NORMAN, Okla. — The 2003 Sooners have finally reached the exalted status of Barry Switzer's greatest teams. It's the place in Sooner football lore where the team can play a game and earn a solid victory over quality Big 12 opponent, yet still leave disappointment about the team's performance and bring about questions about a letdown or a lack of focus.
Such was the case Saturday at the Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium after the Sooners whipped a very solid Missouri squad 34-13. Many media and fans treated the game as if the Sooners had just demonstrated some major letdown and had just barley escaped a victory with Missouri throwing into the end zone for the win.
As it was, the game was never in doubt after the first quarter, yet OU Head Coach Bob Stoops found himself defending his team's effort and performance in the Sooner locker room.
"Look, you can't go out and score 50 points every week, and that was the first thing I told our team in the locker room," said a puzzled Bob Stoops answering questions about the Sooners so-called ‘lackluster' performance. "I told them to not be disappointed by point totals or by stats and instead realize that they had just beaten a good Big 12 opponent that we struggled against last year, and we had managed to maintain pace for all of our goals. It doesn't matter how many yards we throw for or rush for or what the stats are on defense. All that matter is what the score is on the scoreboard. And tonight, that score was in our favor against a very good football team."
Sooner Heisman Trophy candidate Jason White was puzzled as well as he answered the same questions about the Sooners so-called disappointing performance. Such questions concerning his 20 for 34, 274 yard, two touchdown performance that seemed to hit the senior captain harder than any Missouri defender all day.
One reporter from a Kansas City paper wanting to do a feature on the leading Heisman candidate actually asked White what he thought of his disappointing performance. White looked at him with a blank face for three to four seconds and then stuttered to an answer.
"Well, I am not sure about how well I played and what you mean," said a stunned White. "I look at this game as a win. That is all that is important to me. I think we had a pretty good day on offense. We controlled the clock and put 27 points on the board. We ran the ball well and once again my receivers and offensive line were great. I don't think we played bad at all. In every game we find a million things that we did wrong and we will in this game as well, but beating Missouri like we did is a good accomplishment for us because they are a good football team."
I and several local reporters jumped in and asked general questions about the game at that point, because we realized that Jason was caught off guard by the negative questioning. From Jason's standpoint, his football team had just played in a hard fought game and the Sooners had the game in hand by halftime. However, that early question stunned him and then a subsequent question from the same reporter concerning his Heisman possibilities and how his so-called disappointing performance might have hurt his chances to win the award didn't help his mood any.
"I don't know where I stand in the Heisman race and it isn't important to me anyway," said White. "Again, we beat a good football team today. I don't see how anybody could look at that game from a disappointing standpoint."
I couldn't agree more and neither can the OU coaching staff. His statistics turned out pretty impressive, but he did miss on more throws in this game than in any other, and the interception at the end of the game left his performance on a sour note.
Was it that sour note that kept White in for the entire game and cost back-up Paul Thompson an opportunity to get some playing time against the Tigers?
"When Jason threw the interception I wanted to leave him out there because I never want a quarterback's last play to be an interception," said OU Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long. "I want to keep guys out there and I want them to end the game on a positive note. Also, the way the game was we didn't have the type of lead we wanted or might have had, so we had to keep Jason in there."
Thus, Brad Smith and the Missouri offense put enough of a scare in the Sooners that they felt they needed to keep control the game with their first team offense on the field.
"We have a lot of confidence in Paul, but we felt that our second half wasn't all that great," said Long. "We also felt that as dangerous as they were at quarterback, that we should keep Jason out there. That went for all the second unit guys. You have to be careful when you make the changes, but you can lose continuity with your unit. Again, we have confidence in our number two guys, but they haven't practiced as much or played as much, and you have to always take that into consideration. We always try to get guys into the game, but things don't always work out for us."
For those that were a tad disappointed in the Sooners 424 yard total offensive performance, then we all need to realize it is only so, because the Sooners have been so spectacular on offense coming into the game. Going into the Missouri game the Sooners were averaging 47.7 points per game and 470 yards per game, which were standards ranked among the nation's best.
"We were playing at a pretty high level going into the game and we all want to be at that high level every week, but that isn't always possible," said Long. "We had close to 300 yards in the first half and we were a little off. We had close to 300 yards at the half and had 31 points on the board, yet weren't quite in sync. Physically it was one of our better games. We had their guys on the ground quite a bit. We talked about knockdowns and we had a bunch of knockdowns in the game. We talked about becoming a more physical offensive team and that was a goal and we reached that goal. We just had a miss here and a miss there or we would have been off to the races again."
"Overall, we felt good about our play yesterday," Long continued. "When you are a little off you have to do the little things to make sure you continue to have success. You have to protect the football and we did that. Our guy's chemistry is going really good right now and our guys never panicked. Those are signs of maturity as well."
So, that brings us back to White. The headlines in the Daily Oklahoman, which don't always give a clue what the story is going to be about, would give you the impression that the Sooners won despite White's play yesterday. Reporters questioning of White also gave the impression that they felt White had a poor performance.
Once again White is victim of his own success in 2003, where this guy has been so good that he can go out and put up stats that 100 other quarterbacks would trade him for on any given Saturday, yet in some circles his performance is disappointing.
"I thought Jason was good," said Long. "Again you look at tape and Jason made some really good throws. Here is a young man that is completing 78 percent of his passes in conference play and yesterday he is at 59 or 60 percent, and that is really a good solid day. It is just that he has set a barometer so high that every week he is not going to be able to reach it. There were some throws that were off target a little bit, but that is going to happen. However, all of his decisions were very good. He made great decisions as far as reading coverages. Physically, you may have a player or a quarterback that is off a little bit, but if he is making the right reads or blocking the right guy then that is what you want. We know that he is OK as a player and is going to be OK in the future. What you don't want is a player who is off, but also doesn't play well fundamentally. Jason made all good reads on the game."
Of course it is has been so long since we have seen an interception from Jason that when he finally threw one at the end of the Missouri game it threw us for a loop. I mean, White now has 22 touchdown passes against four interceptions, so when he does throw one up for grabs you wonder who that masked man really is playing quarterback.
"Jason made a good read on the play, but he threw the ball off of his heels," said Long. "He was throwing off of his back foot, which is not good and their safety made a nice play. We had a guy wide open in the middle of the field and their safety came back and picked it off and made a nice play. It was a great play for them."
So, welcome Sooners and Jason White to the monster of Oklahoma football. We really haven't experienced it since the days of the great Barry Switzer, but that monster is totally back. No, you have to play perfect football to keep everybody healthy and you have to exceed your lofty standards that you have already set or at least equal those standards, or you will have to suffer the consequences. And whether that that is a stupid question from Big 12 writer from out of state or a weird headline in the local newspaper, that doesn't fit the game. Welcome to top-ranked and BIG TIME college football!
Every time that Donta Hickson has played in a scrimmage many of us in the media and many fans as well have wondered why he doesn't get more playing time. The answer has always been that Hickson is not as good as a total running back as Renaldo Works and KeJuan Jones. That translates into he doesn't do the little things as well as the other two, but it doesn't always indicate that he can't run the ball as well as the other two.
But give Hickson credit. Despite looking good in scrimmages and practice he was never given a real chance to play, but when he did get into the games late in the fourth quarter he always ran hard and looked great. He also continues to practice hard, and when Jones continued to struggle in one-back or split-back sets, the OU coaches finally decided to see what Hickson could do when the game was on the line in the first quarter.
"I looked at it as an opportunity to show what I can do," said Hickson after rushing for 55 yards on 14 carries. "I have been patient and just waiting for an opportunity. My parents have always told me that the strongest come through during trying times, and for me this was a trying time. It seemed that no matter what I did that I wasn't going to get an opportunity in a tight game situation to prove what I could do. I continued to work hard in practice and I tried to run hard when I got a shot in games just to plant it into Coach (Cale) Gundy's mind or Coach Long that I can do a good job running the football. So, when they put me into the game in the first quarter I knew this was my opportunity to show what I can do. I think I did OK, but I missed a couple of cuts that I will get when I get more playing time. I was a little rusty and I have to admit that it was strange playing so early in the game. I will get better as the season goes along."
Hickson impressed enough that now he will have a role in the Sooner offense the rest of the season.
"I wouldn't say that we had a change in the depth chart, I think it is just adding to it," said Long. "There are three guys now that can stay fresh. This is a crucial time of the year when they get banged up a little bit at the running back position. We are fortunate right now that we have three guys that we can rely on. It also picked up the competition and there is nothing wrong with a little competition. Guys, when they get out on the field now, have to go out and produce. You have seen it with the wide receivers all year long. The five or six guys in that rotation are battling and when they get out on the field they need to do something, or otherwise they will lose playing time. Competition is a great thing and I think that is where we are right now at running back. All three of those guys are going to be in the game and they all need to do something while they are in there."
It is obvious that Works has separated himself from Jones and Hickson, so the battle for playing time is between the two backups. Hickson has become more than a curiosity, and now he will be a major factor in the Sooners' running game.
"I think coach Gundy is just going to interchange the three in all situations," said Long. "Coach Gundy has Renaldo in short-yardage situations yesterday and KeJuan as well. I think you'll see KeJuan for the most part in short-yardage situations, but with the emergence of Donta he could figure into some of that as well. We have always felt that our running game is a work in progress, and when you have a work in progress you try to play as many as you can to see what they can do. Right now we have three guys we can depend on and that is good. It is the time of year when running backs get beat up and you need fresh guys in there. Donta, when he got in there, was fresh."
It is Gundy's call as to who plays and how much each running back plays. Coach Long is very big on his coaches making that decision. Coach Gundy has always been high on Hickson.
"At Oklahoma there is so much competition and that is never going to change here," said Gundy. "To play at the level that we play at Oklahoma you have to have great players at each position. And not just one of them, you have to have several, especially at the running back position. Donta was a highly recruited running back at Oklahoma that has been forced to learn how to play the entire game. There is more to playing running back at OU than running the football. He has made tremendous progress and he is going to continue to help us this year."
The Sooner defensive ends were tremendous defending against Brad Smith and the Missouri offense. Defensive end Coach Bobby Jack Wright has always said that Jonathan Jackson is one of the most intelligent players that he has ever coached, and that was evident early in the first quarter when Jackson stayed in Smith's face on his early bootleg tries. Jackson finished with seven total tackles, four tackles for losses and one sack. Dan Cody was even more impressive with nine tackles, four tackles for losses and one sack. Larry Birdine wasn't bad either as the Sooner defensive ends, who have played well all year, had their best game of the year."
"I have to say that they played great," said Coach Wright. "Dan Cody played great and he played like a man possessed. Dan played with great energy and emotion, and played a very intelligent game. Dan made so many plays in the game that it looked like he was living in their huddle. Jonathan was great as well and just ate up their bootlegs early. He is just a joy to watch, because he understands the game so well. They were running all those fakes with Smith and there was Jonathan right in his face. Larry had a very good game as well. Our defensive ends are playing very well right now and they had a great game against Missouri."
The Sooners held Smith to 50 yards rushing and 180 yards through the air. OU sacked Smith five times in the game and only really lost Smith one time when he raced into the end zone on a 26-yard touchdown run. For the rest of the game the Sooners figured out how to stop him.
"For the most part we contained him for all but three or four plays," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops. "We defended the field pretty well and defended their offense. We covered their offense downfield. So, it was a pretty good effort, but on the counter play that he scored on that was a bad call on our part. Besides that, I thought our guys really played well and showed their athletic ability on the field."
The Sooner front four dominated the Missouri running game holding the Tigers to just 77 yards rushing. Tommie Harris was blowing through the Missouri line, and despite the fact he missed Smith a few times, he forced him to get on the run and many times Dusty Dvoracek was there to clean up the play.
"Dusty played great in the game. But to be honest, you would be hard-pressed to find four better guys to play in the defensive line anywhere," said Mike Stoops. "I don't think that is saying a lot or bragging on those guys. Jonathan Jackson, Dan Cody, Tommie Harris and Dusty Dvoracek are playing as well as they can possibly play right now. There seems to be two new guys every week who stand out on our defense. It has really been remarkable, but shoot, look at what they have done. They were putting pressure in the backfield constantly. Tommie was back there three times with his hands all over the quarterback and he didn't always come up with the tackle, but it is unbelievable how well they are playing. That is the biggest difference in our defense. I know I say it every week, and I don't know why they all don't get their do, but they you would be hard-pressed to find four guys better than them."
The Sooner defense seems to be reaching new standards and a standard that will be hard to stop.
"I think everybody on our defense is playing real well right now," said Mike Stoops. "What we are doing is being very consistent, which is different than any defense that we have had here. It is the consistency of the high level of play that they play with makes them so good. We have every player on our defense that works to make plays, but we still cover the entire field. They are just doing some really good things right now. They are patient, are not forcing anything and all of them are really playing within the system and that is what you want."
Good health and just the fact that most of the players suffered a little adversity last year has matured the defense to this level of excellence.
"It is the just the maturity of a group of very good football players that went through growing pains last year," said Mike Stoops. "We went through some adversity last year on the road, and obviously correcting those mistakes and playing better in those situations is what we have emphasized all year if we want to play good every week. That is the thing that I notice with this group, is that we have not had huge fluctuations in yardage. We have gone from about 220 to 300 and you do see huge amounts of yards one week and then come back and say we are pissed off and then hold them to 100 the next. We are just playing everything well."
Is the nation ready to name Mark Clayton one of the best wide receivers in the country? While Clayton continues to impress all that watches him weekly, nationally he can't seem to break into the group of Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh, Rashaun Woods of Oklahoma State, Roy Williams of Texas and Michael Williams of USC. However, if you just go by production per game, Clayton is certainly their equal.
"We don't have any control who gets ranked what," said Bob Stoops. "We think Mark is just as good as any player in the country. I know we wouldn't trade him for any other player. He is the greatest competitor I have ever coached at wide receiver and maybe the greatest competitor period. That catch he made the end zone was one where he just wanted it more than the defender and made a play and came up with it. Every game he seems to do that. I think JeJuan Rankins is becoming a Mark Clayton clone. On his touchdown run he made about seven guys miss and just wouldn't go down. We have always known that JeJuan had great running ability, but now he getting that toughness to him that Mark has. I think Mark has been a great example for him."
"I don't know what they think of him nationally, but if they know what they are talking about then they think he is one of the best players in the country," Bob Stoops continued. "Every game he makes big plays for us and he is one of the best blocking wide receivers in the country, I can guarantee you that."
On the injury front the coaches feel all will play and that includes linebacker Wayne Chambers at the moment.
Great blocking moments occurred when Tommie Harris came into play tight end as the Sooners were trying to score in short-yardage. Two plays, two great blocks for Harris on Renaldo Works one-yard touchdown run to start the Sooners scoring. Another great blocking moment came on Antonio Perkins record-setting punt return as Mark Bradley threw two de-cleating blocks on the same play.
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