There was no coming back from it.
When Tennessee ran out to 17 unanswered points to start the game Saturday, there was a Baylor vibe to all of it. It looked all too familiar to the Russell Athletic Bowl, when Clemson scored the first 17 points of the game – and then 23 more points before Oklahoma finally answered.
“A big thing coming off of last year was to change our mindset,” Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine said after the Sooners’ victory against Tennessee. “We didn’t have the mentality to keep fighting when we were down. We pretty much gave up. This year, we want to get a new identity.”
This year’s team is different.
The Sooners brought back eight starters on a defense that has another year of maturity and understanding of what offenses will try to do to them. A new quarterback with a swagger level comparable to anyone in the country is at the helm for the Sooners. Baker Mayfield has given Oklahoma a new belief in itself, one that permeates from the quarterback who never seems to think he can be stopped.
Most of all, there’s a resiliency in Oklahoma proven by its comeback victory against Tennessee that didn’t necessarily exist last year.
“We stayed in this game,” Perine said. “We were down a couple touchdowns, but we didn’t let that stop us. . . . We stuck around and kept at it, stayed true to our foundation and got the win.”
Clemson scored on four of its first five possessions in the Russell Athletic Bowl. After the Tigers scored on their first two possessions of the game, Oklahoma threw a pair of interceptions, one that resulted in a missed field and one that turned into a Pick 6. Baylor scored on five-straight possessions spanning halftime and on seven of the final eight.
Things snowballed quickly on Oklahoma last season, neither the offense nor the defense able to do anything to stop the building problems.
Against Tennessee it was just different. The Volunteers scored on three of their first five possessions, and Oklahoma’s new mentality – especially on defense – shined though.
“We haven’t changed defenses, it’s their execution of it is better and sharper,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “And probably fair to say a little more physical in that they’re a year older and another year in the weight room with all of them.”
Tennessee had just two drives of more than five plays from that point.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops made the right adjustments – something that either didn’t happen or wasn’t executed properly last season. Oklahoma finally had an answer. With each successive stop, the defenses’ excitement kept building. There was no resentment between the groups, who have actually spent more time intermingled than they did last year.
The offense kept waiting for its chance to break open, more than 100,000 hostile fans adamantly rooting against them. The Oklahoma offense doesn’t have the carry-over or experience of the defense. Instead, it’s a change in mentality at the helm.
It’s Mayfield that gives the Sooners a puncher’s chance as he bounded in and out of every huddle and expressed his jubilance on the sideline.
“Baker was a big part of that,” Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard said of Oklahoma believing they could come back. “He never lost his composure. Even though we had the rocky start, he was that guy on the sideline you can rely on. He had that mentality that we’re not going to give up. We fed off him and made plays.”
But as drives fell by the wayside for both teams Saturday night, the memories of Baylor and Clemson did the same. As the game went on, it became clear that the mentality of Oklahoma is far different than it was last year.
The Sooners are stronger mentally than they were last year.
No one said it directly in the press room afterwards, but the idea was on their faces: This isn’t the same team.
There’s a big difference, and it’s not one that can really be measured.
“That just goes with the growth of this team this year of fighting all the way to the end no matter what,” Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez said.