NORMAN — The Oklahoma football team remains alive in this year’s College Football Playoff pageant.
Saturday night’s chilly 55-40 victory over Kansas took the Sooners one step closer to their goal of a fourth straight Big 12 Conference crown and a shot at becoming a CFP finalist.
That quest could end abruptly, however, if the No. 6-ranked Sooners (10-1 overall, 7-1 Big 12) don’t solidify their defense for Friday night’s regular-season finale at West Virginia (8-2, 6-2).
OU has won all six meetings since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12 in 2012.
For the Sooners to have a chance for their third CFP appearance in four years, they must win at Morgantown and claim their fourth straight Big 12 championship the following week at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. In the process, OU also must leapfrog at least two teams currently ahead of them in the CFP rankings for a shot at the program’s eighth national title since 1950.
“We know we’ve got to play better. I know we’re going to have to play better here in the next couple to be where we want to be.”
– Lincoln Riley
“We know we’ve got to play better,” Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley said. “I know we’re going to have to play better here in the next couple to be where we want to be.”
On a wind-chilled night with temperatures dipping below freezing and gusts of 25-plus mph, OU displayed the good and not-so-good against the Jayhawks (3-8, 1-7).
Once again, the Sooners’ offense was more than good enough.
“It is extremely frustrating because on the outside we are winning these games, but in the locker room it feels like we are losing them,” Sooners sophomore safety Robert Barnes said. “I know that’s not just me, but everyone on the defense knows that this is not how we want to play. It’s unacceptable to every single one of us, but at the same time it starts with us and being able to change it is with us.”
Riley said of his defense, “I still feel like we can be what we need to be. Obviously, we didn’t take a stand this week that we expected to take, so I can’t sit here and say something that’s not true. We didn’t take a step that I felt we would take.”
Fortunately for OU, the good continues to outweigh the bad.
Heisman Trophy hopeful Kyler Murray shined once again, completing 21 of 32 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns. He added 99 yards and three touchdowns rushing on just eight carries (12.4 average), including a 75-yard scoring dash early in the fourth quarter that stretched the Sooners’ lead to 15 points.
Afterward, KU coach David Beaty endorsed Murray to become OU’s second straight Heisman winner and the school’s seventh all-time.
“He’s a special player,” Beaty said. “That Heisman needs to go to him… That dude is a talented guy, and how many plays did he make that were in broken-down third-and-long situations?”
Murray routinely extended plays with his fleet feet and clutch passing that led the Sooners to convert 9 of 10 third downs.
“Kyler did some nice things, some good contributions across the board there,” Riley said. “I thought he was patient most of the night. His challenge tonight was to throw the football. The conditions were certainly a factor, both in the throw game and in the kicking game, for both teams. I thought he did a nice job. He read well. The decisions were pretty good.”
Starting running back Trey Sermon was limited to just one carry before suffering a lower leg injury and wearing a walking boot the remainder of the game. That left freshman Kennedy Brooks as the Sooners’ only healthy scholarship player at the position and he responded with a career-high 171 yards rushing on 25 carries (6.8 average) and two touchdowns.
“He was really our only back that we had tonight, so we needed him to play good and he really did,” Riley said. “Offensive line, again, I thought was fantastic… Really proud of Kennedy Brooks.”
Against the Sooners, the KU offense finished with 40 points (23 in the fourth quarter), 524 total yards, 348 rushing yards and 25 first downs.
“We sprung some new leaks,” Riley said of his defense.
Though the Sooners have struggled defending the pass this season, they previously had done a solid job against the rush, ranking third in conference play at 119.4 yards per game. And yet, Jayhawks freshman sensation Pooka Williams had a career night.
The Big 12’s all-purpose yards leader this season (137.0) exploded for 252 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He also threw a 9-yard touchdown pass on an option play. His rushing yards were a KU freshman record and the sixth-highest total in a game in program history.
“We found some vulnerabilities in the run game against them that we could attack in the game plan,” Jayhawks senior quarterback Peyton Bender explained.
The elusive Williams showed relentless effort, remarkable balance and quickness and constantly made OU defenders miss tackles. “Defensively, we didn’t tackle at all, really the whole night,” Riley said. “You miss a tackle on the secondary, those guys are gone. We saw that tonight, so not pleased at all with that performance.”
With 18 players honored before their last home game, the Sooners have managed to retain their lofty ranking despite battling a slew of injuries all season.
“I can’t even begin to tell you all the guys we had out today,” Riley said. “This is the most decimated team as far as injuries that I’ve seen in my four years here at Oklahoma. But who cares? This is the end of the season. This is part of it and if you’re going to win championships like we expect to win around here, you’ve got to find a way to overcome it.”
The victory gave OU its 39th season of at least 10 wins, which leads the nation’s all-time list. The Sooners have won 16 straight November games and 32 of their last 34 games against Big 12 opponents. OU also has now won 14 straight against the Jayhawks, all by at least 15 points.