By Alaa Abdeldaiem | @Abdeldaiem_Alaa
PASADENA, Calif. –– The second he heard the sound, he knew.
The second he saw it––the ball flying sideways, flat, short and too far to the right––it took no time at all for Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield to realize the reality that was settling in.
The game had been tied at 48-48. Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter had just blocked Oklahoma kicker Austin Seibert’s 27-yard field goal in double-overtime.
Mayfield bent forward, looking at the grass, hands on his knees. A few moments later, there was the sight of Georgia’s Sony Michel breaking off for the 27-yard dagger.
Oklahoma had come up short, falling 54-48 to Georgia in double-overtime in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual.
Mayfield knew that he couldn’t finish the journey for his senior class the way he had always dreamed. That it would be his last moments in the locker room with his teammates. That he’d never play for head coach Lincoln Riley again.
That his time as a Sooner had come to an end.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” Mayfield said after the game, pausing to wipe the tears from his eyes. “It’s been a wild ride.”
Wild is one way to describe Monday afternoon’s match-up. Coming in as the No. 1 offense in the country, Oklahoma had no trouble picking up right where the Sooners left off.
Mayfield went 13-of-18 for 200 yards and one touchdown in the first half. Things were running so smoothly, Mayfield even caught a pass, his first career reception coming on a touchdown that put the Sooners up 31-14 with six seconds left in the second quarter.
Everything was falling into place. In the 103 previous Rose Bowls, no team had ever overcome a deficit of more than 15 points. Georgia, the nation’s No. 4-ranked defense, showed no signs of being able to slow Mayfield down.
Then the squib kick happened.
Riley decided to kick it short, hoping to give Georgia no chance of scoring before the break. Instead, the Bulldogs flipped the field and allowed kicker Rodrigo Blankenship to make a 55-yard field goal, the longest in Rose Bowl history.
“That probably gave them a little bit of juice,” Riley said. “It was a good call, and Austin’s been great with those. He just didn’t hit it well and ended up going right to their guy, which is what you can’t do and we did.”
Oklahoma continued to do a lot of things it shouldn’t have in the third quarter. They gave up big runs to both Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Michel, who finished the game with a combined 326 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
They were punished up front on both sides of the ball, giving up three sacks in the third quarter and five sacks overall to tie a season-high.
“When you make mistakes up front, myself included, and you play a great defense like that and don’t execute the way you need to, you’re going to get stopped,” center Erick Wren said. “They’re a great defense, and when you don’t play at the level you’re capable of playing, you’re going to get slowed down.”
The Sooners played inconsistently on offense. After a dominant first half, Mayfield went a staggering 2-of-4 for just 14 yards in the third quarter. He threw an interception in the fourth, sailing a pass over the head of Mark Andrews, the 6-foot, 5-inch tight end. The pick ended a school-record four-game streak without a turnover for Oklahoma.
Mayfield sat in the middle of the dressing room, still in his uniform, surrounded by reporters on all sides. His voice sounded so raspy it was difficult to hear his words.
“They hit us in the mouth,” he said. “They blitzed a little more on first and second down, mixed it up, played better, played more physical. When you get up on a team, you talk about stepping on their throat, having that mentality to really bury them when you’re up and not let them back in the game. Obviously we did not do that. We let them back in the game.”
The consequences for doing so? Having a game once in their control slip into the crisis of double overtime.
Letting Georgia complete the largest comeback in Rose Bowl history, two points more than the Southern California victory over Penn State last year. Putting an end to Oklahoma’s chances at a national title.
“It was a hell of a college football game, an epic Rose Bowl game, but being on this side of it is difficult to describe,” Riley said. “The disappointment, the hurt that we feel, that those guys in that locker room feel right now. Some of them came in telling me sorry and telling us sorry, and I said, ‘Don’t tell us you’re sorry.’ Our team laid it on the line every snap.”
Mayfield knew that much, too.
All along, the maturity and commitment of this group set it apart from the team that fell to Clemson, 37-17, two seasons ago in the Orange Bowl.
That’s also what makes this defeat especially hard for him: that Mayfield knew this year was different.
“We talked about that a lot, about how when we got another chance, we knew we had finish it out the right way,” he said. “We put so much into this. This was a special team, special staff, special supporting staff, the people, the fans. It’s been such a great ride, but knowing that it didn’t end up the way we wanted it to? That’s the toughest part.”
There’s still a future, though. Both for Oklahoma and for Mayfield.
When asked about the state of the program moving forward, senior safety Steven Parker was confident success was in the picture.
“It sucks that the cookie didn’t crumble how we wanted it to, but we’re still Sooners,” Parker said. “Those young guys, they’re very special. They’re going to continue to develop and grow up, and it’s going to be a great team here next year.”
And while Mayfield won’t be a part of that team, he’s confident in his ability to carry over his college success to the pros.
“Tonight didn’t show it, but I am a winner,” Mayfield said. “I do know how to lead. That’s the most important thing going forward.”
For now, though, Mayfield will take his time moving on from this moment.
He’ll savor every second with his coach, his teammates and this Sooner team. Because he knows once he lets them go, things may never be the same.
“It’s been a dream come true playing for the University of Oklahoma,” Mayfield said. “It’s tough to not be able to do that. I talked to the former teammates that are in the league now. It’s just different. There’s something about playing for OU. It’s a family atmosphere, something you can only dream of, so you have to enjoy every single moment.”
Mayfield paused, choking back the same tears that overcame him earlier, and took a breath.
“The good, and the bad.”