OU football: Saunders' punt return crucial to Sooners' 51-48 Bedlam win
- Junior wide receiver Jalen Saunders' 81-yard punt return for a touchdown 28%
- Sophomore quarterback Blake Bell's four-yard game-tying rushing touchdown 26%
- Junior Running back Brennan Clay's 18-yard game-winning rushing touchdown 46%
57 total votes.
NORMAN — It didn’t look good.
With just under 15 minutes left in the ball game, OU trailed, 38-30, as junior receiver Jalen Saunders stood near his own 20-yard line waiting to field a punt.
About 30 seconds later, Saunders tied it up.
He caught Sharp’s punt at his own 19, sidestepped to his right, cut back to his left and then put his foot into the dirt and busted it to the outside.
“I saw a lane right when I caught the ball, and I was hoping someone got that block,” Saunders said. “And when I saw them get that block, I just turned the corner and took off as fast as I can.”
Saunders took the punt 81 yards to the house — OU’s second punt return for touchdown this season — and just like that, the Sooners were back in it.
“When I got around the corner, I was just like, 'Man, put ‘em up, put 'em down,' as my dad used to say,” Saunders said.
After spotting the Cowboys a 14-point handicap, OU never had the lead until junior running back Brennan Clay plowed into the end zone on the game’s final play.
But Saunders’ return sparked the Sooners’ comeback.
“I came back to the sideline after the punt return, and everyone was excited,” Saunders said. “I felt like everybody was just jumping, ready to get back out on the field and make a play.”
Junior receiver Kenny Stills also recognized the shift.
“I felt the momentum change,” Stills said. “When Jalen makes a move, he's gone. He showed that tonight, and he showed that last week.”
Saunders spelled the Sooners' usual return man, senior receiver Justin Brown, and the punt return was Saunders' first of the season. But Saunders long had been rumored as a potential return man.
“We’ve been talking about that the last couple of weeks: Let’s get Jalen some catches back there because of how dynamic he is,” coach Bob Stoops said. “So it didn’t surprise us that he would squirt out of there, and fortunately, he did.”
Saunders said Stoops asked him a few times if he wanted to return a punt or two.
“I told him I didn’t mind doing it; I did it my freshman year at college at Fresno (State)," he said. “He just told me whenever I got back there to just tuck it up and run like you run — just do you, basically.”
And that’s exactly what he did as he gave the Sooners the boost they so desperately needed.
“It’s up there as one of the best plays of my career,” Saunders said. “I’ve had a few (good ones), but that one probably turns up there.”
But the punt return wasn’t the only play Saunders made Saturday; the Elk Grove, Calif., native also caught 10 passes for a team-high 162 yards, including a nine–yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.
“This game really, really meant a lot to me,” Saunders said. “I feel like I still got a lot to prove. People always overlook me because of my size.”
As for his quarterback’s performance — senior Landry Jones threw for 500 yards and three touchdowns from a career-high 71 attempts — color Saunders impressed.
“It’s incredible,” Saunders said. “It’s something you do in a video game.”
And although Clay was the hero — getting mobbed by co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell and a host of OU players in the end zone after his game-winning, 18-yard touchdown run — and Jones dominated the stat sheet, it was Saunders who kept the Sooners in it.