By Clay Horning
NORMAN — It is worth remembering five games into this Oklahoma season that this is the only way the Sooners have ever won a national championship in the Bob Stoops era.
Not like the last juggernaut in 2008 when OU raced to the BCS championship game scoring 58, 62, 66, 65, 61 and 62 points, all before scoring 14 and watching Tim Tebow and Florida ride off with the national championship.
Not like in 2003 in a similar deal, the Sooners posting 52, 77, 41 and 56, before netting just seven against Kansas State at the conference title game and just 14 against LSU at the Sugar Bowl.
OU’s 20-17 Owen Field victory over TCU Saturday night was impressive for everything it felt like, as well as what it didn’t feel like.
Because it didn’t feel like a team in trouble. It didn’t feel like a fantastic escape. It didn’t feel like smoke and mirrors. It didn’t feel fraudulent.
It felt far more substantial than that, especially on the heels of another tight fourth-quarter decision, won last week at Notre Dame Stadium, the first time this season OU made every play it had to have to win.
It felt not unlike a few tight victories 14 short years ago.
It is the history nobody remembers about the 2000 national championship season.
Everybody remembers Josh Heupel leading OU through Red October, an unbeaten season and the program’s seventh national championship.
What’s not recalled is coming from way down in the fourth quarter at Texas A&M (even if Torrance Marshall’s interception is remembered), getting past Texas Tech just 27-13 the following week, taking Bedlam by the difficult score of 12-7 and outlasting Kansas State 35-31 at the conference title game, followed by a national championship victory in which Quentin Griffin scored the Sooners’ only touchdown.
In retrospect, that team wasn’t so dominant as it was simply a winner. Five games into 2014, similarities abound.
Bob Stoops didn’t think his team was at all shaken after a third quarter in which the Horned Frogs had arrested all control of the game and pulled within three points.
“There was a lot of talk of, ‘Let’s make the plays that matter here down the stretch,’” he said.
The highlight was Brennan Clay cutting a run back to his right, breaking free and outrunning the TCU secondary 76 yards to the end zone, but it wasn’t the only one.
The Sooner defense’s one clunker drive was the next one, when the Horned Frogs went 75 yards and burned just 2:11 off the clock to get right back in the game with 2:26 remaining.
But OU came back strong from that, too, with Blake Bell running for 13 yards and then 17, tough gallops both, securing the first downs that allowed him to finally take a knee.
“You’re playing at Oklahoma, you’re expected to make big plays,” receiver Durron Neal said, which sounds great, but really hasn’t been the case so much the last couple, three seasons, when great campaigns were reduced to mere good ones because OU failed to make the plays.
Reminded of this, Neal offered something else.
“We practice all day, all week, talking about toughness and finishing,” he said, “and coach Heupel always (talks) about 15 rounds of fighting.”
That’s more like it.
You can get lost in the defensive numbers, how OU didn’t allow a first-half first down and held TCU to just 210 yards despite the Horned Frogs’ comeback, but you can get lost in the offensive numbers in a completely different way.
OU picked up only 355 yards and scored only 20 points. The Sooners had their own three-and-out issues. Until Clay’s run, they’d mustered just three scoring drives and two of them did not include touchdowns.
It’s the wrong focus.
The right one is how they continue to finish. Defensively, pretty much all season. Offensively, against the Irish one week and TCU the next.
“The good thing for a coach is that you love how much there is to correct,” Stoops said.
That’s funny, because he didn’t see a side so bright after allowing 49 points at West Virginia last season and 48 in the Bedlam game. Yet he can this time around because he knows the kind of team he has.
Saturday night, OU again proved it can close.
All signs are good.