Oklahoma’s players scoffed at the notion earlier this week that they had been reduced to the role of spoiler against rival Oklahoma State.
Led by quarterback Blake Bell’s remarkable performance in a relief role, the No. 18 Sooners lived up to their words — continuing their mastery of the rival Cowboys with a 33-24 win on Saturday.
The win set off a frenzied celebration in a frigid Boone Pickens Stadium for visiting Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12 Conference), while leaving No. 6 Oklahoma State once again suffering a bitter defeat at the hands of its fiercest rival.
This level of disappointment was higher than most for the Cowboys (10-2, 7-2), whose hopes of a second Big 12 championship and BCS bowl game berth in three years were lost after Bell found Jalen Saunders for a 7-yard touchdown with 19 seconds remaining.
"You just love it to see a guy who’s a competitor like that, who’s been sitting on the bench all game, to come in and play so well," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of Bell. "He played great."
The shakeup in the BCS bowl picture, however, was the last thing on the mind of Bell — the Oklahoma junior who replaced injured starter Trevor Knight in the second half. After starting eight games earlier this season for the Sooners, including a win at Notre Dame, Bell began Saturday as Oklahoma’s third option at quarterback.
He ended the game by leading the Sooners on a game-winning 66-yard drive in the closing minutes, going 5 of 8 for 57 yards on the drive and finishing 10-of-16 passing for 140 yards in relief of Knight and backup quarterback Kendal Thompson
"I was just thinking that whenever I got my opportunity, I wanted to do the best I could with Trevor going down and Kendal coming in," Bell said. "… Once I got into the rhythm of the play, I felt like everything was clicking."
Oklahoma State led for much of the game, only falling behind for the first time early in the fourth quarter when Oklahoma’s Michael Hunnicutt kicked a 39-yard field goal to put the Sooners up 20-17.
Facing a late-game deficit, quarterback Clint Chelf appeared to rally the Cowboys for the win with a 7-play, 89-yard drive on which he completed five straight passes for first downs.
Desmond Roland, who finished with 144 yards rushing and accounted for three touchdowns, capped the drive to put Oklahoma State up 24-20 with 1:46 remaining — appearing to secure the Cowboys’ eight-straight win as well as the Big 12 title and BCS bowl game berth.
Bell, however, had other plans. The junior, who started earlier this season before losing the job to Knight, rallied the Sooners down the field and capping the drive with his touchdown pass to Saunders in the corner of the end zone.
The touchdown came just five plays after Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert briefly appeared to intercept Bell, but the cornerback was unable to keep the ball from hitting the turf.
Following Bell’s touchdown pass to Saunders, Eric Striker then ended the game for Oklahoma by recovering a fumble and scoring during a desperation series of Cowboys’ laterals. The Sooners were then pelted with snow balls from the rival crowd.
Oklahoma has now won at least 10 games in four straight seasons, and Stoops is 8-1 in his career against Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.
"That was a heck of a football game," Gundy said. "It’s unfortunate that we came up short. What the game really came down to was that Oklahoma made some key plays on fourth down, and we didn’t."
Oklahoma stayed close for much of the game thanks to the play of its special teams, doing so with Knight on the bench in the second half with a shoulder injury. Saunders returned a punt 64 yards for a touchdown in the first half and Hunnicutt — who also kicked a pair of field goals — also caught a touchdown pass on a fake field goal attempt.
Hunnicutt’s 8-yard touchdown catch from holder Grant Bothun tied the game at 17-17 late in the third quarter, and it came after Bothum darted to the left following the snap before finding a wide-open Hunnicutt. Stoops said the Sooners didn’t put the fake in their gameplan until Thursday.
"They called it in about 15 seconds before, so we didn’t have too much time to think about it," Hunnicutt said. "I was just super excited."
Oklahoma opened the second half with Thompson at quarterback, but Bell also saw limited action early. Neither provided the answer early on, with Thompson throwing an interception on the first play of the half and the Sooners going three-and-out on their next three possessions.
Oklahoma State dominated for much of the first half, but it was unable to manage anything but a 10-10 tie at halftime — thanks to a spectacular punt return and timely scoring drive by Oklahoma.
The Cowboys, seeking their second win in three years against the Sooners, took a 10-3 lead in the second quarter on Ben Grogan’s 41-yard field goal.
At that point, Oklahoma State had outgained the Sooners 202-68 in total yardage and appeared in control defensively against an Oklahoma team whose lone big play was Saunders’ punt return late in the first quarter.
"We didn’t really score points the way we wanted to, and we couldn’t put enough points on the board to help our defense out," Roland said.
The Sooners, however, responded to close out the half with their longest drive in terms of time of possession for the season — keeping the ball for more than eight minutes. Hunnicutt capped the 15-play, 60-yard drive with a 21-yard field goal to tie the game at 10-10 and keep Oklahoma well within reach heading into halftime.
It was one of many answers the Sooners had throughout the game, with Bell providing the final one.
"I’m just so proud and happy," Bell said. "I think we’re all on cloud nine."