Oklahoma is OK.
The tradition-rich Sooners entered the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as prohibitive underdogs to two-time defending BCS champion Alabama.
But on this night, it was the Sooners — no BCS newcomers themselves — who were much the better team in a 45-31 victory.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight outplayed Heisman Trophy runner-up AJ McCarron, whose historic college career ended with the first losing streak in his three seasons as a starter.
Knight, who was voted the game’s MVP, completed a Sugar Bowl-record 32 passes on 44 attempts for 348 yards and four touchdowns. McCarron was 19-of-30 for 387 yards and two touchdowns in the first Sugar Bowl to feature two teams with 300-yard passers.
“We’ve been battling the underdog story all year,” Knight said. “We showed we’re back, and sending the seniors out with a win is something special.”
The Sooners sacked McCarron seven times and forced four turnovers, intercepting McCarron twice and Geneo Grissom returning McCarron’s fumble 8 yards for an exclamation-point touchdown in the final minute.
“Put it all on me,” McCarron said. “It happens. You wish it wouldn’t have happened, but I’ll definitely take the loss and I’ll definitely take the blame.”
Wide receiver Kevin Norwood interrupted McCarron, saying, “You can’t do that. It’s not all on you. All of us could have done a little better.”
Both teams finished 11-2, but OU’s finale, which came on the heels of a 33-24 upset of rival Oklahoma State on Dec. 7, was much stronger than that of Bama, which was coming off a heart-breaking, last-second, 30-24 loss at Auburn on Nov. 30.
“We put in the work,” Grissom said. “(Alabama) was one play away from the national championship game — and we beat them.”
In the final year of the BCS, Sooners coach Bob Stoops added a Sugar Bowl victory to wins in the Fiesta, Rose and Orange bowls, in addition to a BCS championship in 2001 in the first of his four trips to the title game.
“Nobody gave us a chance,” OU defensive tackle Jordan Phillips said. “I was watching ESPN, and nobody picked us. Vegas had us a 16-point underdog. But we’re still one of the top five programs, we still have one of the best coaches and we’re still Oklahoma.”
Neither team punted in the first half, and OU scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes to take a 31-17 halftime lead.
The defenses came to life in the third as Bama forced punts on all four of the Sooners possessions in the quarter.
The Tide offense surged behind the running of Derrick Henry; his 43-yard touchdown run pulled Bama within 31-24 entering the fourth.
Knight suddenly regained his touch early in the final period. He completed all five of his passes for 86 yards in overcoming two penalties on a drive that ended with a 9-yard scoring pass to Sterling Shepard.
Just when the Tide’s chances for a comeback seemed to be fading, McCarron hooked up with Henry on a 61-yard scoring pass that got Bama within a touchdown with 6:22 remaining. But Grissom’s fumble return put it away with 47 seconds left.
“You’ve got to give Oklahoma’s team a lot of credit,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “They were fired up and ready to play, like most teams we play. Everybody’s got something to prove when they play against Alabama, and Oklahoma certainly did a good job in terms of how they performed tonight.”
Alabama received the opening kickoff and immediately looked like a team with 33 days of pent-up frustration from the loss to Auburn. Two quick passes from McCarron to Amari Cooper gained 68 yards and, two plays later, T.J. Yeldon ran 1 yard for a touchdown.
After a week of being mum on which quarterback would start, Stoops sent out Knight instead of Blake Bell — and the choice looked like a good one right away.
Knight quickly moved OU’s hurry-up offense into Bama territory before one of his passes was tipped and Landon Collins was in position to intercept it at the Tide 24.
McCarron immediately returned the favor as Gabe Lynn intercepted him, giving OU the ball at the Bama 45. On the next play, Knight threw a touchdown pass to Lacoltan Bester.
After Cade Foster’s 27-yard field goal gave the Tide a 10-7 lead, Knight engineered a 13-play, 78-yard drive that ended with an 8-yard scoring pass to Jalen Saunders.
McCarron threw a 67-yard touchdown pass before Michael Hunnicutt’s 47-yard field goal pulled OU even at 17 early in the second quarter.
Bama was approaching the Sooners’ end zone again until Dominique Alexander knocked the ball loose from Yeldon at the 8 and Grissom picked up the ball and returned 26 yards.
Yeldon gradually yielded to Henry, who had 100 rushing yards and a touchdown on eight second-half carries.
Seven plays later, Knight and Saunders teamed on a 43-yard touchdown and a 24-17 OU lead.
On the ensuing possession, Zack Sanchez intercepted McCarron at the Sooners 44 and returned to the Tide 13. On the next play, Shepard ran 13 yards for a touchdown.
McCarron moved Bama into scoring range just before halftime, but Foster was wide right from 32 yards as time expired, leaving OU with a 31-17 halftime lead.
“When you have so much success as these seniors have had (60 wins in five years),” Saban said, “I think they sometimes think they don’t have to do the little things to improve.”