things. I’m not pointing any fingers, but I think sometimes the comparisons aren’t necessarily very true.”
The Sooners will face another SEC opponent — Tennessee — on Sept. 13 at Owen Field.
Short memory: OU cornerback Zach Sanchez was burned several times on missed tackles on Alabama’s initial drives. However, the redshirt freshman cornerback came up with one of the biggest plays of the game.
His interception of McCarron late in the first half set up Sterling Shepard’s 13-yard touchdown run with 65 seconds left before intermission that gave up a two-touchdown lead.
“There’s another redshirt freshman out there competing,” Stoops said. “You have to have a short memory in the secondary if you’re going to play the whole game. And he had his opportunity. He jumped it and had a great return with it.
“So you play out there long enough over an 80-play game, in the secondary, you’re going to have some plays on you. So you just gotta fight back and make yours on some third down, fourth downs, or come up with a pick here or there and a key deflection, and they did that.”
Special Teams: The Sooners had one defined edge over Alabama heading into the Sugar Bowl: kicker Michael Hunnicutt. It turned out to be a major difference as Hunnicutt connected on a 47-yard field goal attempt early in the second quarter. Alabama’s Cade Foster missed a 32-yard attempt as time expired in the first half.
“That was a big difference in the game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Tight end involvement: Tight ends had only been a tiny sliver of OU’s offense this season. However, Brannon Green and Taylor McNamara were both involved in the passing game Thursday. Green had a critical 13-yard first down catch in the third quarter. McNamara had a 4-yard grab — his first of the season — in the first quarter.
“I feel that’s our team this year,” OU quarterback Trevor Knight said. “We had guys step up all year. It’s very easy when you’re not playing, sitting on the sideline, to put your head down. But that shows that our team, quarterback position and every position, that we just stayed the course. We kept battling every day at practice.
“So when it was our time to shine, we could go out and do that.”
Record day: Knight’s four touchdown passes matched the Sugar Bowl record and outside linebacker Eric Striker matched the sack record with three. Also Knight, witch 348 passing yards and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron (387) became the first opposing quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards in Sugar Bowl history.
Familiar spot: Thursday’s Sugar Bowl marked OU’s seventh appearance in the game. It’s the most of any non-SEC school. Alabama made its record 14th appearance.