I noted in my preview of the Sugar Bowl that Auburn was built to give Oklahoma fits. For a quarter or so, my upset call felt fairly prescient.
AU was hammering away at the Sooner defense with oversized tailback Kamryn Pettway. Meanwhile, the Tigers flustered OU’s high-powered offense and shook up quarterback Baker Mayfield with their relentless pass rush.
Yet, the Sooners settled in during the second quarter and gradually pulled away in the third quarter.
What changed? The most obvious answer would be Auburn’s quarterback. Sean White’s departure with an arm injury all but dashed the Tigers’ hopes of snagging a win. John Franklin’s erratic arm rendered AU’s offense one-dimensional in the second half, leading to a third quarter in which his team gained a total of 21 yards on three possessions. It didn’t get much better when Jeremy Johnson took over in the fourth quarter.
More importantly, I attribute it to the attitude of Mayfield and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
For about a decade, OU’s team identity has revolved around an overwhelming offense. When it was humming, the Sooners were a force. But when opponents had early success defending them, OU tended to operate with a palpable sense of anxiety and frustration.
However, that hasn’t been the case with Riley and Mayfield running the show in the last two years. The O plays with a sense of confidence that wasn’t there in the past.
Even with the offense sputtering early versus the Tigers, Riley maintained his dedication to throwing the ball to set up the run. For his part, Mayfield broke all the rules of sound quarterbacking while discovering ways to wriggle out of danger from Auburn’s pass rush and get the ball down the field. (It helps to have a group of filthy targets at the skill positions, of course.)
In the second half, AU’s D wilted from the combination of OU’s tempo and chasing around No. 6. That enabled the Sooners to salt away the win with heavy doses of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.
Riley drew up some nice wrinkles for the game. Mayfield torched the Tigers with his usual array of death-defying throws. And as we’ve seen so often during their time in Norman, the two proved to be the animating forces behind a big win.
*I feel bad for gushing about OU’s offensive attack when you consider how well the defense played late in the season.
The Sooners held the Tigers about 1.5 yards per play below their season average. Take away 10 plays and 91 yards of saving face by Gus Malzahn to close out the game and OU allowed fewer than four yards per play.
The most obvious development as the season wore on was the maturation of diaper dandy Caleb Kelly at outside linebacker. Mike Stoops needed the stud freshman especially badly against Auburn’s power rushing attack, and Kelly responded with a team-leading 12 tackles.
Kelly and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo on the edges will form the strength of the D in 2017.
*Mixon was the best player on the field. No question.
*Bob Stoops needs to give serious thought to finding a new placekicker. Austin Seibert’s confidence looks shot.
(Speaking of which, I will never understand Stoops’ decision tree for when to try a field goal.)
*My favorite call from Lincoln Riley last night:
*Also recommend this look at one of OU’s RPOs.
*Looking ahead to next season, Jeffrey Mead offered some encouraging signs at receiver in the second half of the season. That continued with a pair of strong grabs over AU defensive backs to go along with one early attempt in which he landed out of bounds with the grab.
*Samaje Perine managed to become OU’s all-time leading rusher despite missing prolonged stretches of time in his career and sharing the stage with Mixon. Phenomenal production from a guy the coaching staff will clearly miss.
*Like I mentioned, this was an awful matchup for the Sooners. Knocking White out of the game certainly helped the cause, but OU also handled a very talented defense with ease after working out the early kinks.
The Sooners pumped out 7.4 yards per offensive play, which is roughly a full yard better than the team with the second-highest average against AU this year, Ole Miss.
It’s foolhardy to start hyping a team for the next season based on a bowl performance. Yet, the Sugar Bowl win does fit with the larger picture of a team that made major strides on both sides of the ball over the course of 13 games.
So let hope spring eternal for the next nine months.