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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Minus Westbrook, Other Stars Step Up

Things looked bleak for Oklahoma when its best player went down. Turns out, it was just getting started.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It was midway through the second quarter, Dede Westbrook was down, and nothing was going right for Oklahoma.

After a sloppy first quarter that saw little more than traded punts, the Cowboys had begun to gash the undermanned OU defense with freshman sensation Justice Hill. When Dede Westbrook began the second quarter with a 69-yard juke-out for a touchdown reception, it looked like he was the offense’s only hope. The running backs sure didn’t have it. If Oklahoma was going to keep up with OSU, it would need a healthy Westbrook.

But there he was on the ground, almost certainly concussed and out for the day. The chances of an OU victory, at that moment, seemed pretty darn slim.

Oklahoma could have given up at that point—after all, a Sugar Bowl berth versus Auburn would be fun, but certainly a letdown after making last year’s Playoff. And the CFP committee has made it abundantly clear that it’s not interested in the red-hot Sooners.

But the fact that Baker Mayfield made a special undershirt prematurely declaring the Sooners back-to-back Big 12 champs suggests that this group wasn’t going down without a fight. Oklahoma State followed Westbrook’s injury with two straight touchdown drives and, finally, something clicked. The Sooners never looked back.

No doubt Sooners fans were skeptical when Oklahoma got the ball back with 1:28 in the first half, trailing by 7. Maybe a field goal was the best they could hope for, minus Dede’s big-play ability. Instead, OU drove 76 yards in a minute, utilizing Mixon, Perine and an all-but-forgotten Jeffrey Mead to get deep in Cowboys territory before Geno Lewis snagged a 10-yard game-tying touchdown grab.

It looked like OU was in for a dogfight—instead, they turned it into a blowout.

In the past, I’ve been pretty critical of OU’s second-half performances. In the biggest games, the Sooners struggle to adjust during the break, and often come out flat in the third quarter (looking at you, West Virginia, Ohio State and Houston games).

But Bill Bedenbaugh and Mike Stoops hit the right notes during the break today. Oklahoma finally quit getting manhandled in the trenches, committed to the ground game and put 14 points on OSU before the Cowboys could respond. OSU kicked a field goal near the end of the quarter, its last points of the day.

Perine ended the day over 200 yards rushing, and OU ran for a season-high 341—which is pretty astonishing, considering all the great ground performances they’ve had this year. Obo Okoronkwo, despite a brief injury concern, was a terror from the outside, especially in the second half, and finished with a team-high 9 tackles and the team’s only 2 sacks (which ties him with Eric Striker for the OU single-season record, with 9). Obo has taken some flack this year from Sooners fans who wish he was, you know, Striker, but his accomplishments have been pretty huge considering he was tasked with rushing the passer pretty much single-handedly when Will Johnson turned out to be a bust. Obo should be remembered for his role in the team’s undefeated Big 12 run.

As should OU’s other stars. On a day when one Heisman candidate went down and everything looked lost, the team’s other Heisman-caliber talent—including potential New York invitee Mayfield—stepped up to fill in the gaps. Mayfield finished with another three touchdowns and no picks on a day when the ball was so slippery even Mixon was dropping it, and Mayfield’s adversary Mason Rudolph couldn’t match his performance (he finished just 11-for-25 with no touchdowns).

Mayfield’s confidence came through for the Sooners once again. Yeah, sometimes it can be a bit much—shoot, for all we know he was probably wearing a “2015 National Champs” undershirt when he took the Orange Bowl field last year—but when he announced he’ll be back next season I think everyone in Sooner Nation breathed a huge sigh of relief.

This team should be commended. It doesn’t deserve a Playoff spot because it basically plays with four or five elite talents and a lot of marginal guys. Alabama would probably smack it senseless. Even Auburn will be a pretty tough, and fascinating, game.

But after one quarter in Fort Worth a couple months ago, it looked like OU was on course for a four- or five-loss season and the defection of a whole lot of top-notch recruits, not to mention the loss of any goodwill the team gained with an unexpected Playoff berth. Now, Oklahoma’s future looks pretty darn bright. Running undefeated through a down-year Big 12 is exactly what the Sooners needed to convince the college football world they’ll be back.

And they will be back. But first, a trip to New Orleans.