LAWRENCE, Kansas — Dillon Gabriel walked across the turf, his eyes locked on images of Kansas fans celebrating on the Jayhawk Jumbotron but seemingly not seeing it. Not processing it. Not believing it.
Definitely not believing it.
Kansas 38, OU 33.
That glazed look in the OU quarterback’s eyes? It was a familiar one as the Sooners exited the field Saturday afternoon.
This is what it looks like when national title hopes crash and burn. Maybe the Sooners were never really a strong candidate — close calls against SMU and Cincinnati and UCF might’ve been warning signs — but if they won out, there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t make the four-team field.
Instead, the Sooners are left to wonder what if.
Sure, they can still play for a Big 12 title. But even if they win it and finish with one loss, making the playoff with a less-than-impressive non-conference schedule and a loss to the Jayhawks seems a high bar.
Particularly when that loss to Kansas was so winnable.
All OU needed was one first down.
With less than three minutes remaining and OU clinging to a one-point lead, the Sooner defense came up with a huge late-game stop. On third-and-10 near midfield, Ethan Downs went high and brought down the first interception of his career.
He even returned it 13 yards.
The OU offense took over at the Kansas 38 with 2:29 left. Because the Jayhawks would have to use their timeouts to get the ball back with any measurable time on the clock, the Sooners just needed one first down. Get that, and they could run out the clock.
Still, Sooner receiver Drake Stoops had a clear message in the huddle before the drive started.
“This isn’t over,” he told them. “We have to go score. We have to get a first down and win the game.”
To force Kansas to take its timeouts, OU opted to run the ball exclusively. The run game, so suspect all year and operating without a banged up Tawee Walker, struggled again.
First down, Jovantae Barnes run for minus-1 yard.
Second down, Gabriel run for minus-1.
Third down, Barnes run for 5.
Kansas was forced to take its timeouts, but having run only 14 seconds off the game clock — 14 seconds! — OU sent its offense back on the field on fourth-and-7 from the 35. Sooner coach Brent Venables said every option was on the table. Go for it. Try to draw the Jayhawks offsides. Take a delay to give the punt team a little more room to operate.
But then, Nic Anderson moved before the snap.
The Sooner receiver was split out wide, and the likelihood he was involved in the play was slim. Still, he jumped.
“That’s definitely not what you wanted,” Venables said.
Punting was about the only option at that point.
OU gave Kansas the chance it needed. Sure, the defense could’ve come up with another stop. Yes, Venables probably should’ve taken a timeout on a fourth down that turned into a 37-yard pass and a first-and-goal for the Jayhawks.
But remember: the offense had the ball at the Jayhawk 38, and all it got was three yards, a grand total of 23 seconds off the clock and a punt.
That is unacceptable.
That is a killer of playoff hopes, a dasher of national title dreams.
“It’s hard right there,” Stoops said. “Given situational football with two minutes left, if you get one first down, you win the game. We’re making them use their timeouts by running the football, and they made good stops.
“At the end of the day, we all know what coach (Jeff Lebby, offensive coordinator) is trying to do and what the mindset is there and what the strategy is there. Wasn’t so much us stalling as us just not executing and not making plays when we needed to right there.”
A lot could’ve been done better earlier. Not spotting Kansas a 14-0 lead with a pick-six and tackling so poor it was reminiscent of seasons past. Not committing 11 penalties, including four major ones of the unsportsmanlike or personal-foul variety. Not having a play with two 15-yard penalties, including one on the OU bench.
There’s lots of blame to go around after this loss. Coaches. Players. Playcalling. Execution. Discipline. None of it was good enough.
Yes, the Sooners got the ball back with a minute left, and in the end, they had a couple shots at the end zone in the final seconds. It didn’t have to come down to that.
With a chance to ice the game and the ball in the hands of the OU offense and its Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, the Sooners got squat.
Almost an hour after the game, after Kansas fans had stormed the field and serenaded the Sooners with chants of “S-E-C! S-E-C!” and brought down the goalpost and dumped it in nearby Potter Lake, Gabriel still looked as dazed as he had coming off the field.
“We needed to get a first down,” he said quietly, “and we didn’t.”
That’s the truth, even if it’s hard to believe.