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Analysis: BYU hands No. 14 Oklahoma a Big 12 going-away present, coughs up football 3 times in 31-24 loss

Consider 24-point underdog BYU’s seven-point loss as an opportunity lost for the Cougars, who had an upset in their sights

SHARE Analysis: BYU hands No. 14 Oklahoma a Big 12 going-away present, coughs up football 3 times in 31-24 loss
Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Chase Roberts (2) makes the catch for a touchdown on Nov. 18, 2023.

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Chase Roberts (2) makes the catch for a touchdown with Oklahoma Sooners defensive back Kani Walker (26) and linebacker Dasan McCullough (1) hanging on as BYU and Oklahoma play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Legacy Big 12 football teams shouldn’t worry about giving hated Oklahoma a going-away gift as the No. 14 Sooners head off to the SEC next year.

Big 12 newcomer BYU took care of that Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 63,714 at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Senior Day, handing the visitors three turnovers that were turned into 21 points in a gut-wrenching 31-24 loss in Provo.

“I’ve probably said this way too many times this season, but we made way too many mistakes. Really, no moral victories. We knew we could play with people. I thought we were able to show it on the field.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.

The game was one of those showdowns with a nationally ranked team that will be remembered for a long, long time by Cougar Nation, but not in a positive way. It was clearly an opportunity lost for BYU (5-6), which now must win at Oklahoma State next week or miss out on a bowl game for just the second time in 19 years.

Perhaps summing up the thoughts of an entire fan base, superb BYU cornerback Eddie Heckard said: “We are one of them (good) teams. We had a chance to go up on them, and they made a play. To me, we are better than them. That’s how I feel. We got nothing else to say about that. They was a good team, be we (are) better.”

Then again, others might ask: Where has this kind of inspired play — in all three phases — been the past three games when BYU lost to Texas, West Virginia and Iowa State by a combined score of 126-17? Oklahoma downed all three, two quite easily.

And the Sooners were the better team when it really mattered, even after the play to which Heckard referred, the 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by OU’s Billy Bowman that was pretty much a 14-point swing.

After Oklahoma (6-2, 9-2) scored the go-ahead touchdown to make it 31-24 on a 16-yard Gavin Sawchuk touchdown run in which the Sooners’ RB1 broke three tackles, the Cougars were still in it with eight minutes left and the ball at their 25.

But a first down throw to Kody Epps lost a yard, Aidan Robbins’ carry netted just 2 yards, and then back-to-back false starts made it third-and-18. Another Robbins run only cut that deficit in half.

The Cougars punted the ball away and never got it back, as OU freshman QB Jackson Arnold made just enough plays — including a 7-yard pass to Jalil Farooq on third-and-7 — to run the final 5:08 off the clock.

Arnold was filling in for Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who suffered a head injury late in the first half and didn’t play in the second half. Gabriel completed 13 of 21 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, which ended in a 17-17 tie.

As for the pick six that will live on in OU lore as the team stayed alive for a berth in the Big 12 championship game in early December, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said postgame the throw never should have happened.

“The play call was an RPO (run-pass option) which means run first,” Sitake said of the first-and-goal situation from the OU 2 after 25- and 21-yard runs by Aidan Robbins and an 11-yard scamper by QB Jake Retzlaff, who got his third start for BYU on Saturday. “We went fast. You don’t throw the pass unless there is nobody covering it.”

He continued, “I mean, I will have to go look at it, but I don’t think the receiver ever thought the ball was going to go to him. This was one of those moments where you just gotta hand the ball off.”

Bowman’s score seemingly threw all the momentum to the visitors’ favor — OU was backed by thousands of fans, as many visiting fans as this reporter has ever seen at LES — but credit Retzlaff and BYU’s offense for responding in a big way.

A 26-yard toss to Epps on a fourth-and-2 play kept the ensuing drive alive, and Retzlaff finished it off with a 10-yard touchdown run, his first TD run as a Cougar.

After Arnold marched OU deep into BYU territory, BYU’s defense stiffened and the Sooners missed a 28-yard field goal. For the seventh time in the game, BYU had the ball and a chance to take the lead, but Retzlaff was sacked and stripped by all-everything linebacker Danny Stutsman, and Jacob Lacey recovered.

That third BYU turnover led to Sawchuk’s game-winning jaunt to the north end zone.

“I’ve probably said this way too many times this season, but we made way too many mistakes,” Sitake said. “Really, no moral victories. We knew we could play with people. I thought we were able to show it on the field.”

Now the coaching staff has another tough decision to make. Do they stick with the mistake-prone Retzlaff, or hand the ball back to eight-game starter Kedon Slovis, who was 5-3 at the helm?

Slovis looked fine in pregame warmups, throwing passes up to 50 yards, and Sitake said if he progresses as well as he did last week from elbow and shoulder soreness, he will be healthy enough to play in Stillwater.

“We will see how it looks on Monday. That has always been the plan, to go with the best quarterback that gives us the best chance to win. We will see,” Sitake said.

The dilemma is that, while Retzlaff is perhaps more careless with the football than Slovis, his mobility gives BYU something it doesn’t have with Slovis. Retzlaff ran for 59 yards (minus 30 in sacks and lost fumbles) on Saturday.

Through the air, Retzlaff was 15 of 26 for 173 yards and two touchdowns — to Chase Roberts and Isaac Rex.

Robbins carried the ball 22 times for 182 yards as BYU finally found a rushing attack — after 10 games of being among the worst in the country in that category. The big back acknowledged that having the dual-threat Retzlaff out there opened up the run game, to some extent.

“Just credit to my offensive line for providing me the opportunity to do those things,” said Robbins after the second-most single game rushing yards of his career. “And credit A Rod for making the play calls and trusting the ball in my hands, and for Jake, for opening the run game.

“I commend everybody. We tried to execute at a higher level. It just wasn’t enough at the end of the day,” Robbins continued.

That BYU was even in the game as 24-point underdogs was remarkable, and when the Cougars fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter and light rain started to fall, it appeared Sitake’s team was headed for a repeat of those ugly losses to West Virginia and ISU the past two weeks.

But a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, culminating with a 23-yard TD pass to Roberts on fourth-and-2, righted the Cougars. They were even able to overcome an early turnover — a fumbled handoff exchange between Retzlaff and Robbins at the end of the first quarter — that allowed OU to score its second TD.

Oklahoma came in averaging 41.8 points and 505.4 yards per game, but didn’t get close to those totals on Saturday, finishing with 31 points and 368 yards, albeit without Gabriel in the second half.

BYU ended the game with more yards — 390 — and outrushed the Sooners 217-144.

“We made tackles. We prepared like no other this game,” Heckard said. “We knew what we had (in front of us). I feel like we have been having that in us all year. I knew we could do it. I knew we could compete with them just like we competed with Texas and all those other schools. We had a bad few weeks. This week we showed how we are supposed to play all year.”

Trouble is, there’s only one game left. Unless the Cougars can duplicate the effort they turned in Saturday, sans the turnovers.