In Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama, a star is born for Oklahoma
NEW ORLEANS -- They had to wait for Trevor. It would have felt incomplete to take the team picture without him. So for 10 minutes -- as Oklahoma players stood and sat on the Sugar Bowl logo at midfield in the Superdome early Friday morning -- they kept looking into a far corner of the stadium at college football's first star of 2014, quarterback Trevor Knight, who was busy telling reporters that he "wasn't surprised" that he had just played "the game of my life."
They had to stand in line for AJ. The quarterback with the most wins in Alabama history undressed in front of his locker, pulling off his crimson No. 10 jersey and setting it onto the floor for the final time. With eye-black smudged over his face an hour after Oklahoma had defeated the Crimson Tide 45-31 in the biggest upset to date of this bowl season, AJ McCarron looked like he had twin shiners. But before he slipped into the shower, teammates, assistant coaches, police officers, a bus driver and a janitor all extended a hand. Everyone said a version of the same two words: thank you. "It wasn't meant to be tonight," McCarron told one well-wisher. "But it's just football, not life." Give McCarron credit: He never loses perspective.
The story of the Sugar Bowl was these two quarterbacks -- one at the start of his college career, the other at the end; one who made magic on the field, the other who didn't. Before facing No. 3 Alabama, Knight, a redshirt freshman, had never thrown for more than 171 yards in a game and never completed more than 14 passes in any of his four career starts. So what did type of gameplan did Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops devise for the 6-foot-1-inch, 201-pound quarterback from San Antonio, who Stoops didn't publicly announce as the starter until kickoff? A pass-heavy attack, naturally.
"We have seen in practice for a long time that Trevor is very, very good at moving around and throwing the ball," said Jay Norvell, Oklahoma's co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach. "He has tremendous accuracy and a strong arm, but sometimes it's just a matter of getting the reps in practice before it translates into games. The time off we had was critical, because Trevor really started to come on in the last few weeks."
Even a football novice could tell that Knight was the best player on the Superdome field. He completed 32-of-44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. Knight made every type of throw -- 20-yard frozen-rope sideline comebacks, perfectly arched 40-yard rainbows, and on-the-run passes feathered between defenders. It was a far cry from his previous outings this season, which were mostly underwhelming and marked by bouts of inconsistency. Yet after his performance Thursday night, one NFL scout in attendance declared that Knight would now officially be on the radar of every general manager in the league.
"Trevor showed the whole country what we've been watching for two years in our practices and our scrimmages," Stoops said. "The game has started to slow down for him where he's really starting to feel comfortable in what he can do when he is. He's got a very live arm with great legs."
Whispers of Knight's potential began emanating out of Norman last December. Preparing to face Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, Stoops had Knight play the role of the Aggies' Johnny Manziel on the scout squad. "You could tell back then that Trevor was going to be special," senior wide receiver Jalen Saunders said. "We thought that he might actually be even better than Johnny Football. He showed tonight exactly what he's capable of. With him, the future for Oklahoma is bright."
"We pitched it around a little more [than usual] tonight and I got in a rhythm," Knight said. "We got in a mode where we felt like we could do anything. I got in the zone and it felt really good. This is something we can build on for next season."
McCarron, the owner of three national championship rings who had never lost away from Bryant-Denny Stadium until five weeks ago, now exits college football with back-to-back losses. He made uncharacteristically poor decisions -- he threw one pass into triple-coverage that was intercepted by safety Gabe Lynn and another was picked off when cornerback Zack Sanchez read McCarron's eyes and jumped an out route -- and rarely looked comfortable in the pocket. McCarron has always prided himself on taking care of the ball like it's the most treasured possession in the state of Alabama, which makes this Sugar Bowl the most un-McCarron like performance of McCarron's career.
On his last collegiate offensive play, with less than a minute to play, McCarron was sacked and the ball popped loose. As Sooners defensive end Geneo Grissom celebrated his eight-yard fumble return for a touchdown, McCarron walked off the field with a distant stare on his face. His eyes were pointed in the direction of Nick Saban, but he wasn't actually looking at him. McCarron strolled past his coach, who has become a father figure, without saying a word. And so this was how the McCarron-Saban era came to an end -- stunned and speechless.
On the other side of the field, there were bold pronouncements that Oklahoma (11-2) was "back" and that "Sooner Magic" was again alive and well. Time will tell. But it was clear that Oklahoma has a quarterback that's capable of playing at a championship level.
"Trevor put it all on display tonight," senior center Gabe Ikard said. "We knew that Alabama in the past has had trouble with mobile quarterbacks who can make throws, and that's exactly what Trevor did. No one who's seen him practice is surprised. I just wish I could come back and play with him next year, because he's going to be really special."
When Knight finally reached the field after the postgame celebration for the team photo, Stoops directed him to sit in the middle of the squad. Cameras clicked and flashed as Knight, holding the MVP trophy, smiled luminously. When he rose, his teammates swarmed him.
Freeze this moment, because it will be worth remembering next season: Against the biggest, baddest college football dynasty of the 21st century, in a game in which Oklahoma was a 17-point underdog, a new force named Trevor Knight arrived.