It was Clemson 37, Oklahoma 17 on Thursday night in the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium and, no, the game really wasn’t that close. Sooners coach Bob Stoops predicted that the team able to run the ball would run toward the title game and, boy, was he right. Clemson piled up 312 rushing yards, led by tailback Wayne Gallman (26 carries for 150 yards with two touchdowns) and quarterback Deshaun Watson (24 carries for 145 yards with one touchdown).
Oklahoma, meanwhile, managed just 67 yards on the ground. That was the product of one major injury—redshirt freshman Joe Mixon was knocked out of the game and temporarily knocked unconscious after a brutal hit midway through the third quarter—one minor injury—sophomore Samaje Perine had to be helped off the field after a defender landed on his ankle but returned later—and one dominant performance in the trenches from Clemson’s front seven. Sooners center Ty Darlington said afterward that “it wasn’t about them pushing us around,” but it sure looked like it.
Darlington, who has become one of the most eloquent spokesmen in all of college athletics, couldn’t say much as he walked off the field for the last time in a Sooners jersey with tears pooling in his eyes. Receiver Durron Neal staggered off sobbing, arms over his head. No teammate’s hug could comfort him.
That’s an understandable reaction from two seniors who won’t get another chance to bring Oklahoma to the top. But in getting this far, just one year after an embarrassing 8–5 season that had at least one local reporter calling for a new coach, Darlington, Neal and their teammates can still deem 2015 a success.
And that’s partially because of this point, made by senior linebacker Eric Striker, when asked if this year’s ending hurt more than last year’s finish: “Last year was embarrassing, the way we finished. I felt the fight in this game, felt that we were there, everyone was prepared … Obviously it hurt, we were really close. But I’m very proud of how far we came.”
Striker is right. This game wasn’t close in the second half, but it also wasn’t a shellacking, a far cry from the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, in which Clemson rolled the Sooners 40–6. (It is worth pointing out, though, that when Oklahoma has lost bowl games the last eight years, the average margin of defeat was 22.8 points.) Still, the Sooners reemerged this year, quieting the Stoops hot-seat chatter and serving notice that Oklahoma remains an elite program.
“OU’s back where it’s supposed to be: at a championship level,” Striker said. “I’m very proud of these guys for bringing OU back. And the young guys can take it from here.”
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley stated he thinks junior quarterback Baker Mayfield (26 of 41 for 311 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions) mirrors this team in that both can get much better. Riley is right. And in addition to Mayfield, lots of important pieces on the roster will be back, including Perine and Mixon. Those three building blocks, coupled with Stoops’s defensive track record, should inspire optimism about Oklahoma in 2016, even if it will go into the New Year with heartbreak instead of celebration.
It’s easy to wonder what might have been if the Sooners hadn’t been ravaged by injury Thursday night: Besides Perine and Mixon, Oklahoma lost linebacker Jordan Evans, its second-leading tackler, to a right shoulder injury. His replacement, senior Frank Shannon, looked like he had been moved to second string for a reason. Mayfield tossed his second interception late in the game, then wobbled off the field after absorbing most of the pain from a tackle he made. The Sooners already were missing defensive tackle Charles Walker, who was ruled out with a concussion. But all of those bumps and bruises come with a caveat, because Clemson left a lot of points on the board in the first half, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.
In the end, it came down to an uncomplicated truth: “I’ve been playing the game for a long time, about 17 years now,” Striker said. “You’ve gotta tackle the guy with the football. It’s really simple.”
In a gloomy press conference after the game, Darlington said he was “disappointed that we let our fans down in that way, because we know how many people it really meant something to, beyond just us.”
But Darlington needs to give himself, and his locker room, more credit. A lesser program, full of lesser people, would have folded in the wake of heavy criticism, a floundering offense and an ugly campus incident that forced tough, honest conversations about race in America. Of course it helps to have some of the best playmakers in the country on your roster. But the stories this season, and especially this week, touting an uncommon chemistry were real, and that has set a different, but equally important, bar in Norman.
“You can’t take away the Big 12 championship, and the fact that these seniors have led us back to one game from being in the national championship,” Stoops said. “That part is there and doesn’t go away.”
And given the strides this program made—back, almost, to the top—it will probably hit the road again in 2016. The Revenge Tour is over. But maybe you can catch the Sooners next year, on a stop through Atlanta, Glendale or Tampa.
They’ve said they plan to go out again.