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BYU’s 14-point mistake mars upset chance

The Cougars put themselves in position to win only to bow to the turnover-free Sooners with three of their own

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BYU head coach Kalani Sitake puts his hand on associate head coach and defensive coordinator Jay Hill on Nov. 18, 2023.

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake puts his hand on associate head coach and defensive coordinator Jay Hill as BYU and Oklahoma play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. OU won 31-24.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Jake Retzlaff’s 100-yard dash to save a pick six fell short.

Just like BYU in an epic battle with blue-blood SEC-bound Oklahoma.

No. 14 Oklahoma converted three BYU turnovers into 21 points on Saturday to hold on for a 31-24 victory in what may be the first and only Sooner appearance in Provo.

Retzlaff’s decision to pass the ball on a first-down BYU run-pass-option play at the 2-yard line in the second half resulted in Billy Bowman’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 24-17 lead. 

It will go down as the biggest blown opportunity of the season, maybe in many seasons, by a BYU team that’s drowned in adversity for most of their first season in the Big 12.

That ill-fated play was a 14-point turnaround play in a 17-17 game and ultimately doomed the Cougars with 20 minutes left to go in the game.

Retzlaff tried to catch Bowman. He ran like a gazelle. He outran his intended target Kody Epps, also in pursuit of Bowman, but he couldn’t catch the speedy defender, who made the play of the game with his legs pumping like a Ford engine piston.

Retzlaff was involved in all three BYU turnovers, that pick six, a sack-fumble and another fumble on a handoff exchange in which he intended to pull the ball and pitch it on a receiver reverse play in the first half.

But don’t be too down on Retzlaff.

Because of Retzlaff, BYU out-gained Oklahoma in about everything but the scoreboard.

When BYU decided to turn to Retzlaff at West Virginia in place of Kedon Slovis, they invested their offense in his athletic ability, which came with growing pains.

Oklahoma beat BYU because of the turnovers. The Cougars lost the turnover battle 3-0, but they played much more organized with a total team effort, and executed far better than we witnessed in losses to West Virginia and Iowa State.

I had Oklahoma beating BYU 58-21 in the weekly prognostication column. I clearly underestimated BYU’s ability to compete as hard as they did in this loss.

No moral victories, but with where this team was a week ago, getting eviscerated as the stadium emptied in the third quarter against the Cyclones, Saturday’s game was a surprise with positive elements.

BYU out-gained OU 390 to 368, out-rushed the Sooners 217 to 144, won time of possession 31:10 to 28:50 minutes, and out-gained the visitors 6.1 to 5.8 yards per play.

Oklahoma struggled to stop BYU’s run game.

That’s right.  

The season-long challenge for BYU to run the ball somehow turned into a huge weapon in the 11th game of the season against a respectable and fearful opponent.

Aidan Robbins ran 22 times for 182 yards, much of it with Retzlaff running RPO plays and either keeping the ball himself or delivering it to Robbins.

If Retzlaff hadn’t decided to pass to Epps on the 2-yard line and kept the ball himself or handed it off to Robbins, who knows what could have happened with OU star QB Dillon Gabriel out with a head injury the entire second half?

But that was, in essence, a 14-point play by Bowman.

“They got hot and had us on our heels, but we held on to win,” said OU coach Brent Venables.

OU was the superior football team Saturday and it showed by how clean the Sooners played, even without Gabriel. No turnovers and Bowman. That was the difference.

“We have to protect the ball, we just have to,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. “If we don’t, the system doesn’t work.”

BYU now heads to Stillwater, where bowl eligibility will be on the line against Oklahoma State.

“Our backs are against the wall,” said Sitake.

BYU found it late, but its run game may be key to pulling off a win next week. It wasn’t a feature in the 10 other football games this season.

The Cougars had run the ball down the field on Oklahoma in that third quarter before that fateful turnover at the goal line with just over five minutes left in the third. OU looked gassed. Robbins was on fire with chunk-yard runs, and he was surprised when he didn’t get to finish off the drive with a handoff.

“But it is what it is,” Robbins said. “It stings a little bit, especially when we drove all the way to get there. But life is made up of adversities and you just have to learn and grow from it.”

In a nutshell, that pick six by OU’s Bowman kind of encapsulates BYU’s entire season in one play.  

Missed opportunities.

A win in Stillwater would go a long way to rectify that label.