CLOSE

SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg tells us which players to watch who could soon hear their names called at the NFL Draft.
USA TODAY

Let’s start with this: No one really wants to get caught up into a shootout.

Ask Lincoln Riley or Kyler Murray, they’ll tell you: Scoring touchdowns is tons of fun. Scoring points on every possession is really enjoyable. But having to score points on every possession … or else?

That’s insane pressure.

“As a team, I don’t think we look forward to being in shootouts,” says Murray, Oklahoma’s junior quarterback.

Said Riley, the Sooners’ second-year coach: “I enjoy close games. I don’t necessarily enjoy shootouts.”

But they both might as well have shrugged, because with these Sooners, wild, wacky, who-has-the-ball-last affairs have become almost inevitable.

Oklahoma brings the nation’s top scoring offense into its College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl, an extremely balanced, very potent attack led by Murray, the newly minted Heisman Trophy winner. But its hopes of upsetting No. 1 Alabama appear to hinge almost entirely on Murray and the offense – because as good as the Sooners are at scoring touchdowns, they’re just as accomplished at, well, giving them up.

Oklahoma ranks 109th in total defense, and 128th – that’s dead, solid next-to-last – in passing defense. In other words, if Oklahoma’s going to win, it’ll be in a shootout.

“If that’s what it comes down to then, yeah,” Murray says. “I think we have the recipe. I think we know what to do, think we know how to handle it. “

The extreme imbalance has combined to turn several games into crazed thrill rides: A 48-45 loss to Texas. A 51-46 win at Texas Tech. Against Oklahoma State (48-47) and at West Virginia (59-56), head-spinning escapes.

Quinnen Williams, Alabama’s All-American defensive lineman, watched the Sooners outscore the Mountaineers, and his head started shaking. Or maybe aching.

“I just thought about, ‘No defense,’” Williams says. “I’m a defensive person. I like less points.”

So does everybody, at least from the other team – “Trust me,” Riley says, “I like it when you blow somebody out” – which is partly why after that midseason loss to Texas, he fired longtime defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. It didn’t have much discernible effect; the defense got statistically worse from that point (though part of the decline was likely due to the opponents Oklahoma faced down the stretch, and the defense made several plays in the latter part of the season to help push the Sooners into the playoff).

That offense, though, kept humming. With no margin for error – either in the season, because of that loss, or in games, because of that defense – the Sooners were unable to pull away from opponents, but they just kept piling up points.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to win the game,” Murray says, “and we did that.”

Can they do it again? Alabama brings in the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense, Tua Tagovailoa distributing the ball to dangerous playmakers, touchdowns tallied at a rate we hadn’t seen before during Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.

“They’re different than they’ve been, without a doubt,” Riley says, adding: “They’ve got all the ingredients. … I think it’s gonna be a lot like what we see often. We’ve played a lot of really good offenses, and they’re gonna stack right up there with any of them.”

Which means the Orange Bowl has all the ingredients for an astronomical score – except, of course, for this other seemingly important factor:

Alabama’s defense is allowing opponents an average of 14.8 points. That edge is why, even as few people believe the Crimson Tide will completely stop Oklahoma, almost everyone is fast-forwarding ‘Bama into the national championship game.

“That’s our job,” Williams says. “We try to go into the game and shut them out – not shut them out, but play the best we can play.”

Whatever the score, Alabama’s chances of making enough stops to win seem pretty good. But at least potentially, there’s also an unknown: the Tide has not experienced anything approaching a shootout this season. Nor have they played an offense as potent as the Sooners.

“Does it give us an advantage? I don’t know,” Riley says. “I’m confident in our team. … I can’t say how that matches up against Alabama or anybody else, but I am confident in our team in close games, yes.”

Meanwhile, Alabama has reason for extreme confidence because it has not been in many close games – only that rally for victory against Georgia in the SEC championship.

Its offense has made a habit of scoring early and very often. And its defense has made scoring points very difficult. Almost every opponent got put away in a hurry. The Tide has been too good.

But if a shootout erupts, a different kind of pressure emerges.

“It’ll be different, because they’ve got an offense that can score fast,” says Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, who won the Biletnikoff award as the nation’s best receiver. “But we’ve just got to do what we’re supposed to do and score, too. We can’t be out there messing around making mistakes on assignments.”

Coaches preach focus and execution on every play, all the time. It might never be more important than in a shootout.

“There’s a lot of the things you worked so hard to teach and ingrain in these guys on all three sides (offense, defense and special teams),” says Riley, explaining why he enjoys coaching in close games. “They’re really put to the test when games and seasons and careers are on the line. And so I think you really find out what you’re made of. This team certainly has done that.

“We’re as battle-tested as anybody in close games.”

For Oklahoma, that usually means shootouts.

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions