Sooners surprise No. 3 Tide
NEW ORLEANS — Hello, Trevor. Farewell, AJ.
Trevor Knight's final start as a freshman sent Oklahoma's expectations soaring into 2014 while bringing a sour end to AJ McCarron's otherwise charmed Alabama career.
Knight completed a Sugar Bowl-record 32 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns, and No. 11 Oklahoma took down the third-ranked Crimson Tide, 45-31 on Thursday night.
"It's huge for our program, to get a win like this after no one gave us a chance all year," Knight said. "We've got to ride this into next year. We can't settle with this. ... We want the big one."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops declined to announce a starting quarterback before the game, and when Knight took the field on the Sooners' first possession, Alabama's defenders couldn't have anticipated what was in store.
Knight's completion percentage entering the game was 52.2. He had completed 47 passes all season, before a breakout performance in which two of his TDs went for more than 40 yards.
Oklahoma (11-2) needed him to play that well in the 80th Sugar Bowl, the first in which quarterbacks for both teams threw for more than 300 yards.
The victory was a sweet one for Stoops, who last offseason called talk about the Southeastern Conference being the best league in college football "propaganda."
"I have the utmost respect for Alabama, and I think this shows that obviously we can play with anybody," Stoops said. "So, enough of that. And I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well. I'm not pointing any fingers. But I think sometimes the comparisons aren't necessarily very true."
His Big 12 team vanquished an Alabama (11-2) squad that had been ranked No. 1 much of the past three seasons, winning the previous two national titles before its shot at a third straight was derailed by Auburn on the last play of the Iron Bowl in late November.
But coach Nick Saban didn't buy the notion that his team, favored by 16 points, was too deflated from its loss to Auburn to play up to its standard.
"I actually thought that the players responded in practice pretty well for this game," Saban said. "We put over 500 yards of offense up. Somebody had to do something right. I don't think that we played as well on defense as we're capable of or should have."
McCarron passed for 387 yards and two TDs, but his two interceptions set up Oklahoma TDs, and his fumble, returned for a score in the final minute, sealed Alabama's first two-game skid since its Sugar Bowl loss to Utah in January 2009.
"Put it all on me. I had two turnovers, (Oklahoma) ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14," said McCarron, who won 36 of his first 38 games before losing his last two. "It's football. It happens. I wish it wouldn't have happened, but I'll definitely take the loss and definitely take the blame, because a lot of it is probably my fault."
Freshman Derrick Henry's 43-yard run in the third quarter pulled Alabama to 31-24, and the Crimson Tide forced four punts while giving up only one first down in the third quarter. But Alabama was unable to add another score before the Sooners starting moving the ball again.
Knight lofted a perfect pass to Lacoltan Bester for a 34-yard gain to the Alabama 9. Shortly after, Knight rolled left all the way to the sideline before rifling a touchdown strike to Sterling Shepard, making it a two-touchdown game again with 10:44 left.
Henry, a 6-foot-3, 238-pound true freshman, pulled Alabama within in a score once more when he turned his first career reception into a tackle-shedding 61-yard TD with 6:22 still to go.
But Oklahoma was able to burn several minutes off the clock, and then the Sooners registered their seventh sack when Eric Striker stripped McCarron, and Geneo Grissom returned it 8 yards for a score.
Both teams entered the game with defenses ranked in the top 15 nationally, but quarterback play dominated a first half highlighted by five passing plays of 43 yards or longer, three of which went for scores.
Alabama took the opening kickoff and scored in four plays. McCarron hit Amari Cooper for 15 and 53 yards, and T.J. Yeldon ran it in from the 1.
It appeared to be getting worse for the Sooners when Alabama's Landon Collins made a diving interception of Knight's tipped pass, but Oklahoma got it right back when Gabe Lynn picked off McCarron's pass on the next play. One play later, Knight found Bester down the right sideline for a 45-yard score.
The Sooners took their first lead when Knight found Jalen Saunders, who reached the ball across the goal line as he was being brought down.
But McCarron's pinpoint pass over the middle to DeAndrew White for a 67-yard TD gave the Tide the lead right back early in the second quarter.
The Sooners tied it at 17 on Michael Hunnicutt's 47-yard field goal. Then cashed in on two more turnovers.
Alabama appeared on the verge of a go-ahead score when Yeldon fumbled on the 8. The Sooners then reached mid-field, where they converted a fourth-and-1. On the next play, Knight hit Saunders in stride down the right sideline for a 43-yard score.
McCarron's second interception, snagged by Zack Sanchez and returned to the 13, set up Shepard's 13-yard TD around the right end.