OU-Air Force Rewind: OU quarterback comes of age

Sooner quarterback comes of age, Griffin humble after his best game ever, Oklahoma secondary developing into the nations best and much, much more.

COLORADO SPRINGS - Nate Hybl's coming out party as the official quarterback of the Oklahoma Sooners came with 4:39 remaining the first half of the Sooners 44-3 win over Air Force. Up until that point most of the Sooner faithful still lacked confidence in their new leader and most certainly were not ready to give him the job full-time.

Come on folks let's be honest…most of you felt that Jason White at least deserved a renewed chance to be the starting quarterback didn't you?

Hybl's lackluster performance in the season opener against North Carolina disillusioned many Sooner fans on his capabilities. Many felt he lacked what it takes to lead the Sooners back to the promise land. The fans weren't alone as many of my media brethren also lacked confidence that Hybl was good enough to win championships at OU. This after one start following a three-year layoff from big time football competition. Fortunately for Hybl and the football squad the fans and media don't run the team, the OU coaches do.

While many claimed or hinted that there was a quarterback controversy brewing in Norman, the OU coaches claimed otherwise and held their ground behind Hybl. Sure, they wanted him to play better, be tougher in the pocket and wait a hair longer in the pocket. They wanted him to let the play develop even if it meant getting his head knocked off, but they never wavered in their belief that Hybl is the best starting quarterback for the 2001 Sooners.

Most of the offensive preparation centered on Hybl getting the entire offense involved, throwing the ball downfield and taking advantage of all the Sooners offensive weapons. Hybl looked great all week in practice and the OU coaching staff felt confident that he would respond with a positive performance against Air Force.

With 4:39 remaining in the second quarter the coaches confidence was being tested. Up until that point Hybl was 4-for-12 for 15 yards and the Sooners were hanging on to a 10-3 lead thanks to great punting by Jeff Ferguson and a stingy defense.

Facing first and twenty from his own ten, Hybl hit his favorite target Quentin Griffin for a quick seven-yard gain on a shuttle pass. After an incompletion, Hybl would hit Damian Mackey for 14 yards and a first down that seemed to ignite Hybl's abilities.

"I don't know what it was about the pass, but all of a sudden I felt really in the groove," said Hybl after the game. "Maybe it was because it picked up a key first down for us, or maybe it was that the pass felt real good coming out of my hand. I really feel like it was because for the first time I just reacted to what I saw and let my God given ability do the rest. That was the way I used to play in high school and I really think on that one pass that I finally did it here at OU."

On the very next play Hybl connected to a streaking Andre Woolfolk on a corner route for 54-yards down to the Air Force 15. Sprinting down the field to join the huddle, Hybl had a little more skip in his step and in just two plays looked like a totally different quarterback. Two plays later Hybl hung tough in the pocket, took a knock right under the chin, but delivered a perfect slant route to roommate Trent Smith for a 13-yard touchdown.

Against North Carolina Hybl was bailing out of the play to quick and going to Griffin, his safety valve in the flat. If Hybl had hung tough in the pocket against the Tar Heels he would have found receivers open over the middle several times in the opening game. In that one drive late in the first half against Air Force Hybl grew up as a college quarterback, and as the Sooners leader.

"Nate Hybl was excellent today," said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops. "He had four balls that were dropped that hit our receivers in the hands that would have been other big gains. He threw the ball down field great, made great reads and continues to improve and I am excited to see that. Nate throwing the ball like that and Quentin running the ball like he did made our offense pretty strong."

Of the four passes dropped, Hybl lost one touchdown throw and possibly two. Usually sure-handed Antwone Savage dropped a curl and a deep flag on back-to-back throws in the second quarter. On the deep flat Savage was so wide open that if he makes the catch and can keep his feet he might have scored. Early in the fourth quarter Woolfolk dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone and the Sooners had to settle for a field goal.

Hybl finished the first half 5-of-7 for 107 yards and in the final 4:29 of the game the Sooners put 10 points on the board, and essentially put the game out of reach. However, more importantly Hybl felt like he belonged in big time college football and finally had the confidence that he could move the ball in the OU offense.

"Yeah, the end of the first half gave me confidence that things were coming together," said Hybl. "It's not that I lack confidence in my abilities or the abilities of my teammates, but I was tired of laying the ball off to ‘Q' and I wanted to throw the ball down field. I wanted to get some air underneath the ball and we did that at the end of the first half. It was such a good feeling that I wanted to do it again. Man, that was some fun football."

Hybl finished only 14-for-31 for 161 yards including two passing touchdowns and one running. Throw in the four catches and all of a sudden you've got an 18-for-31 performance for over 200-yards and possibly four touchdowns, and that is one heck of a day.

Hybl's effort didn't impress all his critics and no matter how well he does he seems to pick up others who doubt his abilities. Most of the sportswriters and broadcasters from Colorado were very complementary toward the Sooner team and fans. However, just about all of them were still taking shots at Hybl after the game.

"Sure, the Sooners are good," writes The Colorado Springs Gazette's Lynn Zinser. "Quentin Griffin's 201-yard performance was legitimately awesome. The amount of havoc caused by linebacker Rocky Calmus deserved attention. But, Hybl looks vulnerable to getting eaten alive by other top 10 teams. Oklahoma's schemers put him in the shotgun for much of the game and Air Force couldn't mount much of a pass rush and he still only completed 14-of-31 passes for 161 yards," wrote Zinser.

In other papers, one column's headline read...

"Maybe, but quarterback Nate Hybl is a long way from filling Josh Heupel's shoes. Griffin makes them a dangerous team, but a one-dimensional offense could be their weakness if Hybl continues to struggle. Of course, if the Sooner defense plays like it can, maybe no one will score on them."

Not a ringing endorsement for the junior Sooner quarterback and the Air Force talk show host immediately after the game didn't seem any more impressed. However, I wasn't impressed with their football knowledge either.

The Air Force media made a big deal of the Sooners working out of the shotgun so much, failing to realize that the shotgun is a major staple in the Sooner offense. The picture they painted was one of the Sooners lining up in the shotgun because Hybl needed the extra cushion because he feared the Falcons pass rush.

Yeah right. The Sooners didn't line up in the shotgun because they feared the pass rush of the Falcons or because Nate Hybl can't operate under center. They lined up in the shotgun because it's a great offense against the Air Force pass rush or any other other for that matter. OU will always use the shotgun 50 to 60 times a game. I just don't understand why the Air Force press couldn't figure that out. All they had to do was ask Bob Stoops after the game or Mark Mangino and they would have filled them in.

Finally, the "Q" is now the national map. Even though I still have fans and media alike that feel another of the Sooners running backs would be better in the Sooner offense, Quentin Griffin continues to be the key to the offense. Is there now any doubt who really drives this offense?

‘Q's 201-yard rushing effort was a perfect showcase of the junior's amazing skills. The Sooners used zone blocking on the majority of his 26 carries and Griffin's ability to find the right hole, make the first defender miss and run through tacklers makes him one of the best running backs in the country.

‘Q' may also be the most humble running back in the country. After the game ‘Q' immediately thanked his offensive line and in fact, thanked his offensive line for twenty minutes.

As he walked up the tunnel toward the bus, this reporter had a chance to get a little one-on-one time with Griffin and I was touched as Griffin had tears in his eyes, taking his fist and touching his heart as he talked about his teammates.

"My offensive line and my teammates deserve all the credit," said an emotional Griffin as he boarded the bus. "I am so happy for them, because if I have a good night then they know they had a great game. I really don't know if this was my best game or not. I know that statistically it was, but I've probably had better games blocking and catching the ball. However, this day really doesn't belong to me, it belongs to my offensive line, to Nate for the great game he had and to our defense that was great today."

It's still nice in this day and age when the star of the day can be so humble he can't even think of himself on the biggest individual day of his life.

Now the nation knows that the Sooners have the best pair of safeties in the country. Strong safety Roy Williams is no longer a secret and is recognized by most as the best at his position in the country. However, Brandon Everage was the best-kept secret in college football until yesterday.

Despite the constant praise from Sooner secondary coach Mike Stoops, the college football nation didn't realize just how dominant Everage can be.

A year ago Everage played a big role in the Sooners national championship run, but mostly as the backup to J.T. Thatcher. Everage started two games and played in 12 of the 13 games and still managed to finish seventh on the team in tackles.

If truth be told, the Sooner coaches felt he was the best free safety on the team a year ago, but how do you replace a J.T. Thatcher who was leading the nation in interceptions and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award. They couldn't, but if you noticed when the game got real physical Everage was in the game.

Playing against the wishbone is tailor-made for Everage. A fearless tackler, Everage led the Sooners with 12 on Saturday with 10 of those being solo, despite playing with a bum ankle. Everage has battled ankle problems all year and in the first quarter looked as if he was KO'd when he banged the ankle again. However, he came back and had a monster game on national television.

"Hey, I couldn't let my team down," said Everage. "This ankle has been bothering me all year, but believe it or not it is getting better. I know it doesn't look like it sometimes, but it is getting better. Once they taped it back up on Saturday it was fine."

Talking with some of the ABC folks after the game they were telling me that OU had the best secondary in the country. Who am I to argue? The OU coaches believe that they have five players right now who could go in the NFL draft and they would have six if Michael Thompson was playing this year.

Roy Williams is a first round draft choice if he leaves after this year and odds are that he will. Everage is a budding star that will also be a high draft choice. Derrick Strait is regarded as one of the best cover corners in the country and he is only a sophomore. Antonio Perkins is a young corner, but he has amazing talent. Finally, Andre Woolfolk may have the best NFL potential. Big cover corners are hard to come by and Woolfolk is a natural.

Vince Carter is getting some work at left guard as a backup to Wes Sims and the Sooners coaches like him enough that he will see playing time every game. Offensive line coach Mark Mangino wants to develop as many offensive lineman as he can and Carter is one of his young players.

"Josh Smith is playing very well for us at center and I wanted to get Vince some snaps," said Mangino. "It's difficult to alternate at the center position, because of all the calls the center has to make, so we moved Vince to guard to give us some depth there. Wes (Sims) is playing well for us, but he played well Saturday giving him a couple of series off. Vince is still our backup center and he is going to be a good player for us. I want to find a way to get him into the game.

With Sims, Mike Skinner, Carter, Cliff Takawana and Chike Ozumba at offensive guard the Sooners have some depth. At offensive tackle, Jarrod Barclay is backing up on the right side with Jammal Brown on the left. The Sooners aren't as confident about their backup offensive tackles, but Barclay has looked good in practice. It's too early to tell about Brown at this point, however his athletic potential is there.

The kicking game is a major strength for the Sooners. Punter Jeff Ferguson won the field position battle all day with his 54.2 per punt average compared to 37.2 for Air Force. His heady play on the first punt attempt to duck a defender and still get off a 46-yard punt saved the Sooners' day early. Ferguson had three punts over 50 yards and he has 35 over fifty yards for his career.

Tim Duncan booted every kickoff through the end zone and his three field goals were perfect. Duncan has so much confidence that the senior feels he is in range as soon as he steps on the field. Duncan kicked a career long of 47-yards against Air Force.

"I am really hitting the ball well right now and I don't want to say that my range is limited in any way," said Duncan. "I have hit a 70-yard field goal in practice, so if I was given the opportunity I would have confidence that I would make it."

Sophomore Jimmy Wilkerson played defensive end the entire game against Air Force. Starter Dan Cody was left home with a viral infection that has been very tough on him. Cody practiced very little last week and despite trying to give it a go on Thursday was left home. OU is not certain at this point if he will play against North Texas. Wilkerson gave a good account of himself despite having to fight cut blocks on his knees all day. Wilkerson finished the game with a quiet nine tackles and continues to show he has star potential.

The defense played great, but they were frustrated with all the cut blocks all day.

"Yeah, that was tough the way they were always trying to cut block us and attack our knees," said senior linebacker Rocky Calmus who finished the game with eight tackles. "They even tried to high-low me a couple of times which is illegal. However, that is the way the game was played and we handled it."

Finally, OU was a happy victorious football team after beating Air Force. After beating North Carolina, the Sooners seemed disappointed, but not after Air Force. The OU coaches stressed to them that despite the desire to play better, they needed to enjoy the fruits of victory, and from the looks of things the Sooners certainly did after Air Force.

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