Six degrees of separation from the ball cost OU the Alamo Bowl

Six degrees of separation from the ball cost OU the Alamo Bowl

If you can’t hang onto the ball against Arizona — and OU most definitely did not hang onto the ball against Arizona — what will happen when the Sooners play the woolly mammoths of Alabama and Louisiana State?

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 29, 2023, 5:30am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 29, 2023, 5:30am CST

SAN ANTONIO — On the next-to-last play of the third quarter, a Jackson Arnold pass hit Jalil Farooq’s hands, and at that precise moment, the Sooners were 16 yards from an 18-point lead and had a 95.3 percent chance of winning the Alamo Bowl.

Football is a funny game.

Funny strange, not funny ha-ha. Speaking of which, here’s another sobering thought for OU football, after its 38-24 loss to Arizona on Thursday night. 

As hearty and heartwarming, talented and tough, as the Wildcats were in the Alamodome and in this breakout season, the Sooners are about to enter the domain of crocodiles and sabertooths.

If you can’t hang onto the ball against Arizona — and OU most definitely did not hang onto the ball against Arizona — what will happen when the Sooners play the woolly mammoths of Alabama and Louisiana State?

OU committed six turnovers vs. the Big 12-bound Wildcats. Freshman quarterback Jackson Arnold was responsible for four — three interceptions and a late fumble that sealed the Sooner fate. Those things can happen, especially in a quarterback’s starting debut on a big stage, but they better not happen come next autumn. Not with the SEC looming.

Less forgivable were Farooq’s two lost fumbles, both off slant patterns. The first came midway through the second quarter, when ‘Zona safety Martell Irby popped the ball free from Farooq, and the ‘Cats recovered at their 8-yard line.

Call it a sneak preview. For on the penultimate play of the third quarter, Farooq caught the ball, turned and was hit by safety Dalton Johnson. The ball popped into the air, UofA safety Gunner Maldonado grabbed it and dashed 87 yards down the sideline for a game-changing touchdown. The scorers could have called it an interception or a fumble; they chose with Solomonic wisdom to say fumble, since this was clearly not Arnold’s fault.

Soon enough, the Sooners had lost a bowl game they had no business losing.

“Arizona was a great team, and they played hard, they played physical, and it’s something we knew watching them they’d be physical,” said Sooner tailback Gavin Sawchuk, who gained 134 yards on just 15 carries and managed to not fumble. “But we’ve got to take care of the ball, and that starts with drills at practice, making it an emphasis to take care of the ball.”

Interceptions are somewhat understandable, especially when you’ve got a rookie quarterback and call 50 pass plays. But three lost fumbles are less acceptable.

Bedlam 1997 was the last time OU committed six turnovers in a game, and 1997 was the dark days of Sooner football, when ball security was encouraged, not required.

“I don’t want to speak the obvious, but obviously you’re not going to win when you lose the turnover margin 6-1,” Brent Venables said. “That’s the name of the game.”

While we’re on the subject, the naked truth is the Sooners need more playmakers. We’ve been so consumed with OU fortifying its defensive line and linebackers for the SEC trenches, and following the drama with transferring quarterbacks, that we’ve overlooked the truth that the Sooners have regressed at receiver, not so long ago an OU hallmark.

The days of CeeDee Lamb, Marvin Mims, Marquise Brown, Sterling Shepard and Dede Westbrook are past. OU has some solid passcatchers, but nobody great, and now one of the mainstays, Farooq, doesn’t hold onto the ball.

Most of us believe that Arnold will grow out of his Alamo Bowl mistakes, which included two poor-decision interceptions and one poor-throw pickoff.

But will Arnold have receivers he trusts going over the middle in the SEC? Flanker Brenen Thompson has track speed, which showed in his 63-yard touchdown catch on the second play of the third quarter. But Thompson also fumbled on his next catch, off a slant pattern, though video review overturned the call and allowed OU to keep the ball.

The turnover plague ruined what would have been a salty debut for Arnold. He completed just three of his first eight passes, with two interceptions, and Arizona bolted to a 13-0 lead.

But the Sooner offense turned high gear for the next two quarters. Arnold looked like the real deal. Not as real as off-to-Oregon Dillon Gabriel, of course, but we knew that coming in. Good enough to win immediately, as long as the Sooners don’t play Publisher’s House Sweepstakes and start knocking on opponents’ doors, handing out victories.

“I just feel like tonight, Oklahoma beat Oklahoma,” safety Billy Bowman said. 

Here’s all you need to know about the Alamo Bowl. Arizona outscored OU 28-0 in points off turnovers. 

“Just got to be able to take care of that ball,” Sawchuk said. “That’s the key to the game, so we’ve just got to be better in that aspect.”

No holes in that theory. Take better care of the ball, or the funny sport of football will be no laughing matter in the SEC.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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