Oklahoma football: Takeaways from Sooners' self-inflicted Alamo Bowl calamity

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For a while on Thursday night, it appeared that Oklahoma football Team 129 was going to overcome a horrible start, defy the odds and end the 2023 season with an 11th win by defeating favored and 14th-ranked Arizona in the Alamo Bowl.

That is until the Sooners, playing their last game as a member of the Big 12, turned into Team 128 of a year ago, squandering an 11-point third-quarter lead and allowing 25 unanswered Arizona points over the final 15 minutes, aided by a pair of critical Sooner turnovers, resulting in a gut-punching 38-24 Arizona victory.

The Sooners fell behind early in the game 13-0, aided by a pair of interceptions thrown by quarterback starter Jackson Arnold. Oklahoma got on the scoreboard for the first time on an eight-play 75-yard drive early in the second quarter, capped off by an 18-yard touchdown run by Gavin Sawchuk.

Oklahoma went on to tighten down the defensive effort and score the next 17 points to take commanding control of the game well into the third quarter until it shockingly slipped away in the final quarter, evoking nightmare memories from the recent past.

The Sooners committed a highly uncharacteristic six turnovers in the game (three interceptions and three lost fumbles, two of them coming at the worst possible time. Those six turnovers led directly to 28 Arizona points. In addition, Oklahoma committed eight penalties, seven of which were holding calls on the offensive line, creating down and distance issues that are notorious for killing offensive drives.

Let's call it like it is: You cannot lose the turnover battle six to one and expect to win the game. One of the OU giveaways was a completed pass to Jalil Farooq in the red zone that was knocked loose and returned 88 yards for an Arizona touchdown with just two seconds remaining in the third quarter. A two-point conversion followed, and just like that, a potential 27-13 or 31-13 Sooner advantage became 24-21 with a full quarter ahead.

Arizona's lone turnover came in the second quarter on an interception by OU's Kani Walker at the Wildcat 34-yard line. Another potential Oklahoma scoring opportunity went by the board on the very next play. Arnold connected with Farooq on a 26-yard pass down at the Arizona eight-yard line, but the ball was punched free and recovered by a Wildcat defender.

Had this been a prize fight, Oklahoma would have won the second and third quarters and Arizona the first and fourth. But split decisions do not apply in college football, and in the end, the six turnovers were too much for the Sooners to overcome.

Arizona started the game strong and finished strong, and that was the difference, despite Oklahoma's overwhelming advantage in total offense (562 to 383).

Arizona totaled 181 yards offense in the first quarter, 154 yards through the air, to just 36 total yards by Oklahoma. That all flipped in the second quarter as the Sooners got the offensive rhythm rolling and outgained the Wildcats 231 to 70.

One Sooner fan summed up the Alamo Bowl outcome with an "X" message (formerly Twitter that read: "It was one team doing what it's done all year, and another doing something new."

Four main takeaways from the OU loss to Arizona in the 2023 Alamo Bowl:

Jackson Arnold has flashes of brillance, but still a work in progress

The Alamo Bowl game was former five-star quarterback Jackson Arnold's first start as well as his first game working under offensive playcaller and new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell. Arnold got off to a rough start, throwing interceptions in two of his first three possessions, but then settled down to lead the Sooners to 24 unanswered points. For the game, the young QB completed 26 of 45 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns. Arnold also ran the ball 11 times for 38 yards.

Arnold's passing yardage was the second most by an OU freshman in a bowl game (Landry Jones holds the record with 418 yards in the 2009 Sun Bowl vs. Stanford).

After the two interceptions, which helped put the Sooners in a 13-0 hole, Arnold refused to buckle under the adversity. He bounced back with several outstanding pass throws, one which resulted in touchdown on a great end zone catch by Nic Anderson and another on a 63-yard touchdown throw to Brenan Thompson.

Big pass plays overshadow an otherwise outstanding defensive effort

The Oklahoma defense performance was solid for most of the game. The Sooner defense applied consistent pressure on Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita, sacking him five times and recording 11 tackles for loss. One of the key matchups coming into the game was Arizona's 6th-ranked passing offense against the Sooners pass defense, which ranked 99th among 131 FBS teams. The OU secondary had difficulty containing the Wildcats' two best receivers, Tetairoa McMillian and Jacob Cowing. The two combines for 23 catches for 312 yards, including 35- and 57-yard touchdown catches by Cowing. It seemed like everything thrown their way was hauled in.

While struggling a little on pass defense, though, Oklahoma completely shut down the Arizona run game, allowing just 29 yards rushing and a mere 1.1 yards per carry.

Multiple starters return on defense for Oklahoma in 2024 along with an outstanding group of defensive players in the 2024 recruiting class. Brent Venables will have an excellent group to build upon as OU enters the SEC.

Drake Stoops finishes an outstanding Oklahoma career

The Alamo bowl was the final collegiate game in a six-year Oklahoma career for wide receiver Drake Stoops. He finished with six catches for 82 yards in the Alamo Bowl and 37 yards after the catch. This season was the best of his career, recording 84 catches for 962 yards and a Big-12 best 10 touchdown catches.

Head coach Brent Venables called him the ultimate warrior, showing up every day and always giving his best. The former walk-on was a leader on the field as well as in the locker room and is an outstanding student as well, earning multiple Academic All-Big 12 First-Team selections.

Stoops finishes his Oklahoma career ranked 13th on the all-time Sooner receiving list with 158 catches for 1,794 yards and 17 touchdowns.

"Tonight, Oklahoma beat Oklahoma"

No question about it. Turnovers were the difference in the game. The Sooner offense is accountable for them, and Arizona capitalized on them, producing 28 points off of them. Coming into the game, Oklahoma had committed just 20 turnovers in 12 games all season. They had three each in both of the Sooners regular-season losses (at Kansas and at Oklahoma State).

"I feel like tonight, Oklahoma beat Oklahoma," said Sooner defensive back Billy Bowman. He's absolutely right.