But none of it would have been possible if not for Hill’s 92-yard punt return to tie the game with just 45 seconds remaining in the game. And that wouldn’t have been possible if OU head coach Bob Stoops had declined a running into the punter penalty on the previous play. But instead of accepting the penalty and giving the Cowboys the ball on their own 15-yard line with no timeouts remaining, Stoops accepted the penalty and punted to Hill a second time.
This time instead of fair catching the ball, Hill caught the ball on the 8-yard line, got a couple of big blocks – including one by Jordan Sterns near midfield – and the speedster raced 92 yards for the game-tying touchdown. A couple of minutes later Grogan kicked the game-winning field goal to give OSU the win over the three-touchdown favorite Sooners.
“I’m not sure why they punted the ball to him,” said Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy, “but when the ball was kinda shanked off to the right and wobbly the first thing that came to my mind was Kansas State. They do that a lot and (Tyler) Lockett runs and catches it and runs down the boundary.
“I saw they had to guys left (to try to make the tackle) and I guess he split them. (Sterns) had a block but I think there were two guys that could have made a tackle but I think he split them, and when he did that the good news is you knew it was over.
“Sometimes kids just make plays like that, and it’s just really big. But then you look at what we did on offense. I thought our kids played really well. We don’t have (Daniel) Koenig, and we had a makeshift offensive line in this game, three freshmen and two sophomores, and we protected for the quarterback (Mason Rudolph), and he made plays.”
Hill’s punt return tied the game for the first time since the first half as the Cowboys were playing catchup after falling behind 28-14 in the second quarter.
Rudolph did not play like a true freshman who was making only the second start of his college career. He 19-of-33 passing for 273 yards and two touchdowns, including a 43-yard strike to Brandon Sheperd with 4:51 remaining to pull the Cowboys within 35-28.
Moments later, after the defense had forced the Sooners to punt the ball back to the Cowboys, Rudolph made the mistake of throwing into coverage while attempting to get the ball to David Glidden. OU cornerback Zack Sanchez made the interception near midfield, and it appeared to be over as the Cowboys had used up their three timeouts.
But the defense held firm and forced Stoops to send punter Jed Barnett on the field. Hill signaled for a fair catch at the 15-yard line on the punt, but OSU’s Jordan Sterns was flagged for running into Barnett. Instead of accepting the penalty and making Rudolph lead the Cowboys 85 yards without any timeouts remaining to tie the game and send it into overtime, Stoops took the 5-yard penalty.
Tyreek Hill made him pay for that decision when he went 92 yards to tie the game.
“I challenged the team. We gave up a punt return (for a touchdown to OU) last year and the year before, and in my opinion we had the game won when we gave up the two punt returns,” Gundy said. “So I challenged the team to one, not give them a big return in punts, and they’re really good on kickoff returns. We have one 40-yard advantage but overall … I said if we could ever get a big advantage it would be nice to return a punt because we owe them one.”
Sheperd, the junior from St. Louis, had just nine catches for 184 yards with no touchdowns during the Cowboys five-game losing streak entering Bedlam, but more than made up for it against the Sooners. He was Rudolph’s favorite target, catching seven passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns (a 39-yarder in the second quarter to tie the game 14-14 and then his fourth quarter catch and run that pulled the Cowboys within 35-28 with 4:51 remaining).
The Cowboys defense allowed 28 points in the first half but shut the Sooners down in the second half. Part of that could be attributed to Perene leaving the game with a leg injury midway through the third quarter, and he never returned. He managed to run for 151 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries before leaving the game after fumbling the ball away to the Cowboys with 5:51 remaining in the third quarter.
“I’ve never been big on, excuse my French, on chewing out the players ass (at halftime),” Gundy said, “but they needed it because we were in position a number of times and we were falling off tackles (in the first half). You can’t do that as good as that back (Perene) is, you can’t fall off tackles. We did a better job (in the second half). We challenged them and I feel like they rose to the occasion and made plays, especially late in the game.”
Now the Cowboys can begin making plans to go bowling for a school-record ninth consecutive year.
“We should get at least 10 practices but more importantly I’m just happy for our seniors,” Gundy said. “I knew that this year would be challenging with youth … so I felt bad that our seniors (may not) get to enjoy the bowl experience. I’m proud for everybody. I’m proud for the fans, for the school. This says a lot about our team and a lot about our program.”