NORMAN, Okla. — Since Bob Stoops became the head coach at Oklahoma there has never been a more bittersweet win for the Sooners. Never before have the Sooners felt so good, yet so bad about a performance. Never have they been so happy about a win, but so sad about the loss of one of their most talented players.
Once Fresno State kicked-off to begin the game the score was never in doubt. The Sooners played an almost perfect first half rolling up a 38-0 halftime lead and holding the Bulldogs to a mere 43-yards total offense. The game was so one-sided that the Sooners scored on every possession of the first half and forced the Bulldogs to punt on every one of their possessions. However, midway through the second quarter the air was let out of the Sooners balloon when All-American senior linebacker Lance Mitchell got up slowly and wobbly after making a tackle. The senior immediately knew that something wasn't right with his knee and knew that he needed assistance.
"I could tell something was wrong with Lance as soon as he tried to get up," said fellow senior and fellow All-American linebacker Teddy Lehman after the game. "I was trying to get everybody to huddle up and Lance was rubbing his knee. I asked him if he was OK and he said he didn't think so. Right then I knew that this wasn't going to be good.
"Man, I can't believe that he is out for the season. Lance is a better person than he is player and we are going to miss him so much on the field. But don't worry about Lance. He will come out of this OK and he will come back an even better player."
To make matters even worse, Mitchell was as having a Butkus Award type start. Mitchell had 16 tackles after the first two games and was the best defender on the field in the Sooners tough win over Alabama. With Mitchell rocking in the middle the Sooners were playing some of the best defense of the Stoops era and were so confident in their ability as well.
"We were playing as well as any defense we have ever had here," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops. "You look through the first three games and since we have been here we were playing the best we have played. Losing Lance breaks up our continuity a little bit, but if there is a time that we could try to mend our defense maybe now is a good time.
"We have to try to get ready for UCLA and then we have two weeks before we start conference play. We have to look at making some adjustments. We don't have another Lance sitting on the bench, but we have some good players and we will just have to see who wants to step up and become a player."
Once Mitchell went down the Sooners continued to dominate the first half. At halftime the Sooners had a total offense edge of 370 to 43. Jason White was on his way to a spectacular game hitting on 18 of 25 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns. Everything was going so good under the team found out the real story on Lance.
At halftime the Sooners learned that Mitchell has a serious knee injury and that it was probably an ACL tear. The players know what that means, and as the word circled around the locker room each player realized that one of the most popular and most talented players was out for season.
The Sooners came out of the locker room totally flat and you could tell their mind was elsewhere. Part of their struggles in the second half had to do with the fact that game was over at halftime, but the other part of it was the fact that they were shocked to learn that Mitchell was gone for the year.
"The second half is something I am not proud of at all," said junior wide receiver Mark Clayton. "We just lost so much emotion at halftime, with the first half score and the word on Lance. The injury to Lance took it out on us as much as anything. That was just a shock and then we messed around for a couple of series before regaining our focus.
"We had a terrible special teams day and it was just a struggle in the second half. You have to put together complete games if you want to win conference championships and you have to learn how to control your emotions better. We will work on that this week I am sure."
For Mitchell, what started out as such a glorious day turned out to be a disaster. Mitchell grew up in poverty and has been raised by his mother — Sharon Goston. Lance's father was never around so his mom worked two, sometimes three jobs top make sure that Lance would stay out of trouble and have a chance with his life. Her effort had already worked for one brother who attended and graduated from college and she was determined to make sure her efforts would work for Lance as well.
Lance was an instant starter for the Sooners and all of last year and Mrs. Goston had to watch from afar. Plane fare was too expensive, so watching Lance in person during his junior year was out of the question. However, she saved her money and booked some flights early and Fresno State was the game earmarked to watch him play for the first time in person.
As Lance walked into the locker room his mom and company soon followed. I can't imagine what was running through her mind, but you just know it was total worry and shock for her baby. For over a year she has watched from a distance and heard from over a thousand people how great her son was playing for the Oklahoma. You know she had heard all the predictions of an All-American year, a Butkus Award, and then selection in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft. Then, to finally come to Norman and watch her son limp off the field had to be a total shock.
Mitchell's injury was almost as shocking for Co-Defensive Coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Venables. It was Venables who recruited Mitchell, and who the parents and family so liked so much that even when he signed with Florida, kept the phone lines open just in case something happened. It was Venables who did such a good job with Mitchell and his folks that when Mitchell learned he couldn't play at Florida they immediately called him to see if he could play at OU.
Venables and Mitchell bonded as well as a coach and player could, and as Coach Venables has always said, Mitchell was an easy player to coach. So, as Venables watched Mitchell limp slowly off the field and then eventually learn the news that he has an ACL tear, you know that he had a lump in his throat.
"Watching Lance get hurt is like watching one of my own children get hurt," said an emotional Venables on Sunday. "Just knowing all the hurdles and obstacles that Lance had to go through just growing up and to get to Oklahoma was tough. To see him hurt inside and outside, his physical and emotional pain certainly touches you."
Mitchell will have an MRI on Monday, but the Sooner doctors already know what the results will be. The already know that he has a torn ACL and he will miss the rest of the season.
"We know that he has a serious knee injury, so what is there to say at this point," said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops. "We know that he probably has a torn ACL and that he will probably miss the rest of the season. We will find that out for sure on Monday, but our medical people have a great idea what is wrong with him."
Football is an unforgiving game, because as long as there are games to play you have to field a team. Which means the start to find Mitchell's replacement began Sunday after the game. It helps to have another All-American in Teddy Lehman still on the field.
"Yeah, it certainly gives you more options and a little more flexibility," said Venables. "With Teddy being a fourth-year player and a three-year starter who has played that position on a full-time basis the first two years, it makes it better than the alternative. So now we are able to look at guys at both positions who are more competent, because he is probably the only player that we have that has the ability to play both positions. Teddy is an All-American type at both the ‘mike' and the ‘will' as opposed to be a great ‘will' linebacker and just a good ‘mike'. So, without question he makes it an easy decision in that regard."
"We haven't decided what to do at this point," Venables continued. "We may not even decide that until the end of the week. Sometimes you find out things only on game day. It will kind of be a tryout throughout the course of the week and it will come down to who has the most consistency."
Before sophomore Wayne Chambers was shot in the pelvis while standing as an innocent bystander at a party, he was considered the back-up to Mitchell. Chambers didn't workout during two-a-days at all, but for the last two weeks has returned to practice. However, the Sooners planned to redshirt Chambers if there weren't any injuries. Now, redshirting is out of the question and Chambers has to get ready to play.
"Wayne is certainly in the picture, but he has struggled to open totally up," said Venables. "He is at 90 to 95 percent or somewhere around there, but he labors when he really has to open it up. He can move around when he has to get from point A to B to C, but again you can see that he has a little bit of hitch in his gate."
The Sooners worked strongside linebacker Pasha Jackson some at the ‘Mike' during double sessions, but that currently is not in the plans, even with Mitchell out.
"Pasha has worked some at the ‘Mike' backer in nickel and dime situations, but he gives us a lot of consistency at the ‘Sam'," said Venables. "So, we are not going to try to mess him up there."
With Lehman being the swing guy the Sooners will look at Chambers and sophomore Clint Ingram at ‘Mike' and junior Gayron Allen and freshman Lewis Baker at the ‘Will'. Allen is undersized, but is considered one of the better fundamental players on the team. Once Mitchell was hurt Allen came in and played the ‘Will' while Lehman moved to middle linebacker.
Baker is the Sooners star of the future at linebacker. Eventually, he will be challenged in that category by Demarrio Pleasant or Chris Patterson, but right now Baker is the guy the Sooners feel has Butkus Award abilities. Barker worked out all season knowing that if there was an injury that he would come out of redshirt immediately, which is exactly what happened when he was instructed that he was going into the game in the third quarter.
"When I told him he had a smile that went ear-to-ear," said Venables. "We have told him since the start of the season that he needed to prepare as if he was going to play each game, because if we had any season-ending injury at linebacker he would have to come out of redshirt. Lewis was all for it and actually wanted to play, so now he will get that opportunity.
"He has great instincts and a good feel for the game. That is what has enhanced his opportunity to get on the field, his ability to pick things up. He has a good background and good coaching coming into our program. He made the transition a little bit easier, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have flaws. He has a lot of them right now, so we want to keep them to a minimum. Lewis has great speed and can really run and that will be a plus for him."
We have the lowdown on Baker, and now we get the scoop on the other contenders to replace Mitchell.
"Gayron has good instincts and is a great fundamental, technique player," said Venables. "He is the guy you see on the clinic tape quite a bit, because he just does all the little things really well. He has good speed, but not great speed and he is the most experienced among all those guys trying to get out on the field. Clint Ingram is one of the most explosive and rangiest of the linebackers that we have on the team, but he is still trying to figure it all out. If he ever does he will be a really good player.
"Wayne has really good instincts and a good feel for the game. He is not quite as explosive as Clint, but he has a thicker body at 6-2, 235 pounds. So, he gives you a decent punch in there too. Again, he played last year, so he has more experience than Clint. He has been practicing for the last two weeks. He missed so much time that it has been unfortunate for him. He missed five weeks of practice going into this thing and he could have really benefited from that."
If you don't think Mitchell's injury didn't have an impact on his teammates, then you need to think again.
"Losing Lance really hurts. Lance is more than just losing a teammate to me," said All-American defensive tackle Tommie Harris. "You have to understand that in my heart he is a good friend and a really good friend. Just to see him to go down was just like going to the park and seeing a good friend get shot. At first I thought to myself, "How can I keep going on without him?' But I have inner strength that will get me through. We will see how everything goes for us as we find out who will fill his spot."
"My mom always told me that you have to always move on and everything happens for a reason," Harris continued. "Lance brought me confidence just knowing that he had my back. I knew that if I could get those two guys on me that he would be right there to make the tackle. The little things that me and Lance had, like if I went underneath he had my back. It hurts a lot to miss a guy like that, but hopefully Coach Venables will help the other guys get ready to play. I know that Lance believes in God and that everything does happen for a reason. He will be taken care of and I will pray that everything turns out well for him. We have to keep moving and I am pretty sure that Lance would tell you the same thing."
Young guys like sophomore safety Brodney Pool also felt a sense of security with Mitchell in the line-up.
"From my perspective, when I would look up and see Lance in front me that gave me great confidence that we had better players than they did," said Pool. "Lance is such a good player that it gives you the liberty to maybe take more of a chance at the line of scrimmage. He is really going to be missed, but I have great confidence in our defense and our defensive coaches. We have a number of great players on our defense and we have some linebackers that are good players that will now get an opportunity to show what they can do. I know they will step and get the job done."
To answer on of the biggest questions concerning Mitchell's injury, yes he can redshirt this year if he chooses.
But Mitchell will have a decision to make. Heading into the season Mitchell was rated as a first round draft choice and many draft experts had him going within the top ten picks of the draft. Mitchell will have an MRI on Monday, and more than likely surgery at the end of the week. If the surgery goes well Mitchell will start his rehab a week later.
Mitchell would have six months or so to rehab his knee before the NFL draft and he could give the NFL scouts a scaled back workout before the draft. Mitchell will be able to get the word when his projected draft status will be, and if it is still in the first or second round odds are he will enter the draft and roll the dice. If he doesn't hear good news about the top two rounds, then there would be a good chance that he would redshirt and come back for another year at OU.
OK, is it crazy to start talking about Jason White as a Heisman Trophy candidate? Considering the political world of the Heisman Trophy it probably is, but after three weeks is there really anybody that is playing any better that Mr. White?
For the third straight game White was spectacular hitting on 25 of 37 passes for 338 yards and four touchdowns (career high) against the Bulldogs, with the touchdowns.
"I am pretty happy with how I am playing, but believe me there is always room for improvement," said a happy White after the game. "My stats are pretty good, but you guys (media) don't see what I see on tape every week. I miss a lot of things and I can get a lot better. We can get a lot better as an offense. If we keep working like we have been then we will be better next week."
As for White and the Heisman Trophy, we turn to a former Heisman runner-up to find out if Mr. White is in the race.
"I don't know where he stands, because I don't have a chance to watch many other teams," said Offensive Coordinator and former Heisman runner-up Chuck Long. "However, I can say that if there are some guys that are playing better, then they are playing some incredible football right now. Jason is playing fantastic, and not only is he hitting the big plays, but he is taking care of the football. We haven't turned the ball over in two games, and a big part of that is how Jason is running the huddle and how he is executing the offense. The good thing about Jason right now is that he has only played a handful of games over the last three seasons, so he will get better just by playing."
Another positive on offense is the continued play of back-up quarterback Paul Thompson, who ripped off a spectacular 50-yard run, rushed for a touchdown and hit his only pass for six yards.
"Paul has played really well and he certainly brings a change of pace for us," said Long. "His abilities and the way that he is playing certainly give us and our opponents something to think about it. Paul has come so far that we may even think about putting him in the game for one series or so just so the defense will have something else to prepare for. He brings such a change of pace and the potential in the quarterback run game that would be a headache for defensive coaches that we play."
YAC (yardage after catch) yardage has always been a staple of a Stoops' offense. Early on under Mike Leach, YAC yardage was a key to the offense. And during the Sooners National Championship year of 2000, YAC yardage made the difference in many of Sooners victories.
The YAC is still alive and well in Sooner land, especially with Clayton and JeJuan Rankins playing wide receiver for the Sooners.
"We work on our YAC yardage every day in practice," said Clayton who ‘yac-ked' his way to five catches for 100 yards and one touchdown. "Running after the catch is the most enjoyable thing that I do in football. Catching the ball is only the first part of being a wide receiver in my opinion, because after I catch I have an opportunity to get into the end zone. I may not be close to it when I start, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't do everything in my power to get there. That means I need to use some moves and just fight for every yard that I can get, because I have the ability to break tackles. JeJuan had that kind of ability. ‘BJ' (Brandon Jones), Will (Peoples) and Mark (Bradley) are such big, fast receivers that they can take it to the house anytime they touch the ball. As a group, we are going to be a threat every time we touch the ball no matter where we are on the field."
The Sooners' running game began to pick it up against Fresno State. Renaldo Works returned the Sooners starting line-up and responded with 88 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns. Sophomore KeJuan Jones shared the spotlight with Works and managed to rush for 59 yards on 17 carries. In all, the Sooners rushed for 212 yards on the night.
"I think we got a little better in the run game against Fresno State," said Run Game Coordinator and offensive line coach Kevin Wilson. "I don't know particularly if we played any better up front. I think that J.D. (Runnels) and Lance Donley at fullback and tight end blocked and played really well. We did some things with the tight ends in the box at the point of attack, and just like last year we kind of took off with J.D. and last year it was Trent (Smith) started playing well. Not that they had been playing poorly, but they played as well as anybody up front.
"I thought the running backs ran as hard and got more out of nothing as I have seen this year. I don't think we blocked that much better as far, as it was a very good line performance all of a sudden. Quite honestly, we might have blocked better last game than we did this game, but we made some plays by the blocking by there perimeter people that broke those plays."
The Sooners started the senior Lance Donley over sophomore Bubba Moses and he responded with an excellent game blocking at the point of attack and caught two passes for 26 yards and one touchdown.
"We actually took a big look this past week at (Chris) Chester as an offensive lineman and he played some in the second half at center," said Wilson. "That kind of freed it up for Donley and Bubba to share the tight end duties. I think Coach (Kevin) Sumlin felt very comfortable with Lance in there and he played well for us. He has played a lot for us in years past and he played well. Chester played some tight end in the short yardage in the first half and then when the score got up we put him in at center in the fourth quarter.
"We also got Willie Roberts in the game in the fourth quarter. Willie doesn't have a redshirt year and we thought by moving Chris inside some that could open some things up for Willie, especially as a spread tight end."
It was also not a great game for tackles Jammal Brown and Wes Sims. In fact, the tackles had their worst game of the season.
"I am really not sure what happened to our tackles in the game," said Wilson. "They played OK, but they played better in the first two games. Jammal just seemed to struggle and Wes was just average. It is not that they played bad, but they just didn't make progress like they did in the first two games."
Finally, the Sooners punt protection has become a concern. The Sooners had punts blocked in the season opener against North Texas and in the second game against Alabama, and then did one better against Fresno State by having two blocked. This is shocking considering how well the Sooners have played in special teams during the Stoops era. And make no mistake about it, the Sooners will correct this problem.
"We have protected our punter for the last four years here and we will protect him this year too," said a disgusted Bob Stoops. "On both punts it was two different players who busted, so we will continue to look at different players at that position and practice it over and over and over again. If we have to we will work on it all practice Monday if that is what it takes to get it right, because we are not going to go all season getting our punts blocked. We will find the right guys to block for us and will we work on improving in the area, even if it takes all Monday."
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