With Trevor Knight at quarterback, Oklahoma offense keeps Alabama off balance

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELDSooner fans celebrate after Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders beat Alabama defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for a touchdown during the first quarter of Thursday's Sugar Bowl. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELDSooner fans celebrate after Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders beat Alabama defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for a touchdown during the first quarter of Thursday's Sugar Bowl.

With Trevor Knight at quarterback, Oklahoma offense keeps Alabama off balance

Since spring practice, Oklahoma’s quarterback conundrum typecast its two mobile signal-callers.

Blake Bell bulldozed.

Trevor Knight zigged and zagged.

Yet, Knight offered the No. 11 Sooners an equalizer by piloting an up-tempo scheme that again proved a familiar antidote to brawny No. 3 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The redshirt freshman did so with an unlikely instrument — his right arm.

After a week in which Bob Stoops ducked declaring who would start, Knight deftly carved up the Crimson Tide’s secondary for 348 yards and four touchdowns in 45-31 victory as the Sooners’ proved the pride of the Southeastern Conference mortal.

“Just knowing that he has my back through every situation,” Knight said. “I’ve battled through a lot of adversity throughout the year.”

It cropped up early, too, on Thursday night.

On OU’s first drive and just past midfield, an overthrown post route was tipped and landed in safety Landon Collins’ mitts.

A rare error in judgment by Bama quarterback AJ McCarron made the wait to atone brief. The face of the Tide lofted an interception into triple coverage.

The Sooners’ redshirt freshman’s breakout arrived on the next shotgun snap.

LaColton Bester cruised open on a deep crossing route at the Tide’s 25-yard line. Knight zipped a throw over a diving cornerback. All Bester had to do was tight rope the sideline for a 43-yard score to tie it 7-7 five minutes into the first quarter.

How rare was the feat? Knight entered with only five completions longer than 20 yards. It was also one of the few times the Sooners tested Bama’s man coverage vertically.

All week, OU knew Knight would get the nod. Settling in simply took knockng of a month’s worth of rust.

“Tonight, it really showed all the skills he has, the kind of football player he is,” OU center Gabe Ikard said. “Absolutely terrific.”

The Sooners’ cribbed notes in meeting rooms over the past month from spread attacks reminiscent of those at Texas A&M and Auburn that toppled the Tide.

“Our game plan was to spread them out, get them going, just move them, because they have a lot of big guys,” OU wide receiver Jalen Saunders said.”We did a great job of getting them tired.”

Indeed, they mashed the accelerator in the first half. They snapped the ball every 21 seconds, leaving Bama wheezing and its alignments out of whack.

Meanwhile, OU added a wrinkle to the popular read-option game: Using triple-option elements instead of power runs into the heart of the Tide’s front seven.

Perhaps, though, Stoops — the man who had the gall to question the SEC’s supremacy — showed gumption against the conference’s kingpin.

On a fourth-and-1 late in the second quarter, Stoops eschewed conventional wisdom. Punt away from the Tide’s 45-yard line?

No way.

Instead, he had Knight hand off to Brennan Clay for 2 yards.

Then he put the onus on Knight’s arm, the same one that only mustered a 52.9 percent completion rate this season.

On the inside, Saunders beat Tide cornerback Deion Belue with a double move. Knight, who finished 32 of 44, simply arced a 43-yard scoring throw to extend the lead to 24-17 with 2:59 left in the first half.

Prior to Thursday, he’d never thrown more than 28 passes in a game, and even then completed only 11 of them in a season-opening victory against Louisiana-Monroe.

Knight, though, looked able roping a 8-yard touchdown pass to Saunders, who stretched the ball over the goal line with 1:53 left in the first quarter for a 14-10 lead.

And he little resembled a man who was largely relegated to the bench for eight games after a late injury against Louisiana-Monroe. A concussion for Bell early against Iowa State on Nov. 16 was Knight’s chance to turn a cameo into a full-time gig.

If not for a separated shoulder suffered near the end of a Bedlam victory over Oklahoma State, the intrigue with Bell might have been moot.

“That’s the way he played in spring ball and fall camp,” Ikard said. “We knew the ability he had. He just had to put it together.”

Granted, there was foreshadowing a year ago that Knight might be the optimal option Thursday.

Ahead of last season’s Cotton Bowl, he played the role of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who helped upset Bama last season and strafed the Sooners for 515 yards in a bowl game rout.

“They had some trouble with mobile quarterbacks, so we knew Trevor was the guy,” Saunders said.

Yet, he only ran once in the first half — a 10-yard scamper for a critical first down as the pocket disintegrated — an relied on his arm.

After Bama drew within 31-24, he went 6 for 6 for 82 yards to cap a fourth-quarter drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead back to 38-24 with 10:44 left.

He also put down a marker for next season.

“It’s huge for our program to get a win like this,” Knight said. “We know we’ve got a lot of guys coming back, but we can’t settle with this.”