Senior quarterback Jalen Hurts sat at the podium with his usual calm demeanor.
Minutes earlier, Hurts and the then-No. 5 Sooners had suffered an upset loss to Kansas State, 48-41, in Manhattan, Kansas. It was their first loss of the season, heading into the latter half of the season in Week 9.
The Sooners have four games left in the regular season before the Big 12 Championship, and Hurts is more aware of the journey to the College Football Playoff than anyone on the team. Hurts, a man who’s been to the national championship three times, knows what lies ahead to keep Oklahoma’s playoff chances alive.
"Climbing this mountain is not easy," Hurts said. "It's treacherous."
And he’s right. Losses late in the season can make the journey a lot more difficult. A loss in November can define an entire season. Teams that fly closer and closer to the sun as the wins pile on come down crashing and burning with late-season blunders. The Sooners were 7-0 for the first time since 2004. Now, they're 7-1, and a second loss would destroy Oklahoma’s chance of returning to the College Football Playoff. The Sooners have to win out in order to keep those hopes alive.
But during the Lincoln Riley era, the Sooners have yet to lose a game in November. They thrive during these 30 days.
It’s “Championship November,” a month Oklahoma uses to springboard into a Big 12 Championship and the postseason. Since Riley arrived in Norman as offensive coordinator, the Sooners have had three College Football Playoff appearances — after suffering upset losses in each of those seasons — and a 2017 Sugar Bowl win after losing two of their first three games that season.
“We’ve been through this road,” Riley said after the Kansas State loss. “Everybody in the world’s going to say we’re done. We know how this works. We know what we’re capable of.
“We’ve gotta do a good job of getting ready for the next one and learn from this.”
Riley has a knack for turning learning experiences into championships. Riley’s first season as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator is a perfect example of this: Riley and then-head coach Bob Stoops turned an upset loss to a 1-4 Texas team into three consecutive November wins against ranked opponents — two of them on the road.
But a Week 9 loss is a little late for comfort. With the loss, the Sooners dropped from No. 5 to No. 10, and they only have four games to climb their way back, and that’s only if they win out. They still have to face an unbeaten No. 12 Baylor in Waco and cap off the season with Bedlam in Stillwater.
This month is where we see what this team is. With Hurts in his debut season and a new defensive coordinator in Alex Grinch, a lot of hype has surrounded this team. This November will show whether the hype is deserved.
“Something crazy happens every November. It’s always unexpected, it’s always blowing people's minds,” said former Sooner and now-Cincinnati Bengals running back Rodney Anderson. “But that’s what champions thrive in. I think that’s what OU likes to hang their hats on. That’s where championships are won, that’s where big games are decided, and it all starts in November.”
‘We needed to score a f*cking touchdown.’
Sooner fans are fond of the term “Championship November,” coined in 2015 because of the Sooners’ dominance in the month since.
In the Riley era, Oklahoma has played some of its greatest football and has prompted Big 12 Championships and College Football Playoff appearances. Oftentimes, November can be defined by a single game.
But November championship runs didn’t start in 2015. In 2004, the last time the Sooners went undefeated in the season, the team’s national championship hopes came down to a single play.
To kick off November, Stoops took his then-No. 2 Sooners to Kyle Field for a match against No. 22 Texas A&M. A year prior, the Sooners beat the Aggies 77-0.
That didn’t stop then-second-year A&M head coach Dennis Franchione from throwing everything his team had at the 8-0 Sooners. The Aggies started the matchup 14-0, scored two touchdowns on a fake punt and a fake field goal and contained freshman running back Adrian Peterson — who finished with 101 yards and a touchdown — when it mattered.
“They don’t want to lose in front of their home crowd, especially playing against us,” said then-senior Vince Carter, who was named an All-American that season at center. “You always know that you’re going to get your opponent’s best effort ... That’s the kind of mindset that we walked into games with. We were going to get our opponent’s best shot.”
It was the kind of game where it was so loud that quarterback Jason White had to grab his teammates’ jerseys and pull their helmets into his, calling plays individually. As A&M made more big plays, the crowd of 81,000 got louder.
“I’ve played in two national championship games, I played at Texas-OU, I’ve played in a Super Bowl, I’ve played at the next level in the NFL — that was by far the loudest I’ve ever heard a stadium,” former Oklahoma wide receiver Mark Bradley said of the A&M game.
With the game tied at 35-35 with 6:52 in regulation and the ball in the Sooners’ hands on the Aggies’ 40-yard line, Oklahoma needed to make a play. It was now or never.
Bradley, standing next to White, said he didn’t hear the senior quarterback’s play call. Not knowing what to do, Bradley kept his eyes on White as his team lined up. All he knew was that A&M was on a roll. The amount of opportunities was shrinking, the crowd was getting louder, and it was time to put the Sooners back on top.
“We needed to score a f*cking touchdown. Somebody needs to get this bitch in the end zone,” said Mark Clayton, who finished the game with 102 receiving yards. “If it comes to you, catch it. Get it in. Figure it out.”
White called for the snap, and Bradley ran down the middle of the field to a weak spot in A&M’s coverage. When he turned around to see what he should do next, he saw White running up and throwing him a pass.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Bradley recalls thinking.
Bradley made the catch, stopped, switched directions and ran around the two safeties in front of him. No one else caught him, and he ran to the back of the end zone. The extra point was good, and the Sooners were up 42-35, the final score. The season was saved.
For the remaining two games in November, the Sooners beat Nebraska and Baylor with a combined score of 65-3. They bested Colorado, 42-3, in the Big 12 Championship afterward.
“That’s where great teams have greater leaders that are able to help guys mentally — understand the scenario, not panic in the situation, but at the same time be able to step up,” Clayton said. “That is what’s telling of a championship team, and you can’t know until you’re literally in the fire. You don’t know until you’re there, and when you’re there we’ll see if we have that or not.”
‘We always learn from our mistakes.’
Eleven years later, the Sooners were thrown into the fire once again. But it wasn’t just one game. Ahead of Oklahoma were three ranked opponents, one after the other, in what would arguably become the program’s greatest championship run ever.
Then-No. 12 Oklahoma’s 44-34 win over No. 6 Baylor in 2015 launched the team, led by now-Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, into a three-game win streak over ranked opponents in 2015. Oklahoma went on to beat No. 18 TCU in Norman and No. 11 Oklahoma State in Stillwater in the following two weeks. The Sooners were Big 12 champions for the first time since 2012.
The loss to the Longhorns earlier that season had moved the Sooners from No. 10 to No. 19 in the AP poll. After November, the Sooners were at No. 4, earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Hence the name “Championship November” was born, a month that Sooner fans have come to know as a crucial part of the Riley era for gaining ground in hopes of winning the Big 12 Championship and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“November is always important to get on a good winning streak before you know whether or not you’re playing in the Big 12 Championship,” said now-Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Ben Powers, who played for the Sooners from 2016 to 2018. “It’s just important because everything is right around the corner. Everything is two months away.”
Riley, now in his fifth year with the Sooners and his third as their head coach, is 15-0 in the month of November. The month is used for boosting postseason hopes after unexpected setbacks.
In 2016, losses to Houston and Ohio State in the first three weeks of the season saw the Sooners go from No. 3 in the AP poll to unranked by Week 4. Oklahoma climbed back to No. 7 and a Sugar Bowl win over Auburn after November wins over No. 25 Baylor, No. 10 West Virginia and No. 11 Oklahoma State.
Arguably the biggest upset in recent memory, unranked Iowa State’s 38-31 2017 win on Owen Field over the No. 3 Sooners dropped the team to No. 12. The loss was before the season's halfway mark, but the College Football Playoff committee often sees an upset home loss as a playoff death sentence. In order to come back, Riley once again orchestrated a slew of November wins over No. 11 Oklahoma State in Boone Pickens Stadium and No. 8 TCU to make the Big 12 Championship game and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“It was just a really competitive month,” said Anderson, who played for the Sooners from 2015 to 2018. “We were able to have success. It’s just about putting one foot in front of the other, just keeping your head up and not looking back at the losses, but keep looking in front of you.”
With Kyler Murray leading the No. 7 Sooners' offense in 2018, a 48-45 loss to No. 19 Texas presented yet another setback for Riley. The Sooners climbed their way back to College Football Playoff contention and saved their postseason hopes with a 59-56 win over No. 12 West Virginia in a thriller in Morgantown. Murray led the Sooners with 480 yards of offense and four touchdowns to clinch a spot in the Big 12 Championship.
“We always learn from our mistakes,” Anderson said. “We just dissected that Texas game, and we learned what we needed to do better, and then we just applied it to the whole month of November.”
‘It all starts in November’
Ben Powers is to the point.
Before being selected in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the former Sooner was a starting guard for Riley’s 2017 and 2018 teams poised for the College Football Playoff, and he played a critical role in a nation-leading offense. Looking back on those seasons, he said he still can’t give an answer as to why the Sooners were upset by Iowa State and Texas.
“I wish I could tell you,” Powers said.
Despite having Heisman winners like Mayfield and Murray come through Norman, Riley has spent every season with the Sooners recovering from a setback. They were beaten by teams who had their sights set on the Sooners, which isn’t uncommon for a program that has now dominated its conference for four years, going on five. Now, with four straight Big 12 titles, the Sooners go into every game knowing their opponent isn’t going to pull any punches.
That was exactly the case when first-year Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman hosted the undefeated No. 5 Sooners in Manhattan on Oct. 26. The Wildcats won the coin toss and chose to receive to start the game. Their first drive was a punt, but that wouldn’t happen again until the fourth quarter after eight consecutive scores.
Klieman’s game plan was simple but effective: Give the Sooners as few scoring opportunities as possible by holding the ball as long as the Wildcats could. And that’s what they did.
The Wildcats had possession for 38 minutes compared to OU’s 21. Klieman made sure OU’s weak spots were exposed. Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson led an offense that ran for 213 yards, which gained ground on bursts of big gains. Oklahoma senior cornerback Parnell Motley was ejected in the second quarter after kicking a player, so Thompson made sure to take advantage of his absence and threw for 213 yards.
Oklahoma made costly turnovers — a Nick Basquine interception on a reverse play and a T.J. Pledger kick-return fumble — while also having the ball for only two drives in the third quarter. Both attempts ended in punts.
On paper, it appears the better team lost. With the recruiting Riley does, Oklahoma is the team with the most talent in the Big 12, and in a year where Riley has his most complete team to date, the Sooners were simply outplayed.
Powers can’t say why these losses happen. He just knows that the only way to move on is to take it and look forward.
“Tough,” Powers said. “That’s college football.”
With nine teams ahead of them in the AP poll and six spots outside of the top four, the No. 10 Sooners have to march on through the season. It’s not an easy journey to the finish. Two weeks from now, unbeaten No. 12 Baylor will host Riley and his one-loss team, and Bedlam in Stillwater will conclude the regular season before the Big 12 Championship. Winning out is a must for any hope of a College Football Playoff appearance.
“That’s where championships are won,” Anderson said. “That’s where big games are decided, and it all starts in November.”
For this year’s team, members of that 2004 squad have some advice. Bradley, who caught for 685 yards and nine touchdowns in his two-year career with the Sooners, knows games late in the season can be tough. In 2003, he and the No. 1 Sooners lost their only two games at the very end of the season to No. 12 Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship and No. 2 LSU in the BCS National Championship.
With a loss to Kansas State in Week 9, this year's Sooners still have their championship hopes in front of them. Riley just has to make sure this November continues the tradition of winning — and winning championships, at that.
“One game doesn’t determine the fate of your season,” Bradley said. “We lost the Big 12 Championship game late, late in the season and still played in the national championship game. So what I would say to them is, ‘One game doesn’t determine the fate of the season. You can’t always win them all, you can’t always remain perfect, but what shows is what happens after you lose that game ... because one loss can turn into two, two can turn into three, and on and on.’”