NEW ORLEANS — Bob Stoops set his sights on the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference during this past offseason.
Maybe he should have been looking towards the top.
Behind a redshirt freshman quarterback, Oklahoma handled Alabama’s once-dominant defense in a building the Crimson Tide recently won a BCS title, sending the winner of the past two national championships home with a 45-31 loss.
In May, Stoops ripped the bottom half of the SEC, telling the Tulsa World that those not atop the league “haven’t done much at all.”
Thursday, he stepped back a bit. But not too far.
“I would say I have the utmost respect for Alabama and I think this shows we obviously can play with anybody. So, enough of that,” Stoops said. “I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well.”
He can thank Trevor Knight for the Sooners stopping the beast of the SEC.
“He lit it up,” Stoops said. “He took care of the football, made great throws and was competitive. He showed everybody what we’ve been seeing for a couple of years. He has a chance to be really special.”
Knight nearly matched his season total for yards and touchdowns in just one game. In just his fifth career start, Knight threw for 348 yards, just 128 yards fewer than he had all season, and four touchdowns, just one less than his season total heading into Thursday night.
But it was the calmness of the game’s MVP in the final 6:22 that likely gives the Sooners (11-2) hope for the future. Knight converted two third downs, one thanks to pass interference Alabama’s Jarrick Williams, and melted the clock to 55 seconds.
“It’s awesome man,” Knight said. “Just a dream come true. What a way to go out for our seniors. This is awesome.”
One play later, Oklahoma put the game away when Eric Striker sacked Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, jarring the ball loose. Geneo Grissom picked up the ball and returned it 10 yards into the end zone for the final nail in Alabama’s (11-2) season.
McCarron finished the game 19 of 30 for 387 yards and two scores, but he also threw two interceptions and lost the game-clinching fumble.
“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. … I wish it wouldn't have happened, but I'll definitely take the loss and definitely take the blame, because a lot of it is probably my fault.”
Alabama hadn’t lost back-to-back games in five years, the last time being in 2008 when it lost to Florida in the SEC championship game and Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
A matchup featuring two of college football’s name programs didn’t disappoint. The teams combined for 945 yards and went 13 of 27 on third down.
Yet, it was Oklahoma’s defense that came up with the stops when they were needed most, finishing with seven sacks and five forced turnovers.
“I thought our pressure was exceptional,” Stoops said. “We were on the quarterback all game.”
And now Stoops has what could be his program’s biggest win since earning a national championship in the 2001 Orange Bowl. The Sooners were 1-5 in BCS games, including two losses in championship games, prior to Thursday night.
“I never look at it as about me,” Stoops said. “I just can’t. I feel very fortunate and blessed to be in this situation. We’re going to keep building it and keep chasing trophies. It was exciting, though. Can’t deny that to come out and play against a great team like that and play the way we did.”
It didn’t appear early that Stoops would get the best of Nick Saban.
Alabama started quickly, getting to first-and-goal in just two plays, which led T.J. Yeldon giving the Crimson Tide a 7-0 lead less than two minutes in.
McCarron’s first mistake followed Knight’s only interception when the Alabama quarterback’s pass intended for Kevin Norwood sailed high and Oklahoma’s Gabe Lynn picked it off.
Knight’s next pass would prove better, beating Alabama defensive back Landon Collins, who tried to make a play in front of Lacoltan Bester, but missed. Bester did not and sprinted for a 45-yard game-tying touchdown.
Cade Foster’s 27-yard field goal pushed Alabama’s leads to 10-7, but it could have been more. McCarron’s pass to DeAndrew White nearly went for a score, but he was caught from behind at the Sooners’ 10-yard line.
The teams traded touchdowns before Michael Hunnicutt’s 47-yard field goal tied it at 17 early in the third quarter.
It would prove to be the last time Oklahoma would play from behind.
Alabama was driving to once again take a lead when Yeldon coughed up the ball at the Oklahoma 11. The Sooners turned the takeaway into a 24-17 lead when Knight lofted a pass perfectly over Alabama’s cornerback and into the hands of Jalen Saunders for a 43-yard touchdown.
Zack Sanchez’s interception of McCarron on the next series put Oklahoma in the red zone and Sterling Shepard’s 13-yard end around touchdown gave the Sooners a 31-17 lead just before halftime.
The Crimson Tide had a chance to chip away at the Sooners’ lead before halftime, but Foster pushed a 32-yard field goal attempt wide.
“We created a lot of the adversity that we faced ourselves in some of the things that we did and didn't do,” Saban said. “We talked about the turnovers before. We didn't play very well on defense in the first half. We didn't play very well on third down. We didn't get off the field in third and long three or four times in the game, which were critical factors in the game.”
After the games first three punts, Alabama got the scoring going again. This time, true freshman Derrick Henry broke through the line, cut to the right and outran everyone to the corner of the end zone, his 43-yard dash pulling Alabama to within 31-24.
Knight answered with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Shepard, pushing Oklahoma’s lead back to two touchdowns at 38-24.
Henry’s 61-yard catch-and-run pulled Alabama to within 38-31 in the fourth quarter, but the Tide could get no closer.