NEW ORLEANS – Oklahoma was considered the favorite heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Auburn on Monday evening, but it sure didn’t feel like it.
The questions heading into the game were about what OU could do. Could the Sooners be physical on offense against a great Auburn defensive line and stellar defense?
Could the OU defense show that what happened in a 66-59 win at Texas Tech was indeed a lifetime ago? That this team is among the best?
Consider those questions answered emphatically in OU’s 35-19 win against the No. 14 Tigers as the seventh-ranked Sooners end the season on a 10-game winning streak and 11-2 overall.
“It’s really special,” head coach Bob Stoops said. “Our players did an awesome job, they really played up to this…worked hard and were ready for the game. Our assistant coaches did a great job, so it’s pleasing. Auburn’s a really good team, so compliments to them for a really good year.”
Auburn hit the Sooners in the mouth early, going 75 yards in 14 plays to take a 7-0 lead. But when the third quarter came to a close, the Tigers only had 200 total yards, and OU had taken full control with a 28-13 advantage heading into the final 15 minutes.
OU’s players said all the right things and never inferred how much the questioning of their physicality fired them up. As the final seconds ticked down, though, it was all the chatter.
Going against the SEC. Going against the physical defensive line, offensive line of the Tigers (8-5). It didn’t matter on this night.
“Football is football at the end of the day,” senior linebacker Jordan Evans said. “I don't think anybody cares what conference you're in. As long as you guys line up and play the way you're supposed to play, the better team is always going to win. Tonight, I feel like it was us, and that's why we came out on top.”
The narrative had been about OU sputtering when facing top out of conference opposition. OU was 1-3 in its last four games with losses to Clemson, Houston and Ohio State.
But after a slow start, it was all Sooners in the last three quarters. OU finished with 524 yards of total offense, while allowing just 339. The narrative? Gone.
“You tell me,” linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said. “You tell me who made the statement tonight. You watched it. You saw it. You tell me.”
The Sooners simply have been a different team since a 45-24 loss to Ohio State back on Sept. 17. It was words of quarterback Baker Mayfield that evening that things would change.
Down 7-0 to the Tigers, those words, that leadership was once again on full display. There was Mayfield, again, extending plays, making something out of nothing and firing up his teammates all at once.
Mayfield was 19-of-28 passing for 296 yards with two touchdowns (Mark Andrews, Dede Westbrook). And when Mayfield can get the passing game going, it’s only a matter of time before running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon get rolling, too.
“It is how the game goes,” Mayfield said. “As the game goes on as well as the run game, it wasn't what we wanted in the first half. But our backs pound people, and so it wears on people.
“And you have to worry about stopping the run, that's when we were able to drop back with some play action and get the ball downfield and vice versa. It opens up the run game and the run game opening up the pass game.”
OU rushed for 18 yards in the first quarter but ultimately ended up with 228 yards and three touchdowns by Joe Mixon (2) and Samaje Perine (1).
Perine, who needed 83 yards to become OU’s all-time leading rusher, did just that on a 15-yard carry with five minutes left in the game.
It was a perfect symbol of how far OU had come. Not just in the season where it was left for dead by most after the 1-2 start, but in the game Monday evening as OU sputtered out of the gate.
The fight never left.
“You know, we kept our confidence,” Stoops said. “When everyone doubts you, we kept believing in our system…what we do, kept our confidence and kept positive. We worked hard and improved every week, and here we are. So, I’m proud of our guys.”