NEW ORLEANS — Hello, Trevor. Farewell, AJ.
Trevor Knight‘s final start as a freshman sent Oklahoma’s expectations soaring in 2014 while bringing a sour end to AJ McCarron‘s otherwise charmed Alabama career.
Knight completed a Sugar Bowl-record 32 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns, and No. 11 Oklahoma took down the third-ranked Crimson Tide 45-31 on Thursday night.
“It’s huge for our program, to get a win like this after no one gave us a chance all year,” Knight said. “We’ve got to ride this into next year. We can’t settle with this. … We want the big one.”
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops declined to announce a starting quarterback before the game, and when Knight took the field on the Sooners’ first possession, Alabama’s defenders couldn’t have anticipated what was in store.
Knight’s completion percentage entering the game was 52.2. He had completed 47 passes all season before a breakout performance in which two of his touchdowns went for more than 40 yards.
Oklahoma (11-2) needed him to play that well in the 80th Sugar Bowl, the first in which quarterbacks for both teams threw for more than 300 yards.
The victory was a sweet one for Stoops, who last offseason called talk about the Southeastern Conference being the best league in college football “propaganda.”
“I have the utmost respect for Alabama, and I think this shows that obviously we can play with anybody,” Stoops said. “So, enough of that. And I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well. I’m not pointing any fingers. But I think sometimes the comparisons aren’t necessarily very true.”
His Big 12 team vanquished an Alabama (11-2) squad that had been ranked No. 1 much of the past three seasons, winning the previous two national titles before its shot at a third straight was derailed by rival Auburn on the last play of the Iron Bowl in late November.
But coach Nick Saban didn’t buy the idea that his team, favored by 16 points, was too deflated from its loss to Auburn to play up to its standard.
“I actually thought that the players responded in practice pretty well for this game,” Saban said. “We put over 500 yards of offense up. Somebody had to do something right. I don’t think that we played as well on defense as we’re capable of or should have.”
McCarron passed for 387 yards and two touchdowns, but his two interceptions set up Oklahoma touchdowns, and his fumble, returned for a score in the final minute, sealed Alabama’s first two-game skid since its Sugar Bowl loss to Utah in January 2009.
“Put it all on me. I had two turnovers, [Oklahoma] ended up scoring 14 points, and we lost by 14,” said McCarron, who won 36 of his first 38 games before losing his last two. “It’s football. It happens. I wish it wouldn’t have happened, but I’ll definitely take the loss and definitely take the blame, because a lot of it is probably my fault.”
Freshman Derrick Henry‘s 43-yard run in the third quarter pulled Alabama to 31-24, and the Crimson Tide forced four punts while giving up only one first down in the third quarter. But Alabama was unable to add another score before the Sooners starting moving the ball again.
Knight lofted a perfect pass to Lacoltan Bester for a 34-yard gain to the Alabama 9. Shortly after, Knight rolled left all the way to the sideline before rifling a touchdown strike to Sterling Shepard, making it a two-touchdown game again with 10:44 left.
“The game has started to slow down for him where he’s really starting to feel comfortable in what he can do,” Stoops said of Knight.
Henry, a 6-foot-3, 238-pound true freshman, pulled Alabama within a score once more when he turned his first career reception into a tackle-shedding, 61-yard touchdown with 6:22 still to go.
But Oklahoma was able to burn several minutes off the clock, and then the Sooners registered their seventh sack when Eric Striker stripped McCarron. Geneo Grissom returned the ball 8 yards for a score.
Both teams entered the game with defenses ranked in the top 15 nationally, but quarterback play dominated a first half highlighted by five passing plays of 43 yards or longer, three of which went for scores.
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