ARLINGTON, Texas -- In the end, really, we should have seen this coming. There really could be only one way this Oklahoma team would win the Big 12 Championship Game.
The Sooners somehow managed to dominate Baylor on Saturday, yet needed overtime to beat them, to stop the Bears snap after snap until, on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter, Baylor struck back with a quarterback who had thrown three passes all season.
For a Sooner team that had trouble putting together 60 minutes of error-free football down the homestretch, the 30-23 overtime victory at AT&T Stadium displayed the 2019 season in miniature: stretches of brilliance interspersed with turnovers and defensive lapses that kept games closer than they should have been.
Early prediction: If Oklahoma is invited to its third consecutive College Football Playoff, the Sooners' Dec. 28 semifinal will be a close one.
"We found a lot of ways to win football games," head coach Lincoln Riley said. "We certainly did it today. The defense was fantastic, like they've been the majority of this season ... I'm proud of this team. These are hard. You've got to appreciate them."
This brand of defense is what Riley promised when he brought defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to Norman 11 months ago. On Saturday, Oklahoma limited Baylor to 265 total yards. To put it another way: The Bears ran 56 plays, and gained yardage on only 22 of them.
As the Sooners celebrated on the field, wrapping each other in hugs, the smiles beamed on every face but one. Grinch looked as if he were about to lose his lunch.
Years from now, long after the rest of us have forgotten this gritty victory, Grinch will remember how Baylor kept itself in the game. Third-string quarterback Jacob Zeno, a true freshman, got onto the field because starter Charlie Brewer seemed woozy and backup Gerry Bohanon's ailing knees affected his mobility. Zeno, who spent the week doing his best Jalen Hurts imitation on the Baylor scout team, threw a touchdown pass of 81 yards to running back Trestan Ebner and a 78-yard completion to wide receiver Chris Platt that set up the Bears' tying field goal.
Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, when asked what made him think Zeno would be able to handle the situation, said, "I couldn't sit here and tell you I thought he could."
Yet the Sooners would have to go to overtime to win the game. Grinch blamed himself. "I just did a poor job," Grinch said. "Thankfully, Tre [Brown] tackles well on the second one to save the day. That's frustrating on my part to admit that to you."
Zeno played safety in a walk-through on Friday. Informed of that, Grinch said, "Good lord."
Grinch beat himself up because, with the Sooners leading 23-13 and Zeno unexpectedly in the game, the coach outthought himself. He played a combo defense, part man and part zone, instead of putting a zone out there and letting a freshman try to figure it out.
We are used to seeing college players make mistakes that cost games. They are young, they are learning and they have some slack coming to them. Imagine being a coach who, with a season's dreams at stake, feels as if his work put his team in jeopardy.
"It's awful," Grinch said. "When they come to the sideline, there are certain times when you say, 'What happened on that play?' You're going to give them a stern coaching point because they didn't execute their technique and responsibility. You've got to own it as a football coach when it's on you."
There are so many ways to describe the Sooners' defensive dominance. Baylor moved the chains as if they were made of lead. The Bears didn't make a first down until the 5:23 mark of the second quarter, and finished with a total of eight. They didn't gain 100 total yards until the 2:59 mark of the third quarter. And yet, Baylor hung around like a swarm of gnats. Very big, physical gnats.
The Bears came into the game plus-12 in turnovers, the Sooners minus-5. Baylor converted two turnovers by Hurts -- a fumble on a blindside sack by Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year James Lynch, and an interception by Jordan Williams -- into 10 second-quarter points and took a 13-10 lead into halftime.
Baylor stayed in a zone that confounded Hurts and took away his improvisational running game. The senior rushed for a season-low 38 yards, thanks largely to three sacks, two by Lynch, and threw for 287 yards and one touchdown. That touchdown, an 18-yard pass in the third quarter to sixth-year senior Nick Basquine, his first score since 2016, will be remembered by this team for a long time.
When it counted, however, Hurts and the Sooners' offense did what they know how to do. With the game tied 23-23 and Oklahoma facing a fourth-and-3 at the Baylor 47 with less than 90 seconds remaining, Riley chose to punt and play for overtime. He liked his red zone game, and overtime football is red zone football.
"I went back and forth in my mind a few times," Riley said. "... I was confident if it got to an overtime period, we would have a chance to score, and how could you not be confident with the way our defense was playing?"
Oklahoma makes big stop on 4th down to seal Big 12 championship
Jacob Zeno collapses under the pressure of the Oklahoma defense and throws an incomplete pass on fourth-and-long as the Sooners seal their Big 12 championship victory.
Riley's hunch proved correct. The Sooners lost the toss and scored in three plays. The Bears, in four snaps, lost 10 yards. It's official: After at least seven years of defensive famine, there are at least two Big 12 defenses that know how to get off the field.
Given that Oklahoma allowed 54 points to Georgia in a double-overtime, semifinal loss two years ago, and fell behind Alabama 28-0 in the first 17 minutes last season en route to a 45-34 loss, this qualifies as news. One Alabama quarterback from last season has no doubt the Sooners have changed.
"There is a narrative out there that the SEC is a different animal," said Hurts, who might be invited to his fourth straight playoff, "but the Big 12 is tough. Baylor, they're a really good team, very physical team, and I got a lot of respect for them."
Oklahoma has played in 11 Big 12 Championship Games and won 10 of them. Running backs coach Cale Gundy has been on the staff for every one of them. "We were talking in the elevator coming down to the field," Gundy said, "and we said that's the best team we've played in the championship [game]. Somebody said, 'That was hard.'"
That's how Oklahoma has done it all season. And the Sooners just might get a chance to do it that way again in the playoff.