A sharp fourth-quarter response carried the Sooners to their 28-11 win Saturday night.
NORMAN — Preston Stone found Stone Eby for a two-yard touchdown score, SMU converted the two-point conversion and suddenly the Oklahoma lead had dwindled to 14-11 with a little over 12 minutes remaining at Owen Field Saturday night.
It would have felt all too familiar to anyone who watched the Sooners in 2022. This was the moment when things would begin to slip for OU last fall en route to the program’s first losing season in 25 years.
The Sooners have been adamant that everything is different in 2023. By closing with 14 points unanswered and blanking the Mustangs over the final 12:09, OU went some way to proving that so in the 28-11 Week 2 victory.
“A year ago, I’m not sure if we would have figured out a way to win that game,” Brent Venables said minutes after the Sooners’ improved to 2-0.
It was a fourth-quarter setback OU responded to in a way the 2022 Sooners seldom, if ever could. Venables wasn’t alone in the feeling that his team might not have found the same result last fall.
“I think last year when adversity struck both sides kind of came at each other a bit,” said linebacker Danny Stutsman, who notched 17 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery.
“We really had the offense’s back tonight. Something we really worked on. We were great on third and fourth down. We’ve made so much improvement. I’m so proud of how far we’ve come but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Indeed, the surge that carried the Sooners to an ultimately comfortable win over the final 12 minutes was a complete effort.
OU’s response to Eby’s touchdown came in the form of a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive that ate 3:08 of game clock. The Sooners crossed midfield on back-to-back completions from Dillon Gabriel and a four-yard rush from Tawee Walker, then watched Marcus Major’s 24-yard touchdown reception nullified by Tyler Guyton’s ineligible man downfield penalty.
Maybe last year’s Sooners would have folded. Maybe not. On Saturday, OU hit back four plays later with Jalil Farooq’s 21-yard touchdown reception that restored the double-digit advantage.
The Sooners needed only three plays on their next series to find the end zone again. This time Major’s 20-plus yard touchdown reception stood and OU had its win on ice.
“You look back and you look where we are now, it’s just the mindset, the attitude of this team,” Gabriel said. “The selflessness and the togetherness is something that’s hard to replicate. So I’m proud of the guys.”
The defense held up its end, too.
The SMU touchdown drive that cut the OU lead down to three began with 4:05 left in the third quarter and went 13 plays for 76 yards over 6:56 minutes. The next series opened with a pair of short ground gains and ended on a critical pass breakup from cornerback Kani Walker.
It was a three-score game by the time the Mustangs touched the ball next. Justin Harrington’s game-sealing interception with 1:40 remaining marked only the final blow.
“Last year, I think some of those big plays would have allowed them to get some momentum,” Stutsman said. “We stayed poised and responded. We bent but didn’t break.”
The term “finish” came out of Gabriel’s mouth twice while he spoke postgame. The word is printed on team-issued t-shirts the Sooners wear, too. The fifth-year passer explained it’s part of a mindset that emerged within the program mid-season last fall and carried through the offseason to the early weeks of September.
“It’s something we talked about,” he said. “It was the emphasis and the strain. I remember one-on-one tug-of-wars and the look in people’s eyes of finding ways to win and compete. It’s something that you live for as a competitor. I go back to those days. All those days built up coming into now is something that we really pride ourselves on.”
The Sooners didn’t finish like they did Saturday night very often in 2022. In that sense, this OU team is showing early signs that it is, in fact, different.