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How Oklahoma rallied against Baylor and kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive

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Hurts, Sooners complete epic comeback to defeat Baylor (2:21)

After a rocky start in the first half, Jalen Hurts leads the Sooners' 25-point comeback with four touchdowns to hand Baylor its first loss. (2:21)

WACO, Texas -- With his team trailing by 25 points, a record McLane Stadium crowd bursting with jubilation and his most explosive offensive player sidelined, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley pulled together every member of his travel roster for an impassioned speech.

As more than 60 crimson-and-cream-clad players bunched in between the 30- and 35-yard lines and circled him on Saturday, Riley was demonstrative, full-throated. After a disastrous start, he wanted them to refocus and to remind them of what they're capable of.

"I told them, 'If we don't believe, we have no shot,'" Riley said. "But they believed."

Nearly 2½ hours later, Jalen Hurts and Parnell Motley were celebrating and taking selfies with the Sooners fans, Riley was hugging his mother, Marilyn, and the team was celebrating the largest comeback in program history, a narrow 34-31 road win over a previously unbeaten Baylor team that resuscitated Oklahoma's College Football Playoff hopes. Where exactly those hopes are will become clearer on Tuesday night when the committee's latest rankings are released, but the 9-1 Sooners still have a fighting chance.

"You have to win," Riley said. "I know that's been a decent formula for us the last few years."

Here's a closer look at how the Sooners pulled off their historic rally:

No halftime panic

By the time the second quarter ended, the scoreboard read: BAYLOR 31 OKLAHOMA 10. But despite the score, the Sooners were confident.

The two drives following Riley's pep talk -- when the Sooners trailed 28-3 -- were positive. Hurts led a 14-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 5-yard touchdown pass to Austin Stogner, the Sooners' first visit to the end zone all night.

Baylor scored on the ensuing drive to close the half, but Oklahoma was able to hold the Bears to a field goal just before halftime.

"We felt like we had some momentum there at the end of the half, as crazy as that may sound," Riley said. "The guys were awesome at half. Didn't have to say a whole lot to them."

The players knew what had to be done. They had been in a similar position earlier this season, trailing Kansas State by 25 points last month. They had only 12:54 to climb out of that hole and came one instant-replay review away from possibly pulling it off, before eventually falling 48-41 to the Wildcats.

On Saturday, the Sooners already had taken steps to trim the deficit before the midpoint and had two full quarters left.

"Even at K-State, when we got down in that third quarter, I think maybe about half of us really believed we had a chance to come back and win that thing," Riley said. "In this one, there was not one person on that sideline that didn't believe it."

There was no theatrical halftime speech in the locker room from Riley like those seen in many a sports movie. He said what he had to early in the second quarter. What was evident at the half was palpable confidence from the Sooners that they would get it done. Hurts at one point walked by defensive coordinator Alex Grinch when Grinch told him, "This is going to be one hell of a story to tell our kids."

Hurts replied: "Yeah, just add another one to the list. One of many."

Coincidentally, historic comebacks were fresh on the minds of the players, because earlier in the week the coaching staff showed the team video clips from the New England Patriots' miraculous comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

Notably, the score when OU had its largest deficit was the same the Patriots faced: 28-3.

"We literally watched that this week," Motley said. "It showed us how to face adversity.

"Seeing how a Super Bowl team responded in that situation, it's great to watch that clip; we looked at the scoreboard the same way."

Takeaways equal victory

One thing Grinch has emphasized since he stepped foot into the Switzer Center this offseason is turnovers. Grinch has a saying, and the defensive players repeated it with regularity on Saturday.

"Takeaways equal victory," Sooners linebacker Kenneth Murray said.

During the first month of the season, when the defense looked night-and-day different from the 2018 version, the Sooners compiled six takeaways. But recently, the Sooners' fortunes shifted. There were many close calls but no takeaways for five straight weeks. (Motley intercepted a Brock Purdy pass on Iowa State's two-point conversion attempt in the final moments of the Sooners' Week 12 win, but takeaways and other statistics on such conversions aren't officially tallied.) Meanwhile, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor combined to score 120 points on the Sooners in 10 quarters.

That changed early in Saturday's third quarter.

After opening the second half with another long touchdown drive that resulted in a Hurts-to-Stogner scoring connection, Baylor looked to respond. On its first play from scrimmage of the half, running back JaMycal Hasty busted free for 18 yards, but as he neared midfield, Motley crept in from behind and punched the ball loose.

"I didn't think I was really going to get it, because before I came to him, he covered [the ball] up," Motley said. "So I just did a hard punch and just threw it in there. It popped right out and I grabbed [Hasty] so he couldn't recover."

Oklahoma safety Pat Fields secured the ball, and the Sooners' sideline erupted.

"It was a big relief for me," Grinch said.

The turnover drought was over, and the play only strengthened the Sooners' confidence that they would pull off the unthinkable.

Hurts turns it around

While observers focused on Oklahoma's defensive shortcomings in recent weeks, the offense hasn't been without its faults. The group, which averages 47 points per game, has had rough stretches in each of the past three contests, none more pronounced than the first two quarters against Baylor. Hurts was at the center of the struggles.

Once considered a Heisman Trophy candidate earlier this season, Hurts looked far from it in Saturday's first half. He tossed a rare interception in the second quarter that proved disastrous -- throwing from the right hash to the left sideline, where Baylor safety Grayland Arnold waited, stepped in front and returned it 71 yards to set up the Bears' fourth touchdown of the night. Hurts had just 80 passing yards and 26 rushing yards at the half, minuscule totals as compared to his usual production.

Even worse, with top receiver CeeDee Lamb -- an ESPN midseason All-American and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist -- sidelined for what Riley termed a "medical decision," it didn't appear that Hurts was confident in the rest of the receiving corps. None of them had more than two catches at the midpoint.

After Motley forced the Hasty fumble in the third quarter, the Sooners' comeback attempt took a brief pause as Hurts committed a second turnover on the ensuing possession. Baylor defensive end James Lynch poked the ball from Hurts' grasp near the goal line on a would-be touchdown run.

"I was trying to get in the end zone," Hurts said. "And yeah, my ball security, it sucks. So I'll try to fix it."

Riley didn't panic and he didn't lecture Hurts. He just delivered a simple message to his quarterback, who, despite the early struggles, was beginning to find a rhythm.

"I told him, 'I think we're moving it well at this point, hold onto the damn ball, score every drive,'" Riley said.

Despite the setback, the signal-caller did just that. After going 8-for-14 passing in the first half, Hurts went 22-for-28 in the second half. Hurts and receiver Lee Morris started connecting regularly. Charleston Rambo, the team's second-leading receiver this season, began emerging as well.

Several younger players also were impactful. Stogner and Theo Wease, both freshmen, caught touchdowns, as did sophomore H-back Brayden Willis. It was the first career touchdown reception for Willis and just the second for both Stogner and Wease. Even without Lamb, the nation's leader in touchdown receptions, the Sooners found their groove. They didn't hit home runs the way they do with Lamb, but the methodical take-what-the-defense-gives approach worked nonetheless.

"They're all big-time players, and I'm glad everyone got to experience a game like this, kind of add to their résumé," Hurts said. "It shows you've been battle-tested.

"I think we had a lot of young guys, a lot of inexperienced guys, who kind of grew up today."

And Hurts was candid about his struggles, but he too showed growth when it mattered most.

"We were out there battling and [I] made some mistakes," Hurts said. "Turned the ball over [twice]; that's unacceptable for me. But we found a way to overcome it. And it's this team thing that means so much, to football, to any team sport. It's about the group, it's about everybody, it's not about one individual or one mistake, it's about how do you respond to it as a team.

"I think we were the hammer and not the nail."

The Sooners' offense dominated possession in the second half, so much so that the Bears lost their rhythm. Baylor had only four offensive snaps the entire third quarter. By the time they got the ball back for their final possession with 1:45 left, the Bears had only 10 snaps in four second-half possessions. The defense was gassed.

Still, after Oklahoma kicker Gabe Brkic gave the Sooners a late three-point lead, the Bears had one final shot. Then Sooners linebacker Nik Bonitto got not one but two chances at a game-ending interception. He made good on the second one, and the Sooners celebrated.

Dozens of teammates greeted Bonitto in the postgame celebration with hugs, handshakes and howls. Hurts and Motley were mobbed by the front row of Sooners fans near the end zone, then the two players shared an embrace afterward.

Riley was both happy and relieved. The Sooners' fight for another playoff berth is still alive.

"Well, that was fun," Riley said as he plopped onto a chair afterward to meet with reporters.

The coach marveled at the resilience and maturity his team showed and the confidence it displayed when it was at its lowest point. Then he expressed some confidence of his own.

"I think people still see we got a lot of things to continue to grow and get better," he said. "I think this can be a catalyst for that. I think it will be.

"Our best ball is coming soon."