NORMAN, Okla. — With the Big 12 taking a dive all across the nation on Saturday, it was the conference's signature program that took a mighty stand. While Kansas State, Texas A&M and Colorado all lost and Texas the week the before, it was mighty Oklahoma who ran over a top 20 non-conference schedule with relative ease.
And it certainly can't be fogot that Michigan lost, a team who many were saying was actually better than the Sooners. Can you say Lee Corso? Georgia and Pittsburgh also couldn't win tough games on the road. Oklahoma had already won a big road game at Alabama and did what they were supposed to do against a good home schedule, and that is win.
So, while some that try to doubt the talented Sooners, it certainly isn't anybody within the program.
"I am very happy with the way that we are playing," said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops on Sunday. "We are playing at a very high level against a very good schedule and we have taken care of our business and played up to our level of expectations. That doesn't mean that we can't get beat, because just like we proved last year if we don't play at a high level every Saturday we can lose. However, our team is playing very well at this time, and for the fourth straight year we went through our non-conference schedule undefeated. And I think we played our toughest non-conference schedule this year."
Coach Stoops and his staff often say they don't have time to watch other games, but that doesn't mean they haven't been keeping up with all the upsets in college football.
"Sure, we watch it a little bit and certainly read about it all the time," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops. "That could happen to us if we don't take care of our business and play the way we are capable of. We learned that lesson last year when we lost two games in which we were the better team in both. I am really happy with our season thus far. We haven't put ourselves in a position where we might lose a game. For the most part we have taken control of the game from the beginning, and when it looked like we might lose control of it we either came up with a big offensive drive, big play or a big defensive series. I am really proud of our guys, because they have showed up at every game thus far totally ready to play."
While everybody was marveling at the greatness of junior punt returner Antonio Perkins, the post game locker room was like one big sigh of relief. This football team sets goals and one of them was to go through the non-conference schedule undefeated.
"It is a great feeling to know that we played so well in our first four games," said All-American junior defensive tackle Tommie Harris. "I always find these games fun, because we test ourselves against new teams and the fact we have played so well is a good sign for the future."
The offensive star of the game was junior wide receiver Mark Clayton, who caught 5 passes for 118 yards and made a critical 43-yard catch just when UCLA had taken the first lead by an opponent had all year against the Sooners. It wasn't an easy catch either, but we come to expect Clayton to out-compete an opponent for the ball, so we really never had any doubt that he wasn't going to go up among two Bruin defense backs to haul in a Jason White pass. That play set up a White touchdown pass to Travis Wilson that give the Sooners the lead back for good.
"I was just looking to make a play, and considering the coverage Jason threw the ball in a great spot," said Clayton. "I actually had better position than the two guys covering me. If I can get my hands on the ball I should catch it."
And while Clayton seemed pretty ho-hum about the whole thing, the difficulty of the play is not lost on the head ball coach.
"That is just one of many plays that demonstrates Mark's tremendous ability to out-compete everybody he plays against," said Stoops. "Mark is a tremendous competitor and he will go up and fight for balls or fight for extra yardage more so than any other receiver in the country. He is really a spirit for our offense and is great for our team. Our players know when Jason gets the ball to him that even if it doesn't look like a play is there, that Mark will somehow make a great play out of it. Sure, Mark wound up with better position on that ball than the two defenders, but how do you think he got there? He fought for that position and won the position battle."
Clayton's play is contagious for the Sooners.
"Oh, I certainly think so," said Stoops. "I think the other guys, especially JeJuan (Rankins) watches how Mark turns short gains into big gains, just because he wants it so bad. I think Brandon Jones pay attention as well. Both JeJuan and Brandon (Jones) both are competing harder this year and I think watching Mark teaches all of our players that with effort and determination you can make big plays."
Speaking of big plays, nobody had more big plays than Antonio Perkins. He stole the show and almost left his coach speechless.
"Things don't happen like that every day in college football. It doesn't matter how long you play or coach, you might not see a day like that," said Coach Stoops after the Sooners had just destroyed UCLA 59-24. "I just don't know if many people are going to get a day like that or a chance to be a part of something that special. However, Antonio has that kind of ability. We have seen him in a number of games where he has lit things up and he just has an incredible knack to run with the football in the return game. Boy, it was something to see. The guys really hustled for him and gave him some space. He just sees it so well and has such an incredible burst of speed to get through it. That and his knack for feeling blocks are the keys and nobody does it better in the country."
Perkins is so good at returning punts that he even fools his own coach.
"I was watching his first return and that one was just incredible," said Stoops. "I looked up at the video screen and when he started right I started to yell, because we had called the return the other way. However, Perk was just setting it up. He saw that going right at the beginning was a cut-off so he went left and then came back right and it opened up for him. I thought for a second that he didn't get the call, and there he goes shooting up the left side, made a guy miss him and went up the boundry."
Heading into the second half Perkins already had two touchdowns and was just five yards short of the NCAA record for punt return yardage in a game. Everybody knew that if Perkins could just get his hands on one more punt his name would replace that of Golden Richards of Brigham Young, who had set the current record back in 1971. The question was would he get another chance?
"To be honest, it is not easy to kick away from a punt returner unless you just want to pooch it and force a fair catch every time," said Stoops. "Even if you do that the punter might kick a short line drive type of punt that the returner catches on the run and that only makes the matter worse. If you ask your punter to kick it away from him he has to alter his style of kicking, then you end up with 20 to 30 yard punts out of bounds. So, I thought they would punt it to him. If their punter had been good enough to hang it up, get good yardage and kick the ball out of bounds, then sure. But that wasn't happening in the game. Their punter seemed like a solid punter, but we figured that they would still kick it to Perkins. Coming into the game UCLA was giving up a negative yard per game in returns or something like that, so I thought that he would get another chance."
In the second half Perkins lined up to make history three times, and three times he was denied. In the third quarter Perkins was hit just as he was fielding a punt and the Bruins were charged with a 15-yard penalty. Then midway through the fourth quarter Perkins fumbled a punt with a defender standing a foot in front of him. At that point Perkins wasn't sure he was going to get another chance, but he knew what was at stake.
"Coach Stoops actually told me I was just five yards short off the record at the beginning of the third quarter," said Perkins following the game. "I thought that would be easy, because many times I can catch a punt and be heavily covered and still return it for five yards. Returning punts can be tricky at times and things just didn't develop for me until late in the fourth quarter, and even then you don't know what is going to happen. I wasn't that worried about it, but by that time the rest of my teammates wanted the record as much as I did."
As the game was winding down the talk on the sideline on both sides of the ball was to get Perkins one more chance. It wasn't just the special teams who were talking, because to get the ball back the defense would have to stiffen and hold the desperate Bruins late in the game."
"Believe me, all of us on defense were telling each other that we had to get Perk one more opportunity," said Teddy Lehman. "I wasn't always in the game at that time, but I was screaming from the sideline trying to get our two's to stop them so they would have to punt the ball. We couldn't let them drive down and go for it on fourth down and then turn it over to us, because that didn't get Perk on the field. We also couldn't let them drive for a field goal, but we really didn't think they would do that. I looked up at the clock and with about five minutes to go they got the ball back deep in their own territory and I knew this was going to be our one shot."
As Perkins stood with his teammates on the sideline the punt return team watched as the defense held and they knew this was probably going to be their last shot.
"We were talking about it on the sideline — about making sure everybody did their assignment and block the right guy because we knew we were about out of time," said junior wide receiver Mark Bradley, who is an inside rusher and blocker on the punt return unit. "We were rooting hard for our defense to stop them to get Perk back on the field. Finally we had our chance and everything had to be right. We weren't thinking about just five yards, but you don't think about any particular amount of yardage. We had already busted two for touchdowns, so why not another one?"
To the Bruins credit, they did punt the ball to Perkins. Many have asked why would UCLA punt the ball to Perkins, when he already had a big day in then bag? The answer is easy when you consider they are competitors as well.
"Coming into the game our punt coverage team was one of the strengths of our football team," said UCLA Head Coach Karl Dorrell as he was boarding the UCLA bus. "We made Perkins look like a great player today. I realize that he is already a great player, but we gave him a chance to become the greatest today and that is not acceptable. We never considered not punting the ball to him late in the fourth quarter. If we do what we are supposed to do we drop him right where he catches the ball, and he gets nothing out of it. However, for the 100th time in the game we don't execute the play correctly and he scores almost untouched. We were terrible today in our punt coverage and paid for it by the effort of a great punt returner."
There is no question about Perkins' greatness, but you will never come to that opinion by talking to Perkins. In fact, after the game Perkins acted as if his roll in the record was least important.
"I am not sure I was touched on any of my touchdowns," said Perkins after the game. "Our guys blocked great all game. Maybe I had one guy to miss on a couple of them, but that is natural on any punt return. If I can't make one guy miss then I am not going to be our punt returner. I think that is pretty standard on all punt returns, but our guys on our punt return were perfect all day."
Perkins just wanted to catch the ball and get the five yards. Or at least that is what he was saying, but in reality he is always looking to score."
"I really didn't think I was going to score a touchdown on that last punt return, but my blockers got greedy," said Perkins. "They wanted more than just five yards. The punt was a right return and it was blocked perfectly. I took off right and saw open field. That doesn't happen very often on a punt return and all I had to do was run. That was actually the easiest touchdown we scored out of the three. I wasn't touched until I got to the endzone and my teammates tackled me. That was a great feeling to have so many guys happy for me.
"I realize that only one name is going to go down in the record book, but if I had anything to do about it I would put all of their names down on it as well, because I could not have done anything tonight without them."
His teammates got to him on the punt return unit and then when he got to the sideline, Bob Stoops gave him the tightest hug of all.
"I just realized that it was such a special moment and it was one that we don't see very often," said Stoops after the game. "I just wanted to let him know how special his accomplishment was."
"I really appreciated that hug from Coach Stoops," said Perkins moments after the game. "It was really great that he felt so happy for me."
Last season Eric Bassey was tabbed by the media and fans alike as one of the key reasons why the Sooners lost two games. Looking for a replacement for the great Roy Williams, the Sooners moved the fleet-footed Bassey from cornerback to strong safety and hoped it would work out. Bassey was grossly out of position, and all year he struggled at the nuances that it takes to play strong safety. He wasn't very physical, didn't tackle well and lost his coverage ability at safety.
But despite knowing that he would be a backup for this year, Bassey gladly returned to cornerback where he started in the place for the injured Derrick Strait on Saturday. Bassey looked like a totally different player taking advantage of a Brandon Everage tip to score on a 34-yard interception return.
"It wasn't hard for me to make the transition from corner to safety, which I did after my first year here," said Bassey after the game. "Playing corner wasn't and isn't that hard for me, because I feel more natural at the position. At corner I have a better sense of the feel of the game and I can see what is happening at corner a lot better. It obviously helped me to move back to corner."
If you noticed, his move to corner has even helped Bassey in how physical he is on defense. Bassey made several key hits, finishing with five tackles on Saturday, including forcing a fumble that ended up in the hands of Tommie Harris.
"That aggressiveness that you saw came from me came from my year of playing safety," said Bassey. "At safety I was always lining up in the box and taking on a 240 pound fullback, so I did get a more aggressive mentality from safety. I just feel my natural ability is to play corner, so I play better at the position and that goes for everything. That always helps and I feel I can play up to the best of my ability at cornerback."
Many folks wrote off Bassey after last season, but fortunately Mike Stoops wasn't one of them. Despite being the top secondary coach in the country, he is not afraid to admit that he made a bad decision last year."
"Last year we made a mistake by playing Eric at safety. He is not a safety, but we didn't feel we had much of a choice," said Mike Stoops Sunday. "We felt he was one of our top four players last year and when Roy graduated we didn't have a natural strong safety ready to play. Brodney Pool was a true freshman and he wasn't ready mentally to play for us and we asked Eric to move to safety. We knew that wasn't going to be a good position for him, but we knew that Eric could run, he was intelligent and he was very coachable. Sure, Eric struggled at strong safety, but don't put all the blame on him. He did the best he could at a new position for him and he never once complained about playing the position and always gave great effort."
"Eric is a very good football player for us and everybody will see that now that he is playing corner again," Mike Stoops continued. "Eric can really run and he is a natural cover corner, but also a good football player. When a player is playing in a comfortable position for him then he will play a better all around game. You will see Eric improve each game as he gets back to form of playing cornerback."
Bassey didn't know that he was going to start until right before gametime. At Thursday's practice, Strait went through the Sooners practice and was close to 100 percent. At that time Strait felt that he would be at 100 percent for Saturday and would start for the 45th consecutive game. However, during warm-ups for the game Strait still felt a little pain and couldn't get loose. He was healthy enough to play, but not healthy enough play at an All-American level and as long as the Sooners had Bassey, Strait could take the night off even if it meant breaking the streak.
"Derrick could have played in the game, but we didn't want to take a chance of him re-injuring himself," said Bob Stoops after the game. "We worked him out before the game and he couldn't get loose, so we decided to start Eric and he played great for us. We also weren't just going to stick Derrick in there just to get the record. That is not what Derrick or our football team is all about. The record would have been tainted if Derrick wasn't 100 percent and he was all for our decision. I don't believe in setting records that way and Derrick doesn't want to win them that way either."
Strait will return for the Sooners next contest against Iowa State, and he is still on course for setting the record for most starts in a career. Tight end Keith Jackson and offensive guard Anthony Phillips currently hold the record at 47.
The Sooners are trying to figure out ways to get their best athletes on the field more. Tommie Harris not only played great at defensive tackle against UCLA, but he played tight end and laid out a pancake block on a Renaldo Works touchdown run.
"That is a big man for somebody to line up against," said a chuckling Bob Stoops during the post game news conference. "He is big, strong, has great feet and speed and he is just a very powerful man. I am sure there are some players that can match-up with him, but I don't know of many."
Don't be surprised if Harris isn't involved in the pass game in the future.
The Sooners only rushed for 111 yards in the game, but they did score two touchdowns on the ground against one of the nations' top rushing defenses.
"I think our run game was fair," said Run Game Coordinator and offensive line coach Kevin Wilson. "I think we are doing OK up front and we have to get better. I think our running backs are OK. We are still settling in with using J.D. (Runnels) and the tight ends, and finding out the things they do best. The way this team defended us yesterday actually gave us some of the spread runs were actually better. We kind of came to that in the first play in the second we just missed a handoff on a play that looked like it was going to be a six to 12-yarder up the middle. We were a little clearer in the spread stuff. However, we are doing OK, but it is nothing to write up about if you know what I mean."
"Jammal (Brown) played really well and Vince (Carter) played pretty solid," Wilson continued. "The other guys were just OK. Wes (Sims) had a little lull there in the third quarter, and he himself took us out of one drive. It wasn't bad to make a mistake, but he had three out of four plays where he had us going backwards. One time they said he wasn't lined up on the line so we got a procedure call. Then he flinched and kind of freaked out.
"The guards were OK. We had some money on some screen passes where we had some space, but we missed some blocks. You are going to do that sometimes, but we had some tailback screens that could have gained eight to 15 yards that only got three. It looked like they were going to be clean, but we didn't make those plays in space and that is going to happen sometimes. We are still close, but not all the way there yet."
The Sooner offense finished with 354 yards in total offense and produced four touchdowns and a field goal. That was a pretty good night for any offense, but when you consider they could never get into rhythm because of the Sooners great special teams play, then their success is even more pronounced.
"We never really got into a rhythm in the game because Perk kept scoring for us and we kept sitting on the bench," said Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long. "I'll still take those points every time, but the truth is it doesn't help your offense get into a groove. We still played well and I think that one drive right after UCLA scored to take the lead at the end of the first quarter showed what kind of offense we have this year. That was a great character drive and Jason (White) did a great job of executing on the drive. And that big play by Mark (Clayton) showed once again why he is such a good player."
White completed 17 of his 25 passes for 243 yards including two touchdowns anad two interceptions.
"Before the game Jason told me that he felt well about the gameplan and about how our offense was warming up, and that proved true in the game." said Long. "He is playing with so much maturity and confidence. He is even admitting mistakes, which is always a sign of a mature quarterback. On the first interceptios he came to the sideline and said that was his fault and that he threw the pass wrong. The second one he noticed that the corner was way off and he was going to under throw Brandon and let Brandon come back for the ball, but he got hit at the same time and he couldn't throw the ball like he wanted to. The point is, that he is reading things well and he knows what a defense is doing very well. It is really nice to see that."
"I was really pleased after the interception he comes up with an 80-yard drive with a couple of key throws in there," Long continued. "That is big for a quarterback and it is big as a quarterback coach to see that out of your offense. That was big for us to see that growth in him and to see him execute that way after a bad play had happened to him."
I didn't have any doubts that Wayne Chambers would play well on Saturday, and he did just that. Chambers was considered the next great Sooner linebacker by the Sooner coaches before he was shot in the summer. Chambers got an opportunity to play in a couple of games last year subbing for an injured Lance Mitchell and he played so well the Sooner coaches said they really didn't notice much difference. Against UCLA, Chambers finished with nine tackles, and for all accounts played well.
"He held up very well and played a very solid game," said Co-Defensive Coordinator and linebacker coach Brent Venables. "Wayne is always a very solid player for us, which means that he plays good football. He missed a couple of plays, which is to be expected of a guy who missed all of two-a-days, but as he got into a flow of the game he was outstanding."
The Sooners will work out Monday through Thursday and get next weekend off. Oklahoma will work with their young players a bunch this week as the backups will get major work and the freshman will work on the varsity plays. The Sooner coaches will hit the road recruiting on Friday and spend Friday and Saturday on the road.
Brodney Pool got his bell rung and will be fine this week. Donte Nicholson was cramping some during the second half of the game and Mike Stoops decided to give Jason Carter some playing time. Coach Stoops is very high on Carter and feels he is going to be a great safety for the Sooners in the future.
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