Another Ride Ends in College Football Playoff

John Rohde
By John Rohde
Special to SoonerSports.com

NORMAN — A bad start eventually finished Oklahoma’s quest for another national football championship.

Trailing 28-0 after the first 17 minutes against top-ranked Alabama on Saturday night, the No. 4-ranked Sooners gallantly fought back before succumbing 45-34 in the Capital One Orange Bowl at muggy Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

“It's been a hell of a ride,” OU second-year head coach Lincoln Riley said afterward. “Hate that it ends right now, because you're sick, you feel like you're right there, being ready to play (in the national championship game) next week. It was certainly a game we fully expected to win.”

A fourth consecutive Big 12 Conference championship will have to suffice for the Sooners (12-2), who were making their third College Football Playoff appearance in the last four seasons.

“We've still got a bunch of Big 12 trophies,” Riley said of OU claiming its 12th conference crown in the last 19 seasons. “We’re going to hold that tall skinny one (national championship trophy) here in a couple years and we're going to hold it in large part because of the fight from these seniors in this program, all the players, the staff.”

Again, the outcome of Saturday’s national semifinal goes back to the beginning.

“The start of the game, give Alabama credit, they're a really good football team,” Riley said. “They made a run on us there early. We just had a hard time breaking their string of momentum.”

Asked to explain his team’s uncharacteristically slow start, Sooners redshirt junior quarterback Kyler Murray said, “I don’t know. I wish I could tell you. (After that we) just calmed down, executed what we were running. Early in the first half, jitters. You hadn’t played in a month.”

Despite completing just 1 of 5 passes for 18 yards in the first quarter, Murray finished 19 of 37 passing for 308 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a game-high 109 yards on 17 carries (6.4 average) and one touchdown, becoming the first opposing quarterback in the Nick Saban era at Alabama (2007-present) to rush for 100 yards.

Murray, who is OU’s seventh Heisman Trophy winner, finished the season with 4,361 yards passing (311.5 average), 1,001 yards rushing (71.5 average) and accounted for 54 touchdowns (second only in school history to Sam Bradford’s 55 in 2008). Murray became only the second player in FBS history to accumulate 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. The other was Clemson’s DeShaun Watson in 2015.

As great as he was, not even the uber-athletic Murray could overcome a four-touchdown deficit against Alabama’s prolific program.  

“You can’t even look at the score (28-0) at that point,” Murray said. “You’ve just got to go out there and fight. That’s what we did... I just hope everybody knows I never quit.”

"You've just got to go out there and fight. That's what we did... I just hope everybody knows I never quit."
- Kyler Murray

Murray was selected No. 9 overall by the Oakland A’s in last June’s amateur baseball draft and signed a $4.66 million signing bonus after the A’s allowed the outfield prospect to play college football this season. Whether Murray will opt to enter the 2019 NFL Draft remains uncertain.

Asked to reflect on his time at OU, a teary eyed Murray said, “This place has been home to me. I’ve loved every part of it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wanted to win a national championship, just fell short.”

After getting outgained 239-24 in total yardage to fall behind by 28, the Sooners outscored Alabama 34-17 and outgained the Crimson Tide in total yardage 447-289 the remainder of the game.

“I mean, they outplayed us early,” Riley said. “I think it's as simple as that. It was just a complete tale of two games. I mean, they completely outplayed us early and then we completely outplayed them pretty much the rest of the way.”

Saban said he warned his team not to let up after its quick start. “Well, it was no surprise to me that they would come back in the game,” Saban said. “I kept telling our players on the sidelines, ‘We have to keep playing. We have to keep grinding. We've got to play for 60 minutes. This team is very capable.’”

It was the most points against the Crimson Tide since Ole Miss scored 43 points against them in 2016. The Sooners set season highs by an Alabama opponent in points (34), total yards (471), yards per play (6.8), passing yards (308) and first downs (26).

“(We played) much closer to what we felt like we were capable of there the last three quarters, and unfortunately we just dug ourselves too big of a hole and we were just one play away there in the fourth quarter (successfully recovering an on-side kick) from making it a game that could go either way,” Riley said. “Disappointed in the way we played early, but I am proud as hell of our guys' fight and our belief.”

OU fifth-year senior linebacker Curtis Bolton said, “We just flat-out didn't play good enough. Just all-around, I think it was a night we let the team down. Any time you give up that many points, we're not going to let anybody else take the blame but us, and as the leader of the defense, that falls on me. Just wasn't good enough.”

Riley wouldn’t let Bolton take the fall, however.

“That falls on all of us,” Riley said. “Curtis is a great leader for us. Proud of that kid, where he was two, three years ago to where he is now. He's been a great leader, been a spark plug for us all year. Going down the way we did early was – everybody had a hand in that; coaches, offense, defense, special teams, everybody. Everybody also had a hand in outscoring them by 17 the rest of the way, including our defense, including Curtis.”

The nation’s top-ranked offense endured a night when All-American wide receiver Marquise Brown failed to catch a pass while playing next door to his hometown of Hollywood, Fla.

Brown, who was targeted five times, was questionable coming into the contest after suffering a lower-leg injury in the Big 12 Championship victory against Texas. This could have been Brown’s final game with OU. The junior could decide to declare for the upcoming NFL Draft.

Sooners sophomore receiver CeeDee Lamb had a game-high eight receptions for 109 yards and one touchdown while seldom-used redshirt freshman Charleston Rambo had three receptions for 74 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown catch (sixth longest in OU bowl history). It was his first career score.

Sooners senior Austin Seibert set an NCAA career scoring record among kickers, adding 10 points to his total to give him 499 for his career and surpassing the previous career scoring record by a kicker of 494 points by Arizona State’s Zane Gonzalez (2013-16). Seibert ranks fourth overall in NCAA career scoring (the FBS record is 580 points by Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds from 2012-15). Seibert finished with 310 career extra-points in 315 attempts, which upped his NCAA records in both.

Crimson Tide sophomore quarterback and Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, who underwent a surgical procedure on his ankle less than four weeks earlier, completed 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns.

“He played well,” Riley said. “He's a heck of a player. Obviously has a bright future, and he's a great kid... He's got a magnetic personality, and obviously he's a fantastic player.”

Afterward, this year’s top two Heisman finishers exchanged pleasantries.

“Me and Kyler just told each other, ‘Great game,’” Tagovailoa said. “He said, ‘I love you.’ I told him I love him, too. Aside from that, I just told him, ‘Great season.’ He had a great season. He told me I had a great game, and go win it all. But when you look at it, we're both competitors. I think he's done a tremendous job with running that offense. Lincoln Riley has done a tremendous job, as well.”

Alabama (14-0), the defending national champion which has been ranked No. 1 this entire season, advances to its fourth consecutive CFP championship game and will face No. 2 Clemson (14-0) next Monday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Clemson advanced with a convincing 30-3 victory over Notre Dame at the Cotton Bowl in Saturday’s earlier national semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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