By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — Oklahoma’s up-and-down season was at rock bottom with a little over a minute left in the first half. It was trailing Iowa State — the same team that hadn’t won a game since late September — by a touchdown at Owen Field.
The Sooners’ condition was grave due to a sputtering offense, a depleted defense and low energy.
Then, Jalen Saunders caught a punt at his own 9-yard line. The complexion of the entire afternoon changed with what Saunders did after securing the ball.
The Sooners went from dormant to dominant in a 48-10 victory.
“After that, things started rolling downhill,” Saunders said.
It was his 91-yard punt return for a touchdown that jolted the Sooners out of hibernation.
Prior to Saunders’ punt return, OU (8-2, 5-2 Big 12) had 110 yards of total offense. It finished the day with 405. Before it, Iowa State (1-9, 0-7) had a seven-point lead and snowballing optimism it could get its first victory at Owen Field since 1990.
Well, OU scored 38 points — five touchdowns and a field goal — on its next six possessions.
How the offensive onslaught occurred was the other oddity Saturday. Offensively, the Sooners went full circle. Blake Bell left the game early in the second quarter after taking a hit from Iowa State’s Willie Scott on a 5-yard run. He did not return and OU coach Bob Stoops did not reveal the extent of the injury.
But Trevor Knight entered and OU’s offense found a gear it hasn’t seen all season in the second half. Damien Williams rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns. Knight ran for 123 yards and a touchdown. Brennan Clay needed just seven carries to accumulate 86 yards. All three scored on touchdown runs of 56 yards or more.
“That’s what we came in today to do, run the ball,” Williams said.
The Sooners were one-dimensional in every sense, but that one dimension was working at a very high level. OU planned to use Knight at some point in the game. He entered for a couple plays in last Thursday’s loss to Baylor. But it was in a limited package.
How much OU did outside of that is a coaches’ secret, but the running game found another gear with Knight at the helm. He only threw for 61 yards, but he never came close to turning the ball over, which was what cost him the job after two games.
“Anytime you go into a ballgame — that’s why veterans play so well because they’ve been through it so many times, they’ve seen every look. So every time you play, you get a little more comfortable out there,” Knight said. “I felt a lot more comfortable today, still pressed a little bit but overall a lot more comfortable than in the first two games.”
By the fourth quarter, things were going so well OU actually gave Kendal Thompson his first game action. The sophomore engineered an eight-play, 90-yard scoring drive.
It was mop-up duty, but impressive nonetheless.
“I thought Trevor came in and did an excellent job of being ready for the moment, executing and reading the zone read and some of those plays that we went to. And Kendal came in at the end and also did a nice job,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “Those guys, it’s exciting as a coach to see guys come in who haven’t played a ton and they’re ready for the moment and they take advantage of it and play well.”
Iowa State platooned its quarterbacks, too. Neither Grant Rohach or Sam Richardson experienced much success. Rohach threw for 179 yards on a 21-for-34 afternoon. But he was picked off twice. Richardson was 1 of 2 for nine yards, but he did have a 9-yard touchdown early in the second quarter.
But they both turned into tackling dummies in the second half. The Sooners registered five sacks with four coming in the second half.
“We played good, but we could have done better. We picked it up after the beginning,” said OU linebacker Frank Shannon, who recorded two of the sacks. “It was early in the morning and everyone was still sluggish. But by the time we got it rolling, everything was pretty good.”
The Sooners, who were playing their final home game Saturday, left Owen Field with the sense they had built some momentum. They’ll need it heading into next Saturday’s game at Kansas State.
Stoops wouldn’t say whether he thought Bell would be available for that game or whether the offensive explosion OU experienced with Knight at quarterback was enough to give him the job once more.
Besides, the one play that changed the complexion of Saturday’s game didn’t involve OU’s quarterback. Knight had already played a full quarter when Saunders went back to field the punt with 89 seconds left in the first half.
Typically when an opponent is kicking the ball on a fourth-and-six from midfield, OU just leaves its defense on the field. It doesn’t want to be susceptible to a fake. Stoops took a gamble.
“I felt if they had a fake dialed up with a minute-something to go that that wouldn’t be a good option for them. I took the chance,” he said.
It worked and just about everything that followed did for OU as well.