OU Football Wallops Auburn: Thoughts on Sooners’ Sugar Bowl Victory

In past bowl appearances, the OU football team has been criticized for not being at its best or playing with the same focus as during the regular season. That was clearly not the case Monday night in the 83rd annual Sugar Bowl. These Sooners came to play, and play they did.

College football is a game that often confounds the experts. Just when everyone thinks the narrative for a game is set in stone, college football has a way of tossing curve balls.

The Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 7 Oklahoma and 14th-ranked Auburn was one of those games; Everyone predicting the outcome felt pretty confident that the defenses would take a back seat and a shootout would unfold in the New Orleans Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Who could have predicted that the much-maligned Oklahoma defense would play physical, tough SEC-style football? Certainly not the Auburn coaches and players and fans of the mighty Southeastern Conference, who believed the Tigers would be able to overrun the suspect OU defense and expose the all-offense, no-defense, soft-style of football that teams in the Big 12 are perceived to be all about.

In a game won handily by the Sooners, it was the defense – say it with me again: the d-e-f-e-n-s-e – that rose to the occasion and kept the Auburn offense in check.

Here are some thoughts on the Sooners’ latest Sugar Bowl victory, number six out of eight all-time appearances in the Big Easy’s historic New Year’s bowl game.

 

Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans , LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) signals to a receiver against the Auburn Tigers in the second quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans , LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) signals to a receiver against the Auburn Tigers in the second quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Baker Mayfield Is College Football’s Houdini

Auburn’s front four (Marlon Davidson, Dontavious Russell, Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson) were every bit the massive, disruptive forces they were expected to be in this game. And during the first quarter, when an Oklahoma drive stalled and all the momentum appeared to be in Auburn’s favor, that disruption appeared to pay off.

Baker Mayfield was having none of that. Beginning in the second quarter, the Oklahoma offense settled down and Mayfield began to work his magic, extending plays with his feet and making Auburn defenders look foolish chasing him.

Coming into this game, Auburn had the nation’s toughest red-zone defense. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley apparently didn’t get that memo. The Sooner offense came away with touchdowns after each trip inside the red-zone, thanks to Mayfield’s uncanny ability to avoid the pass rush and extend plays.

Key stat: Even though Mayfield was flushed out of the pocket numerous times, the much-talked-about Auburn defense didn’t register a single sack on Mayfield. Not one.

Unsurprisingly, Mayfield was named the game’s MVP. That’s what a 296 yard, two touchdown, no interception performance will do for you. But beyond the numbers, the key for the Sooner offense was Mayfield’s transcendent ability to extend plays and his mastery of Lincoln Riley’s offense.

On a night when many Oklahoma records were set, Mayfield set the NCAA season record for passing efficiency, with a blistering 196.4 mark. The owner of the record he broke? None other than the Seattle Seahawks’ – and former Wisconsin Badger – Russell Wilson.

Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans , LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Samaje Perine (32) carries the ball for a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers in the fourth quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans , LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Samaje Perine (32) carries the ball for a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers in the fourth quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Thunder and Lightning Strike Hard and Often

One of this Sugar Bowl’s main story lines was Joe Mixon, and the ongoing controversy over the infamous incident and most-recent video release of the Sooner running back punching a female student.

Given the ongoing media firestorm over this unfortunate incident, Mixon was probably ready to just play football and leave the controversy behind him for a few hours.

Mixon didn’t disappoint. He finished the evening with 180 all purpose yards (91 rushing, 89 receiving) and two rushing touchdowns. Mixon was a threat to score every time he touched the football and ignited an Oklahoma offense that found its groove during the second quarter and never relinquished it.

In an evening in which records fell, Mixon got one of his own as he became Oklahoma’s single-season all purpose yardage leader, with 2,331 total all-purpose yards, eclipsing DeMarco Murray’s 2,171-yard mark set in 2008.

Samaje Perine, the thunder to Mixon’s lightning, had a special night as well. After rushing for 86 yards on 18 carries, Perine became Oklahoma’s all-time leading rusher, relegating the legendary Billy Sims to second place on the list. Perine, as he has done so often, had a workman-like, steady performance that kept the chains moving for Lincoln Riley’s offense.

Overall, the rushing attack hummed all evening as the Sooners piled up 228 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. The running game was critical for Oklahoma’s success, especially during the third quarter when the offense had the ball for over ten minutes and pretty much iced the game.

Jan 2, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Jordan Thomas (7) reaches up to intercept this pass intended for Auburn Tigers wide receiver Tony Stevens (8) in the fourth quarter of the 2017 Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Defense Rises

The Oklahoma defense was inconsistent and at times downright awful in 2016. The 854-yard implosion against a bad Texas Tech team and the 388 rushing yards surrendered against West Virginia are two glaring examples of just how badly the Sooner defense played at times this past season.

During the last four games of the regular season, the Sooner defense was wilting against the rush and giving up, on average, 6.44 yards per rush. Not a good sign of things to come against Auburn, one of the nation’s most potent rushing attacks.

Thankfully, Mike Stoops and the Sooner defense picked a great occasion to find its collective mojo and put together the unit’s best defensive performance of the season (scrimmages against Louisiana-Monroe and Kansas don’t count, folks). The Sooner defense was stupendous on Monday night, holding Auburn to 339 total yards and 185 yards on the ground. Auburn was averaging 278 rushing yards coming into the Sugar Bowl, so this was an outstanding performance by the Sooner run defense.

Detractors might argue that once Auburn lost its starting quarterback, Sean White, to a broken forearm the Auburn offense was greatly stymied. And the Tigers had the misfortune of also losing backup John Franklin to an injury, leaving third-stringer Jeremy Johnson to pilot the Tiger attack.

But it’s important to remember that a defense must adjust its gameplan on the fly when a quarterback change occurs, and Mike Stoops adjusted masterfully. After the Tigers’ initial score, their offense was held to two field goals for the remainder of the game, save for a touchdown in the closing seconds after the contest was already decided.

Leading the defensive charge for the Sooner defense was freshman linebacker Caleb Kelly, who had eight solo and four assisted tackles. Kelly was a disruptive force all over the field; his twelve total tackles is now the Oklahoma record for most tackles in a bowl game by a freshman.  Kelly is rapidly living up to his five-star billing and will be one to watch in the seasons to come.

Cornerback Jordan Thomas had a beautiful interception in the end zone that killed an Auburn drive and extinguished any chance for a Tiger comeback. Jordan Evans also played well, contributing nine tackles, one tackle for a loss and a pass breakup. And Obgonnia “Obo” Okoronkwo was his usual disruptive self.

Yes, the Sooner defense was quite awful at times during the season. But on Monday night, Mike Stoops dialed in a masterful defensive gameplan that essentially shut down the Auburn offense and paced the Sooners’ outstanding performance. In a night in which so many Sooners shone brightly, the game ball goes to the defense.

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