NORMAN, Okla. - When Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham saw Sam Bradford go hurtling end over end in an all-out effort to score a touchdown, his first thought wasn't a good one.
"I thought it was a gangling deer got hit by a car or something," Gresham said. "All I saw was his legs go in the air."
Because the key loss that knocked the Sooners out of the national-championship race a season earlier also came when Bradford was injured, there was a collective sigh of relief when the star quarterback popped back up, ready to go.
In the process, Bradford came away with one of those moments that may stick in the minds of Heisman Trophy voters as they fill out their ballots.
On third and goal from the 9, Bradford backtracked to the 25 to avoid pressure and then outran Oklahoma State linebacker Patrick Lavine up the right sideline before vaulting into the air in a bid to reach the pylon. He got pinwheeled by safety Ricky Price, and then walloped by linebacker Orie Lemon hard enough that the ball came free out of bounds.
And he did it all with a left thumb that was already torn up after he stiff-armed Lemon earlier in the game.
Even without scoring a touchdown or even getting a first down, Bradford's play left an impression on his teammates.
"When Sam jumped, I think everybody's first instinct was, 'No, don't jump!' But we know he's trying to win, he's trying to get into the end zone, and we enjoyed that," receiver Manuel Johnson said.
"Coach said that was a big play because if he would have just threw it out of bounds, he probably wouldn't have went for it on fourth down. He probably would have went with the field goal. But he got it down there to the 1, and with that effort I think coach was like: 'I can't kick a field goal since he made that effort.' "
Bradford scored on a 1-yard plunge on the next play, when he recovered his own fumbled snap, and that allowed Oklahoma to extend its lead to 37-26. A field goal would have allowed the Cowboys to take a 34-33 lead on their next possession - when Zac Robinson and Dez Bryant hooked up for a 17-yard touchdown and then a two-point conversion.
Instead, the fourth-ranked Sooners (11-1) went on to a 61-41 victory and advanced to face No. 19 Missouri (9-3) on Saturday in the Big Twelve championship game. Bradford will play with a soft cast protecting the torn ligament in his left hand and then is expected to have surgery.
"His heart, his toughness, his competitiveness is second to none," Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. "The players love him because they see all of that. His effort trying to get the ball into the end zone on a third-down play, diving over everybody and thumb already injured, just going for it."
Stoops has been leery about Bradford taking too many hits after the quarterback was knocked out of the Texas Tech game last season with a concussion when he had to make a tackle after a fumble. Oklahoma, which was ranked No. 3 at the time, lost its chance at the national championship after that 34-27 loss.
Before the Sooners faced Texas Tech this year, Bradford said if the same situation arose, he couldn't see himself getting out of the way of a tackle because he was too competitive. He took that to another level with his head-first dive for the pylon.
"I saw it happen right there live," Johnson said. "I just thought, 'Oh, my God.' "
Bradford's fearless flip came on the same field where Texas' Vince Young had a Heisman moment of his own three years earlier, pump-faking defender Donovan Woods into the air despite being well past the line of scrimmage on an 80-yard touchdown scramble that got the Longhorns out of a halftime deficit.
While the fleet-footed Young had his highlight during a career-best 267-yard rushing performance, Bradford's only added to another stellar passing night that has become the norm for him. He had 370 yards passing for his 10th 300-yard outing of the season and threw four touchdown passes to move his NCAA-best total to 46.
"The way he got up don't surprise me at all, but just how he flipped does," said Gresham, who played basketball against Bradford in high school. "I know he can get up and slam it with the best of them."
But while the play is sure to go down in Bedlam rivalry lore - and maybe Heisman history, too - Bradford couldn't even say for sure that it was the wildest flip of his football career.
"It might be," Bradford said, "but it might come in a close second to one that I had in Little League, and it's on videotape. It was pretty nasty, too."