Defensive touchdowns boost Sooners
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In a ratification of the radical idea that football defenders are still allowed to make key plays during the year 2018, Oklahoma’s defense suddenly did so late Friday night.
Somehow that defense, that jalopy still permitted to join quarterback Kyler Murray’s dazzling vroom of an offense on road trips and presumably even at practice, suddenly forged a heap of realities at 9:58 to closing time in this Big 12 marquee late-season bonanza.
It gave Oklahoma the nod in a festival of yardage at Milan Puskar Stadium, sent it toward a 59-56 win, helped push the Sooners to a funky 11-1, secured a place in quite a Big 12 championship game next week opposite No. 11 Texas and, good grief, kept the No. 6 Sooners plausibly in the puzzle for the four-team College Football Playoff.
“We’ll certainly be excited to play those guys,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said of the Longhorns. “But, more than anything, one huge goal we set out was we want to be the only team ever to win four of these in a row.”
The Sooners notched all this in a moment, when defensive end Kenneth Mann spun around West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, sending the ball flying upward until it plopped down, some Mountaineers muffed it, and linebacker Curtis Bolton took it 48 yards for a touchdown and a 59-49 lead.
Of all things, the play was Oklahoma’s second sack-fumbletouchdown of the stuffed-fat night, with linebacker Caleb Kelly having forged one way back in the first half — not that anyone might remember that with everything else piled atop.
Grier said he was trying to throw the ball out of bounds when Mann hit him.
“They got to me quite a bit tonight,” Grier said. “To scoop and score both of those is pretty impressive on their part. They made some plays.”
That motley play hardly fit in a game that had 1,372 total yards (704 for West Virginia), 200-yard receivers on each side, plus another 100-yard receiver for the Mountaineers and two 100-yard rushers for the Sooners, but decide the game it did. Defenders mattered! They mattered after they barely seemed to exist.
“When you score two touchdowns defensively, you like your chances,” Riley said.
The night included a lead Oklahoma got at 38-35 through a bizarre endeavor called a “field goal,” then lost at 42-38, then resumed at 45-42, then lost at 49-45, then resumed at 52-49.
Through all this lunacy, West Virginia wide receiver Gary Jennings Jr. caught 201 yards worth of passes — in the third quarter.
He caught a 57-yard touchdown pass from Grier, a masterful 52yard pass on third-and-18 from Grier and a 75-yard touchdown on third-and-10 from Grier during which Jennings, like so many receivers during the evening, ran alone behind helpless, hopeless, hapless defenders.
That was on the other side of the field from such matters as the time Oklahoma committed the barely pardonable sin of facing third down from its 25-yard line, with 10 yards to go, while down 42-38. Murray, whose own running produces geometry that makes the eyes widen involuntarily, faced a blitz and lofted a gorgeous thing with a high arc to Marquise Brown for 30 yards. Murray then pitched one short across the middle to Brown heading leftward for 45 more and a touchdown.
It’s no wonder that with 2:36 left and Oklahoma leading 59-56 and facing fourth-and-5 from West Virginia’s 40-yard line, Riley went for it. Murray backed up and looked and looked and looked, moving around a bit before hitting CeeDee Lamb with a low 8-yard pass.
It left the No. 13 Mountaineers (8-3, 6-3) to lament that just two plays before the fumble return that quelled the party, running back Kennedy McKoy had barreled all the way to the Oklahoma 2-yard line, only to have the play dented severely by a personal foul when wide receiver T.J. Simmons kept blocking a defender while both of them were so far out of bounds, they were almost in Kentucky.
The fine occasion of 21st-century football had brought together the No. 1 total offense (Oklahoma), the No. 10 total offense (West Virginia), the No. 56 total defense (West Virginia), the No. 88 total defense (Oklahoma), the No. 91 pass defense (West Virginia) and the No. 107 pass defense (Oklahoma). It would yield 243 receiving yards for Brown, 225 for Jennings, 131 for West Virginia’s David Sills V, 182 rushing yards for Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks, 114 yards on the ground for Murray, 539 passing yards for Grier and 364 for Murray on a splendid 20 for 27.
The game began. West Virginia traveled 75 yards to score. Oklahoma traveled 81 yards to score. So West Virginia traveled 75 yards to score. So Oklahoma traveled 72 yards to score. An eternity of 91 seconds still remained in the first quarter, and already Sills had a mean 41-yard touchdown catch on third down, Murray had a hypnotic 55-yard touchdown run after looking hemmed in but then making the hem look irrelevant, and Murray had countered a third down with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Brown crossing the back of the end zone.
Stops did come after that, but only with caveats. Faced with the indignity of fourth-and-6 at the Oklahoma 10-yard line, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen did what anyone with a logical mind would have done: He went for it. Grier’s pass missed, lending his first 13 attempts an unforgivable second incompletion. Oklahoma went traveling until Murray made the kind of 7-yard run he can turn into scintillation, except David Long Jr. plucked the ball and made it spill up the field, where his teammate David Robinson collected it.
From there, West Virginia punted, another eye-popping sin.
By halftime, though, the teams had rediscovered the script and reached 35-28 in favor of Oklahoma, and two guys named Kennedy had scored: Oklahoma’s Brooks on a searing 68-yard run through the middle and up the left, and West Virginia’s McKoy on a 1-yard run that capped an 81-yard drive that, at 13 plays, looked a tad plodding. In between, a defender had been allowed to make a play, so Oklahoma’s Kelly did it. The linebacker materialized through the line, allowable by the rules of the sport, and when Grier tried to run rightward around Kelly, Kelly corralled him and made the latter spill the ball as he tried to bring it to his hip .
Kelly found it at the 10-yard line and scored a few strides later.
They were all about halfway done.
“I’m disappointed for our seniors. We fought hard and came up a little bit short,” Holgorsen said. “As well as we played offensively, giving them 14 points is inexcusable.”
The Sooners remain the only Big 12 team that West Virginia hasn’t beaten since the Mountaineers joined the league in 2012.
Oklahoma players sang West Virginia’s anthem, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” on the way to the locker room after the game.
“It was fun,” Murray said. “There’s no other way to describe it.” The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Linebacker Caleb Kelly of the Oklahoma Sooners recovers a fumble by West Virginia quarterback Will Grier and takes it 10 yards for a touchdown Friday at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, W.Va. The victory put the Sooners in the Big 12 title game against Texas, the only team to beat them.