This past week, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker, in true Brian Bosworth style, delivered fresh bulletin board material to Tennessee and the entire SEC.
While Striker said that he did not buy the hype around the SEC (with words that cannot be repeated for the sake of employment at TSS), and that the Sooners would bring them back down to earth, he was forced to eat those words for three quarters in Knoxville. In fact, the earth was literally eaten by Striker and some of his teammates after being trampled by Tennessee.
However, the strange thing about football is that it takes four quarters to win a contest.
In control and up 17-3 entering the fourth quarter, the Vols were supremely confident. They had controlled the line of scrimmage. They smothered Oklahoma’s offense. A deafening crowd at Neyland Stadium was having a blast.
The renewal of Tennessee football under Butch Jones seemed to be at hand. Bob Stoops, who has been vocal in speaking out against the SEC in recent years, was about to be silenced.
Striker was about to eat some humble pie.
Then came Baker Mayfield, and the evening changed in the fourth quarter.
The Sooners scored twice in the final 8:20 to force overtime. Though Baker Mayfield really struggled much of the night with the environment and the Vols’ pass rush, he made plays when they were needed, and both of those scores late in regulation were passes from his right arm.
He also made huge plays in overtime. Bridging the end of regulation with the extra stanzas, Oklahoma finished the game with four touchdowns on as many possessions. On those drives, Mayfield was 11-of-14 for 111 yards and three scores. He also ran for another touchdown.
The Tennessee defense kept Oklahoma from ever getting started for the first three and a half quarters, but Mayfield was able to change the way he and his OU teammates will be perceived in the coming days.
In the opening week, it took Oklahoma an entire quarter to awaken offensively. On this particular Saturday, it took a little bit longer due to that young and strong Volunteer defensive unit, the same defensive unit which repeatedly cornered Oklahoma into third down situations with odds as good as Kansas winning the Big 12… in football, not hoops.
However, after playing on their heels most of the evening, the Sooners showed up in crunch time and the young, unproven Tennessee squad eventually failed to rise to the occasion.
There was another dimension to this game, the matchup between OU’s defense and the Vols’ offense. The key to the Tennessee offensive attack early on was running back Jalen Hurd. After a three-touchdown performance in a week-one win against Bowling Green, Hurd ran with a dangerous combo on Saturday: power and passion.
During the Oklahoma run in the final period, Hurd got bottled up and the Vols were forced to punt twice on three-and-outs. However, in the overtime session, Hurd gave Tennessee the lead back on a rushing touchdown. The main issue for Tennessee’s offense offense is that it was not able to find another viable option outside of Hurd.
While Josh Dobbs is far from a throwing quarterback, his 14 carries did enough to keep Oklahoma honest against the read option and open more holes for Hurd. However, his stat line — 13-of-31 for 125 yards with a touchdown and an interception — was not nearly enough for the offense.
Though it cannot be credited in full for this loss, Saturday’s show of youth played into some recent trends. The Volunteers are 1-28 in their last 29 games against ranked opponents, and 2-30 against the same ranked opponents since 2009. On the other side, Oklahoma is 12-4 in non-conference road games, with six straight wins now.
The questions coming in were whether Tennessee was ready to step back into the shoes of a national power, or if their youth still had the Vols a year away. With Oklahoma, the focus around the program dealt with this question: Would the Sooners continue to regress under Stoops, or would they return to top-tier status, a process that will continue to develop as Big 12 play arrives? Both questions were emphatically answered on Saturday with the play of each squad, especially in the case of Tennessee not being quite ready for prime time.
The Volunteers came into 2015 with a great deal of hype coming into the campaign, after marginal success the past few seasons. Saturday offered proof that Tennessee is not quite to the point where it needs to be in order to flourish on a large scale, even though the Vols are close.
As for the Sooners, they took one big step toward regained relevance, and if Mayfield can carry the momentum of this late-game performance into future weekends, look out.