Oklahoma football: Third-quarter meltdown scorches Sooners title hopes

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01: Austin Seibert
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01: Austin Seibert /

The late afternoon sunset behind Pasadena’s San Gabriel Mountains served as a harrowing metaphor to what could have been for the 2017 edition of Oklahoma football.

By now, Sooner football fans have brusquely analyzed, second-guessed and done their best impression of Tuesday morning quarterbacking, not to mention grieved over, what could have been, but mostly what went wrong in Oklahoma’s devastating 54-48 double-overtime loss to Georgia in their College Football Playoff semifinal.

To hear the bombastic sports journalist Stephen A. Smith berate Oklahoma’s New Year’s Day Rose Bowl performance, grousing on ESPN’s “First Take” program on Tuesday morning that there is no excuse for the way the Sooners outright blew this game was liking rubbing salt into an open wound. His brash manner of delivering that painful (but, sadly, truthful) message made matters all that much worse. (Those of you who are familiar with Smith’s highly critical, over-the-top – some would say obnoxious – style, know of what I speak.)

In a little more than 15 minute’s time, the commanding 17-point advantage the Sooners had mounted over twice that amount of time was obliterated in a thundering cloud of dust.

The Sooners’ offense was humming on all cylinders through most of the first half. Baker Mayfield and Company had the vaunted Georgia defense on its heels and searching for some answers in the early going, scoring on five of it first six possessions in the game and totaling 360 yards of first-half offense against a defense that had allowed an average of 433.6 yards per game coming into the Playoff.

There weren’t many questionable Oklahoma play calls in the opening half, as the Sooners went to the break with a 31-17 advantage. But the one call that had everyone baffled was the decision to squib kick after OU had just scored a touchdown on a beautifully executed trick play that ended with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, on a run-option reverse play, tossing a touchdown pass to a wide-open Mayfield in the end zone.

Only five seconds remained in the half after the Sooners’ scored. The short kick was recovered on the OU side of the field, and Georgia was able to get in position for a 55-yard field goal that ended the half, but gifted the Dawgs three points they should never have had. In hindsight, those three points could very well have been the difference in Oklahoma moving on and Georgia’s season ending.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

The Sooners were still in good shape coming out for the second half. OU won the opening coin flip and deferred to the second half. The two teams that showed up in the second half, however, did not at all resemble the teams that battled in the opening 30 minutes.

The Georgia coaching staff obviously made adjustments during halftime, on both sides of the ball. It appeared from the opening Oklahoma possession in the second half that the Sooners were willing to go with the status quo in hopes that what was going right in the first half would continue to go well the remainder of the game. That assumption proved deadly.

After forcing a three-and-out and a punt on Oklahoma’s opening second-half possession, it took Georgia just one play from scrimmage to deliver a 50-yard dash to the end zone by Georgia star running back Nick Chubb to cut what once was a 17-point Sooner lead to just seven points, at 31-24.

The Sooners forced a Georgia three-and-out on the Bulldogs’ second possession of the second half, but they weren’t as fortunate on the third possession.

The other half of Georgia’s thunder-and-lightning running back duo, Sony Michel, on a third-and-seven play from the Oklahoma 38-yard line, avoided Sooner tackles and took it all the way to the house for a game-tying touchdown.

From that point, the outlook did not look promising for the Sooners, who were facing a much more spirited and physical Georgia defense in the second half that was getting to Mayfield and not allowing him time to set up or get into the rhythm he enjoyed in the first half.

Georgia took its first lead in the game, scoring its 24th unanswered point on a four-yard touchdown pass by Jake Fromm with one minute gone in the fourth quarter. That is when things really began looking bleak for the Sooner season.

OU managed to pull it together offensively and draw even at 38-all on an 88-yard touchdown drive midway through the final quarter. Less than two minutes later, on the ensuing Georgia possession, the Sooners received what, at the moment, appeared to be a game-changing gift from heaven.

A fumble by Georgia’s Sony Michel was scooped up by OU senior safety Steven Parker, who scampered 46 yards for a pick-six that put Oklahoma up by seven with just under seven minutes to go in the game. Just like that, the semifinal victory that seemed all but sqaundered somehow appeared to be salvaged. Until it wasn’t

No need to bore you with the reminder of what happened next. The whole world knows by now.

If anything did Oklahoma in in this game, it was the Sooner no-show in the third quarter, both offensively and defensively. Despite having the ball for over nine minutes in the quarter, OU netted just 29 total yards on 16 plays, while the defense yielded 130 yards and two touchdowns.

Three of Georgia’s seven touchdowns in the game came of runs of 50 yards by Chubb and 75 and 38 by Michel. Chubb finished with 146 rushing yards and two touchdowns and averaged 10.4 yards per carry and Michel gouged the Sooners for 181 yards, three touchdowns and a whopping 16.5 yards per rushing attempt. The OU defense had no answer for these two great running backs, and barely laid a hand on either one in the disastrous third quarter.

The real kick in the face, though, is that the Sooners had not one, but two more opportunities to put this game in the victory column after Georgia pushed across the game-tying touchdown with under a minute to go in regulation.

The Sooners had the ball on their own 25-yard line with 55 seconds to go and timeouts remaining. They had time to advance the ball into field-goal range but were only able to move it 20 yards and were force to punt.

Lincoln Riley was asked in his postgame interview session if there was one play that will haunt him for some time.

"“I don’t know if there is one thing,” he said. Just that we had an opportunity to win the game.”"

More than one opportunity, as it turns out.

Circling back to how ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith summed up the game. Perhaps he was right: Oklahoma did blow this game.

All that’s left to be said is, “Wait till next year.”