Trust in the Process Yields Sweet Reward

John Rohde
By John Rohde Contributor
JANUARY 06, 2017

On the sad and soggy night of Sept. 17, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and his downtrodden troops trudged through the muck and mire returning to their temporary locker room after a 45-24 loss to Ohio State.

For Stoops, it was only the third time in 44 games (.932) his team had lost at home against a non-conference opponent in his 18 seasons with the Sooners.

In his postgame interview session, it took Stoops less than five seconds to fall on the sword after congratulating the Buckeyes on their impressive performance in a national showcase game that had been delayed 90 minutes by a monsoon that drenched the Heartland.

Three more times Stoops plunged that sword directly into his midsection, accepting responsibility in every way imaginable.

Stoops then made a vow: "We'll keep a positive attitude," he promised. "We'll keep working to improve and do our best to have a better showing when we get back on the field here in a couple weeks (at TCU on Oct. 1)."

Paired with their season-opening loss at Houston, the Sooners had started the season 1-2 with nothing but Big 12 Conference games remaining. National title hopes were all but dashed for a team that began the 2016 season ranked No. 3 in preseason polls and had been a near-unanimous pick (22 of 24 first-place votes) by Big 12 media to win the conference crown.

But after just three weeks, exclamation marks that accompanied the Sooners had been replaced with question marks. Exactly how good was Oklahoma? Would Stoops' vow to keep things positive after the Ohio State loss ring true or ring hollow?

The final answer came with Monday night's 35-19 victory over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome in New Orleans. After the loss to the Buckeyes, the Sooners (11-2) closed out the season with 10 straight victories and upped their Sugar Bowl record to 6-2, the best winning percentage (.750) among the 11 programs with at least five appearances.

OU had overcome adversity in previous seasons under Stoops, but no turnaround could match what transpired this season. For the first time in school history, the Sooners closed out their season by beating four ranked opponents - No. 25 Baylor, No. 10 West Virginia, No. 11 Oklahoma State and No. 14 Auburn - and had done so with an average victory margin of 20.8 points.

When Stoops addressed the media after Monday night's impressive finale, pride and satisfaction oozed from his lips.

"It shows the strength, I think, of our character overall," Stoops said of the team that won the 10th Big 12 crown under his reign.

"We're a prideful team. (We're) a very close team. Guys care and respect one another. And we're confident, regardless of the people that try and rattle the cage and shake your confidence. We kept confident the entire season. We stayed positive with each other the entire season and trusted our system, trusted our methods and the way that we do things. And we built on it. We improved as we went through the end, and we fought through the outside noise and then kept to ourselves. And in our building, it can't be any more positive. And that means a lot. We take that to the field."

“We stayed positive with each other the entire season and trusted our system, trusted our methods and the way that we do things. And we built on it.” - Head Coach Bob Stoops

OU is the only FBS program with 14 seasons of double-digit victories since 2000, and the Sooners' 10 consecutive victories represent the nation's second-longest active streak to Alabama's 26 straight.

Reeling off 10 wins in a row (the school's longest run since winning 11 straight in 2010-11) was anything but easy for OU.

Following their open date after losing to the Buckeyes, the Sooners trailed 21-7 after the first quarter at TCU. A loss to the Horned Frogs would have given OU its worst start to a season since beginning 0-4 under coach John Blake in 1996.

What transpired in Fort Worth from the second quarter forward completely re-routed the Sooners' final destination toward New Orleans as they scored 28 unanswered points, went on a 42-3 spurt and hung on for a 52-46 victory.

OU manufactured a 10-game winning streak despite having 22 different players start on defense throughout the season, mainly due to injuries. Five of those players were freshmen and two were first-year junior college transfers. Ten defensive players on the opening-week depth chart missed a combined 61 games and three had left the team by mid-November.

Stoops promised his Sooners would stay positive and leading the way was redshirt junior quarterback Baker Mayfield, who after the Ohio State loss tweeted he would be the hardest worker in the program.

Despite having two interceptions against the Buckeyes, Mayfield still managed to set an NCAA record for single-season passing efficiency at 196.4. The record previously was held by Wisconsin's Russell Wilson (191.8 in 2011), now with the Seattle Seahawks. OU also set an NCAA record for single-season team passing efficiency with a mark of 193.8, breaking Baylor's previous record of 191.2 in 2011 (min. 150 attempts).

"It's hard to describe right now. Not all the hard work that I put in, but as a group and a team that we put in together. We made a promise together," Mayfield said on the field afterward. "To get recognized now, it feels like it was well worth it."

It also was a record-setting night for OU junior running back Samaje Perine, who rushed for 86 yards to surpass 1978 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims (4,118) as OU's all-time rusher and finished with 4,122 career yards. "Samaje says he doesn't care, but I care more than he does," a smiling Mayfield said of the self-effacing Perine. "That record means so much."

"It really hasn't hit me yet, and I don't know exactly when it's going to hit me," Perine said of the record. "I'm just excited that we got the win and we got it in the fashion that we did. And I'm just ready to celebrate with my team."

The following morning, Perine declared for the NFL Draft. Most other Sooners with a decision to make have indicated they will return to OU for 2017, including Orlando Brown on offense and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas on defense.

The dedication and fortitude that began with the Sooners' comeback victory in Fort Worth on Oct. 1 continued through Jan. 1 in preparation for Monday night's Sugar Bowl.

"Can't say enough how proud I am of my players, the way they handled themselves not only this entire week but the whole month leading up to the game," Stoops said. "They have been at a ton of meetings, and they have practiced hard and took care of themselves around New Orleans here this entire week. Not one guy was late to a meeting or anything else. So they really invested in it, and it showed tonight."

It showed ever since that sad and soggy night on Sept. 17.



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