By John Shinn
NORMAN – Oklahoma separated itself from the rest of the Big 12 Conference in a couple ways last Saturday.
The victory over Notre Dame is far and away the most impressive out-of-conference win by any Big 12 team this season. But the way the Sooners played in the fourth quarter of that 35-21 victory was something else entirely. Against a ranked team, on the road, OU possessed the ball for 12:11 of the fourth quarter’s 15 minutes, putting the game on ice by running out the clock.
“That’s something we always work on at some point. But the way that we ran the ball on Saturday definitely helped out with that,” OU offensive lineman Bronson Irwin said.
The 11th-ranked Sooners (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) would love to have a similar fourth quarter when it faces TCU (2-2, 0-1) at 6 p.m. today at Owen Field.
That kind of final 15 minutes would keep the Sooners unbeaten and atop the conference. It would also be another example of OU imposing its will on another quality opponent.
There aren’t many Big 12 teams who’ve shown the capability to do what OU did at Notre Dame: force three straight three-and-outs defensively, coupled with controlling the game clock with the run game; very much a lost art in today’s college game.
The Big 12’s reputation for prolific up-tempo offenses has been well earned. But the league’s reputation for porous defense has been, too.
Think back to last season when OU had to keep rolling up points in the fourth quarter because that’s what it took to stay ahead in a shootout.
OU was prepared for another last Saturday. As it took the field with 5:39 left and the ball at its own 40-yard line, coach Bob Stoops was rallying the defense. He figured it would need to make one more stop to end the game.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops didn’t think so. He grabbed center Gabe Ikard right before the offense trotted on the field.
“He told me, ‘Run this clock out!’” Ikard said. “We accepted that challenge.”
OU has put some very good teams on the field unable to do exactly that. Instead, the Sooners have had to throw the ball to move the chains, risking stop-the-clock incompletions.
As good as the Sooners were in 2008, the lasting memory is of Florida running out the clock against OU in the national championship game. Every year since, there’s been at least one loss rooted in the Sooners’ inability to get a big stop or run the ball in the fourth quarter.
“It was big when you can control the ball that way,” Bob Stoops said. “When they don’t have it, they’re not scoring. Hopefully, we can keep that up because it does give you an advantage.”
This was the major philosophical change OU wanted to make for 2013. It was no longer willing to expose its defense by consistently playing at high tempo. Still, making it happen required consistency in the run game.
The results have been exactly what OU sought. It’s averaging a 4:31 time-of-possession advantage through four games. And the Sooners are one of only two teams in the 10-team conference average on the plus side of that chart. TCU is the other, though the Horned Frogs are possessing the ball just 21 seconds longer, on average, than its opponents.
The Sooners have clearly decided to buck the Big 12 trend this season. The art of running the ball, playing stout defense and wearing teams down never quit working. National championship teams have proven that.
That’s where OU got the idea from. The Sooners will try it again today.