NORMAN, Okla. – Of all the problems Bob Stoops could have at No. 14 Oklahoma, dealing with the repercussions of too many blowout victories could be right up there with the ones he'd most willingly sign up to handle.
Over the past few seasons, the Sooners' fourth-quarter routine most frequently involves protecting leads or even rolling in backup players to run out the clock when games are out of hand. That was the case throughout their three-game winning streak against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas over the past month.
But here's the catch: Without the experience of being in many of them, the Sooners (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) keep falling short in close games. Both of their losses this season came down to the fourth quarter, when they were unable to get a stop or a score when they needed it the most.
The opponent in both cases, Kansas State and Notre Dame, came in with a track record of clawing out the close ones.
"Yeah, they know how to win. They've been in them. It wasn't uncomfortable for them. It was probably more uncomfortable for us in that situation," Sooners defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said.
"Again, there is something to knowing how to win tight games, and they certainly have a great formula for that."
Oklahoma is trying to find that formula again. It's been a full five years since his Sooners have come back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win a game, with the last time coming in October 2007 against Missouri. Since then, Oklahoma has lost all 15 games when it trailed in the fourth quarter.
"Well, you want to make a play on either side of the ball. One or two more plays help make a difference, whether it's a third-down conversion, whether it's a third-down stop or to not give up the one big play," Bob Stoops said. "Those are factors,"
There have been three games during that drought that Oklahoma scored to break a fourth-quarter tie and win, including in 2007 at Iowa State — one week after the Missouri win. That was the Sooners' last trip to Ames, Iowa, before they visit the Cyclones (5-3, 2-3) again this Saturday.
"It's frustrating just to know in both of the games we lost this year, we had a chance to win the game," said defensive end David King, a team captain. "It's frustrating more as a defense because we had the opportunity to win the game and we went out there and guys not reading their proper keys or the D-line not getting any rush on the passer, they hit these long runs and these big passes.
"It's not like we lost to just terrible opponents."
Bob Stoops has been eager to point out that the two losses came against opponents who are currently ranked in the top five, although the Sooners would likely be up there instead if they had won instead of losing 30-13 to the Fighting Irish on Saturday night.
In that game, Oklahoma rallied to tie the game at 13 in the fourth quarter, only to allow 17 points to finish the game.
Against K-State, Oklahoma was trailing by four and had the ball in the fourth quarter, but committed a penalty and then went three-and-out before allowing the Wildcats to tack on another touchdown and win 24-19.
"You've just got to be more precise in things. We played both of those teams that we lost to close up to the fourth quarter," cornerback Aaron Colvin said. "We're working on being more precise and just making plays."
Despite giving up a 50-yard pass immediately after the offense had tied the game at 13, and then yielding the go-ahead touchdown, Mike Stoops said it was "one of our best games of the year and they just made more plays than we did.
"We couldn't make a play to save our life," he said. "They just made, it seemed like, every play that mattered throughout the course of the game."
King said fatigue wasn't a factor. Even though Notre Dame had long, sustained drives, King said the Sooners were able to substitute and keep fresh players on the field because they weren't facing a no-huddle offense.
In return, the offense responded to Notre Dame's go-ahead touchdown with an interception on a diving play by linebacker Manti Te'o.
"You've just got to stay focused for four quarters, not playing a half. We'll do a better job," King said. "That's what we've got to focus on this week, just finishing the game off. We had them but it slipped away from us and they walked out of here with the win."