SOUTH BEND, Ind. —
One more chance to grab defeat from the jaws of victory and here it was.
Like 1999, the Sooners were off to a big lead before the game even seemed to start. Like last season, OU looked like the best team on the field until, really, about this point, when everything was ready to unravel, just as it had before.
So here it was, third-and-3 from the OU 46, more than a quarter since the Sooners had last converted a third down.
Except this was different.
This time, were the ball to be given back to the Irish, it would be the first time since Notre Dame’s opening possession it would have possession with a chance to take the lead,
Almost 13 minutes remained. An eternity.
It seemed like the whole game.
“Honestly, I was just trying to get the first down,” said Sterling Shepard, the Sooner receiver who still looks about 14 years old, but who’s become a man in opponent’s secondaries, giving OU a second No. 1 target alongside Jalen Saunders.
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who’d always rather throw than run, called for the pass. Blake Bell, who’s completing more than 71 percent of his attempts, who seems incapable of throwing an interception, made the pass.
“I just put it out there for him and he did the rest,” Bell said.
It was a little pas thrown Shepard’s way that became a 54-yard touchdown and the play that beat Notre Dame, that handed the Sooners their 35-21 victory, that dashed demons, chased ghosts and may have had more than a few elderly Oklahomans weeping for joy.
Like Red Sox fans who never thought they’d cheer a world champion, 57 years later, they got to see the Sooners down the Irish.
Metaphysically, it might the biggest play of the Bob Stoops’ era. The coach isn’t much for history, but that’s what Saturday was about, OU beating a program it had only impossibly beaten once in 10 tries before.
Better, back in the real world, the play might prove just as big.
OU had done almost nothing on third-and-short all day before it. It came at precisely the moment so many Sooner fans, aware of so much history, could feel all the sureness of a quick, 14-0 lead slipping away.
And it was the play OU hasn’t made so many times before.
It was the play the Sooners couldn’t make three years ago at the goal line, against Missouri and Texas A&M.
It was the play OU couldn’t make against Kansas State last season, when Landry Jones was turning it over.
It was the stop OU couldn’t get at Baylor two season ago. It was what the Sooners couldn’t do last season against the Irish, and it was what the Irish did do, turning a fourth-quarter tie into a resounding victory.
It was everything OU hadn’t made happen for a very long time.
“It was a little too close for comfort,” Sooner running back Brennan Clay said. “We should have put it away early.”
That didn’t happen.
So there had to be a moment of truth. OU made the play.
Earlier in the week, asked about the significance of succeeding or failing against the Irish, Stoops predictably played the notion down.
“I don’t believe that winning this game one way or another is going to do anything for the rest of the season,” he said.
Then, realizing how nutty that sounded, Stoops corrected himself, a little.
“Obviously,” he said, “if you win, it gives you momentum.”
Pride should keep him from offering a different retrospective take, just as sure as he must know the truth somewhere in his cold football heart.
What happened Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium is the kind of win from which enduring memories are made, special seasons constructed and championships born. And it has only a little to do with momentum.
Instead, it’s because, placed in the moment to succeed or fail, something can happen that changes everything.
Heupel dialed up the play, Bell tossed the pass and Shepard grabbed it and went the distance.
Things are changing.
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