The winning formula has been pretty simple for Oklahoma this season.
With a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and ample talent at receiver and running back, the Sooners have gone full bore every week in a race to outscore the other team.
But on Saturday, struggling to move the ball early against a stubborn No. 14 Texas in the Big 12 Conference championship game, they needed something more.
The much-maligned defense stepped up with a string of key plays, then added a fourth-quarter safety to trigger a 39-27 victory at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“They got stops,” quarterback Kyler Murray said. “I mean, that’s how football is supposed to be played.”
The win keeps fifth-ranked Oklahoma alive in the College Football Playoff race, hoping to rise at least one spot when the selection committee announces its four semifinalists Sunday morning.
“I’m sure they were tuned in, watching us,” coach Lincoln Riley said of the CFP voters. “If they were, I think they saw one of the best teams in the country.”
This game figured to be a test because Oklahoma and Texas are traditional rivals, their geographical animosity stirring some pregame trash talk this week. The 12-1 Sooners had suffered their only loss when the teams met in early October.
Things started just as badly on Saturday as Oklahoma’s running game sputtered and two drives stalled in the red zone, resulting in field goals. Texas, meanwhile, showed continued evidence of second-year coach Tom Herman’s rebuilding effort.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who would finish with 349 passing yards and 42 more on the ground, ran for two scores to give his team a 14-6 lead midway through the second quarter.
“We learned we can hang with anybody when we play well,” Ehlinger said. “We’ve really bought into what the coaches are preaching.”
But just when it seemed that the Longhorns were taking control, the Oklahoma defense forced punts on consecutive possessions.
That bought enough time for Murray to find a rhythm, hitting CeeDee Lamb in the back of the end zone for a 28-yard score and then driving his team 80 yards in less than a minute to give the Sooners a 20-14 lead at halftime.
Lots of teams around the country might have been happy with 20 points in the first 30 minutes. But this is the Big 12, where the scoring comes in bunches and the Sooners averaged a national-best 583 yards and 50 points a game.
Even when they drove the length of the field to begin the second half, Texas was able to scratch back, Ehlinger throwing for two touchdowns to even the score at 27-27 heading into the fourth quarter.
It was time for the defense to make another play.
With Oklahoma leading 30-27 and Texas starting a drive close to its own end zone, cornerback Tre Brown blitzed off the right side. Ehlinger faked a handoff, dropping back, and Brown drove him into the turf.
“I got a green light,” the defensive back said. “Took my shot and delivered.”
The momentum had turned. After the ensuing free kick, Oklahoma secured the win with Grant Calcaterra’s one-handed touchdown catch of an 18-yard Murray pass.
“I feel like we found ourselves,” Murray said.
When asked whether his team deserved a playoff spot, Riley responded with an immediate “Yes.” Maybe for the first time all season, his reasoning included defense.