— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) January 3, 2017
Records fell in the Crescent City on Monday night as the Oklahoma Sooners marched their way to a 35-19 win over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine, and Joe Mixon all etched their places in OU Football history by producing big plays on a big night to end what has been a big season for Oklahoma’s offense. But what about the defense? You know, the side of the ball that many people (including myself) thought would be a major weakness against a physical Auburn defense. The Sooner defenders were at a different level in the Super Dome and freshman linebacker Caleb Kelly was a huge factor in that.
Kelly didn’t see the field when Oklahoma hosted Ohio State for their third game of the season, but in OU’s biggest game since that night the kid from California was an absolute star. Kelly led the Sooners with 12 total tackles, breaking a record held by Tyrell Peters for tackles in a bowl game by a freshman.
“All week I was hard on him,” senior linebacker Jordan Evans told reporters. “If he messed up, I was the first one to say something to him. I knew I needed him for this win. He was going to be a big factor and he stepped up and did it. That’s part of the reason why we won.”
It wasn’t just a part of the reason, it was a major factor in Oklahoma’s win. OU held Auburn to 339 total yards on offense and a paltry 5-of-15 on third downs. Kelly stepped up and the entire defense with him.
A true freshman from Fresno, California, Kelly was a 5-star recruit by Rivals who chose Oklahoma over offers from Alabama, Oregon, Notre Dame, Texas, and others. Many people have gone to the internet and the airways in the days after the Sugar Bowl to proclaim that Kelly is going to be a star…He’s not going to be, HE IS A STAR!
“After a couple starts I was told by the coaches, ‘You can’t be playing like a freshman and you can’t make mistakes. You’ve got to play like a veteran,’” Kelly said. “I finished the season out strong, probably played my best game of the season tonight so getting to end it like that, I’m real happy with it.” The entirety of the Sooner Nation was “real happy” with Kelly’s big night in the Big Easy as well.
Oklahoma’s offense has made huge strides the last two seasons under the leadership of Lincoln Riley. Heading into the New Year it was the defense that was blamed for keeping the Sooners out of the playoffs and it’ll be up to Mike Stoops to improve his squad if the Oklahoma wants to make a run in 2017. The defense that took the field against Auburn was a vastly different unit than the one that failed to hold up against Ohio State. Caleb Kelly was one of the major differences in the two performances, and that has OU fans anxiously awaiting September 2nd.