Everything was seemingly going right for the Sooners on Saturday.
Minnesota beat Penn State. Baylor beat TCU. And LSU beat Alabama. All No. 9 Oklahoma (8-1, 5-1 Big 12) needed to do was beat Iowa State (5-4, 3-3 Big 12) and do it in impressive fashion, and for a good portion of the game, it looked like it was going to.
But, somehow, the feeling as players walked off the field Saturday was that the Sooners might have just eliminated themselves from College Football Playoff contention with a 42-41 win.
Yes, you read that right — a win.
Most Oklahoma players, besides a smiling CeeDee Lamb who had a career day with 167 receiving yards and two touchdowns, strolled off Owen Field dejected. Just minutes earlier, senior cornerback Parnell Motley had made the game-winning and, in many ways, the season-saving interception to keep Iowa State from completing a 2-point conversion to take the lead.
It should have been a cause for celebration but, instead, was a sigh of relief.
"Thrilled to get a win, obviously not real enthused that we let the game get a lot closer then we're going to feel like we should have," coach Lincoln Riley said. "Most of the time, you have a couple very defining moments and tough games, tough situations you have to overcome. We did tonight."
Riley said, at times, the Sooners played some of their best ball of the season Saturday night. And he's not wrong.
Lamb and Jalen Hurts looked as explosive as they have all season in the first half. Defensively in the first half, the Sooners looked like the defense everyone saw in the first seven games, forcing punts and making plays.
But much like against Kansas State two weeks ago, all of this fell apart in the second half, with Iowa State outscoring Oklahoma 27-7.
The defense relapsed, giving up 20 points in the fourth quarter.
"There’s some real embarrassing stretches of football that fall back on my shoulders," defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. "Defensively, inability to tackle, and I’ve fallen down in coverage — just things that can’t happen, shouldn’t happen, and so I’ve got to be a lot better moving forward for us to do anything we want to do as a football team.”
And the offense became stagnant, only totaling 125 yards in the final two quarters.
"I think we have a standard that we try to play by for 60 minutes in a complete game," said Hurts, who totaled 341 yards, five touchdowns and an interception. "We'd rather be sitting here with a win, but there's a lot to learn from this game. I think it's a prime example of how much growth — room we have to improve."
Oklahoma has a lot to improve and little time to do it.
Next week, the Sooners travel to Waco for the biggest game of the season, facing No. 12 Baylor. That's followed by senior night in Norman against TCU. And finally, a tough trip to Stillwater to face a rising Oklahoma State team.
The road is only going to get harder from here. But they don't call it "Championship November" for nothing.
“Y’all have been around here the last few years like I have," Riley said. "You got to win tough games. That’s a good football team. I’m just telling you right now. Listen, I want to play a hell of a lot better. I want to play better in the second half and blow 'em out worse than anybody in this room, but winning’s winning, and that’s a win.”
With College GameDay featuring the Sooners in prime time next week, it looks like Hurts and Oklahoma will find out real quick what they learned from Saturday.
After the game, Hurts had maybe his most thoughtful and definitely his most talkative press conference of the season. For him, he has only so many games left in his collegiate career. And as it comes to a close, he's going to try to continue to lead Oklahoma to what he came here for — a national title.
He knows that nights like Saturday is what can either make or break a team's year.
"All year, before I got here, for the longest time I've said, 'We won't know who are as a team until we get in some fire,'" Hurts said. "You look back at the lesson of the previous game we played, and you ask yourself, 'Did we respond the right way we wanted to?' You look at this game here, as a team, and you say, 'We definitely put ourselves in a horrible situation.'
"The unique part about all of this is, we found out a lot about ourselves as far as overcoming adversity ... We needed this for a reason."