As the Sooners walked off the Superdome turf Sunday night, they couldn't believe they had lost again. For the second straight game, the mighty Sooners couldn't find the magic that had carried them for 12 games.
Maybe it wasn't magic that carried the Sooners over the first 12 games of the season, because OU had destroyed their competition. OU had dominated a group of teams like never before, and to the point that they were not only being compared to the greatest Sooner teams of all-time, but to the greatest college football teams of all-time.
Now the Sooners were faced with the reality that their season had fallen short of expectations. Yes, they were still considered a good team, but after losing the National Championship game to LSU 21-14, the Sooners were now not even the best team in the county. A team that looked like a lock for the National Title was now faced with the reality that they were not going to finish any higher than third in the final polls.
"Man, this hurts so bad I don't know what to say," said junior defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek as he choked back tears and paused to gather his emotions following the game. "James you have covered us all year, can you explain what has happened to us? We played our butts off and still didn't come out of there with a win. Don't fault our effort, because our effort was there, and in fact early maybe we were too keyed up. We just couldn't make enough plays. We couldn't score on offense and we couldn't stop them when we needed to on defense. I am sick about this and feel we have let everybody down. Man, this hurts. It hurts real bad."
But Dvoracek wasn't the only player hurting both physically and mentally. Senior quarterback Jason White was starting his first game since winning the Heisman Trophy and promptly went out and had his worst game as a Sooner completing only 13-of-37 passes for 102 yards and two interceptions. Unfortunately, White had saved his two worst games for the games that mattered most, the final two games of the season. There was speculation all around the dome that he was hurt and was physically in pain. Certainly, that was a main focus on the ABC telecast and all in the media were looking for some reason why White was looking so average.
There are some advantages to covering a player since his junior year in high school, and White has always been gracious to this reporter even in trying times. This was as trying as it gets, and it is tough to get a minute alone with a Heisman Trophy winner, but as he walked off the interview podium I was able to get in front of the other media and actually found myself by myself with Jason. I asked him if he was hurt in anyway.
"No James, don't give me any excuses like that. I felt fine throwing the ball," as White tried to crack a smile despite the pain he was feeling inside. "I just didn't have it today, but it wasn't because I was hurt. My hand was little sore, but that didn't effect my throwing any. Something has been sore for me all year. We had our chances and just missed them. We didn't execute and they played great defense against us. We just never got into a rhythm. They were good and just beat us today."
And with that, White was led out by a police escort and a number of administration members of the University of Oklahoma. Such is the life of a Heisman Trophy winner in this day and age, even one that has just played his worst game of the year.
White never seemed in sync in the game and his opening deep ball was a perfect indication of that. When has White thrown a deep ball into coverage with three defenders in the area and only one receiver? That is an easy question to answer, because it was never. But that still doesn't answer the question why he did it? Of course, that pass was intercepted and set the tone for the Sooners offensive struggles the rest of the night.
LSU surprised the Sooners by playing as much zone as they did man. LSU was a predominately a man team for most of the year, but they played more zone against the Sooners than they did against any other team this year. That seemed to confuse White, but that was only part of the problem.
The Tigers secondary got the best of the Sooner receiver core, and that certainly wasn't expected going in. Going into the game the Tigers themselves voiced a concern about matching up man-to-man with the explosive Sooner receiver corp. The fact they decided to play more zone indicates they didn't want to match-up with the Sooners in man coverage on every down. However, the Tiger secondary locked down the Sooner receiver corp, and if it wasn't for a 33-yard toss to Travis Wilson and a 19-yard pass to Mark Clayton, the Sooner passing game would have had nothing to brag about it. As it was, the Sooner offense had only the search for answers to look for.
"I don't know how much the fact they played more zone against us really effected us, because we have seen a number of zones all year," said OU Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long. "You have to remember that Jason has only been a starter for a full season this year and this has been a long season. For the first twelve games we were red-hot and everything that we threw worked. We didn't face much adversity. Against Alabama and Colorado, we were tested a little bit, but again we were hot at the time and we were able to come up with the big plays to put those games away."
"Starting with the Baylor game, we started to struggle blocking the blitz and that caused us some concern," Long continued. "I am not saying that we didn't handle the blitz most of the year, but we did make some adjustments as the year wore on and Jason got hit a little more. When that happens, an inexperienced quarterback will just naturally get jumpy a little bit and look for ways to get rid of the ball quicker. Now, Jason is as brave and tough as they come in the pocket, but he is human, and at times against LSU he got rid of the ball on his first read and that wasn't always our best option. Jason was off at times, but he also threw some great balls. We didn't catch the ball as well as we have in some games, and thus we couldn't come up with the big plays. We might have been confused a little bit, but we put things together a little bit in the second half."
Of course, the million dollar question everybody wants to know is why did Coach Long throw the ball four straight times after KeJuan Jones had basically drove the ball down the field on the ground. Facing first-and-ten from the 12 yard-line, Long decided to throw four straight passes, which all fell incomplete as the Sooners turned the ball over on downs.
"We decided as a staff at that time to use the run as a decoy and go to the pass," said Long. "The pass has been our best option all year and we thought we had them set up for the passing game at that point. Sure, our running game was having its best success of the game, and in hindsight maybe we would have been better off taking a shot running the ball. However, we haven't had a lot of success recently in short-yardage running the ball so we decided to throw it. To be honest, on three of the four plays we got some people open, but just couldn't make the connection. The pass to KeJuan over the middle was executed perfectly and he was wide open, but again Jason was just a little off and overthrew him. We got what we wanted, but just didn't make it happen."
"Again, I get back to the fact that Jason hasn't really been tested in adversity this season, and all this is a learning process," said Long. "Don't forget that Jason is basically a young quarterback and he will be a lot better next year. He was very good this year, but he will be even better next year with another spring and fall of practice behind him. The things that got to him in this game won't get to him next year, and he will be better when adversity surfaces next year. We were awfully close this year, but a staff we have always felt that offensively that we were actually a year away from being really good. That is still going to be the case."
On the interception that cost the Sooners the winning touchdown early in the third quarter, White said he never saw Marcus Spears drop back into coverage.
"We study their film and saw that he would drop back on occasion, but I didn't see him tonight, "said White following the game. "I never saw him, and to be honest, in my mind I still can't see him. They blitzed from the opposite side and usually they didn't drop him into coverage on that blitz, but this time they did and I thought I was throwing to a wide open receiver. But as it was, he jumped into the area and intercepted the pass. I made a mistake and it cost us."
Of course, as you might expect White would trade the Heisman for the National Championship any day.
"Yes, this tarnishes the Heisman. I don't mean to disrespect the Heisman, but I would rather have the National Championship," said White after the game. "I have said all year that I only care about what happens for the team, and losing this game makes winning all the individual awards seems less important."
Think about it folks. OU has improved their offense the last two seasons, and when you consider who they have coming back next year, it should be their best year yet.
Defensively, the Sooners struggled early in the game but got on track in the second half. Brent Venables did a great job of making adjustments in the second half to get the Sooners on track. After tying the game 7-7 in the second quarter, the Sooners had their worst tackling game of the year and allowed LSU to come right back and march 80-yards in nine plays. However, for the most part Venables felt the Sooner defense played well.
"We had one drive in the second quarter and one play in the first quarter where we made mistakes and didn't tackle well, but for rest the game we played well," said Venables. "We forced them to punt eight times and we came up with five sacks. We had a goal line stand, forced two fumbles and came up with an interception. We would have had another fumble and interception if it wasn't for penalties. Derrick Strait played an incredible game for us and Tommie Harris was tremendous in the middle. We made enough big plays to win the game and totally controlled the game in the second half, but we also made enough mistakes to cost us the game, and that is what we will work to correct next year."
And for an added treat for this final addition of the OUInsider Sugar Bowl Locker Room Report, we turn to none other than the best head coach in America — Bob Stoops. On Monday morning, Stoops allowed ten reporters, some local and some national, to ask questions about the Sooners' loss. Call it an extended OUInsider Two Minute Drill. Since the Sooners should have scored late in the game and sent the game into overtime, we can say we are going into overtime for this Locker Room Report/
MEDIA: Why didn't JeJuan Rankins play in the game?
BS: "Well, Coach (Darrell) Wyatt felt that some of these other guys were a little more suited for more of a man secondary. However, you are going to have to ask Coach Wyatt all that, because that is his decision."
JH: So, today I asked Coach Wyatt about his decision.
DW: "I felt that we had a better match-up with their big secondary with our big receivers on the outside," said Wyatt. "We liked B.J (Brandon Jones), Will Peoples and Bradley on the outside against their physical corners and felt that was the best match-up for us. There is nothing more to it than that. We have a number of good receivers, and all of them are capable of making plays for us."
MEDIA: So, it was only because they played so much man coverage?
BS: "Yes, that was the initial feeling. But the fact they played so much zone, we probably should have played him."
MEDIA: Did they play more zone than they did all year?
BS: "Yeah, pretty much, even though they had played it some during the year. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary."
MEDIA: Can you put your finger on what went wrong the last two games?
BS: "It is hard to say. The two teams we played had some to do with it, but also our execution in some areas needs to be better. You know the margin for error or for being off for unsuccessful plays isn't real big. You get into these games and you don't quite execute like you are capable of, and they are playing well, and then you have a few third down plays that go against you. I still feel in the first half we handicapped ourself the most with penalties. We had a couple of first downs, and on the thirty going in we get called for a delay. I guess it was a delay because they didn't blow the whistle until after the play, but that hurt us as well."
MEDIA: Do you think teams have solved you schemes or figured out your offense in the last two games?
BS: "Obviously, since we haven't scored as much. No, not really, but whatever. Guys, there is no magic formulas. They didn't invent a new defense, or all of a sudden come up a certain way to play us that we can't figure out. If it was, everybody would be doing it."
MEDIA: So, what do you think is happening?
BS: "Well, it is their execution and our execution. Again, there is no master plan here. We have all been doing this a long time and you guys (media) know that. It comes down to who is making the right calls at the right time, as far as coaches and who is making the right plays as far as players go."
MEDIA: Kansas State and LSU got more pressure on Jason than any other teams this year. Was that due to a philosophy that they were going to sell out to get to him or was there some other factor as to the reason why?
BS: "Yeah, it was the same philosophy that the 12 other teams tried as well. Sometimes they were able to get pressure on us and sometimes they weren't. Sometimes we can hold them off and protect well enough to throw the football and sometimes you can't. Lets face it, there were a lot of times in that game the other night that he (Jason White) had his opportunities and either they (OU receivers) were covered or he threw an errant throw. That is all it takes. You get a few of those and all of a sudden you have the momentum and things can be different. It doesn't take much. I am looking at the stats and our defense had five sacks too. We forced two turnovers and had two taken away. We forced eight punts, but nobody is talking about that. There is a fine line, because a couple of players here and there can make a big difference. Again, I am not taking anything away from them and they played an excellent game against us, but we are not far off. You know that is the way it goes."
MEDIA: Did Jason take a step backwards these last two games?
BS: "That would be how you guys would put it. I have never thought that Jason was the only guy out there. Jason needs to be protected. He needs to have guys who can catch ball, which at times he didn't have last night. Do I think he was as sharp as he was in a lot of other games...no. I mean, that is fair to say for sure, but there is a lot more to it than him."
MEDIA: Was Jason 100 percent healthy for the game?
BS: "I think so, yes."
MEDIA: There were all kinds of rumors last night at the game that you had already hired Bo Pelini as your defensive backs coach. Since he was on your sideline during the game, is that true?
BS: "That is what the media, well not you guys, but the national media like to do is start rumors like that. Bo and I have been great family friends forever, and he knew about everybody that was here to see me so he was here as a friend seeing all of our other friends and family. I haven't offered Bo the job. Whether I do or not, or whether he will want the job or not remains to be seen. I have two other guys that I have talked to and have in mind, and when I know it is the right situation I will do it. Again, that is just people jumping the gun and making things up that aren't true."
PS - I was told today by a great source that Stoops has a coach in mind ahead of Pelini on the pecking order that he would like to hire. I don't have a name yet, but I am working on it.
MEDIA: What do you think Tommie Harris is going to do?
BS: "I don't know, and there is a process that I think Tommie is thinking this through. What he needs to do is to be as sure as he can be, or at least have a rough estimate or a close estimate on where he would be drafted through people that are going to be doing the drafting. That would not be agents or what a guy in a magazine wants to say who isn't going to be in any draft room. There are guys who have so many false reports out there, so that is the part that we have to be thorough with. What is happening is these young guys are starting to see that you can start making money in college. The best example is the starting left tackle at Iowa (Robert Gallary), who was told he would be a 10 to 15 pick last year, and of course most people then told him that was where he needed to go. However, he thought he could do better, so he stuck around and he is going to be a top five pick this year. He has doubled his money, and that is a lot of money to double. Anyway, there is value for staying in school and there is good upside for Tommie to stay in school."
MEDIA: Did he have one of his better games Sunday?
BS: "Yeah, he played well, he played really well. The upside for him is, lets face it, he is a true junior that will gain more maturity, more strength and more size by next year. He will also be closer to graduation and that is important, because if he leaves now it is going to be tough for him to come back and graduate. We will want him to do it, but it just makes it hard for him to do it. We also believe that in another year that he can improve his draft position and put himself into a position to make a whole lot more money and make him a lot more value. I think he is beginning to understand that you have that limited window to make money that you need to maximize it."
MEDIA: Is that your sense or is that the thought after talking to people who know in the NFL?
BS: "It is just my overall sense of it. I have talked to some people who know what we are looking at and what Tommie's best interests are."
PS -The Sooner coaches aren't sure as of Tuesday which way Tommie is going to go. There is no question that throughout the year that Tommie was going to go pro. However, despite winning the Lombardi Award, Harris didn't have an incredible year and the NFL scouts noticed as much. Thus came the opinion from Stoops that even though Harris was going to be a first round draft choice, he probably wouldn't be a top five pick. He would probably go somewhere between 10 and 18, which is a drop in bonus money from a top five pick. So, the key comes down to what Tommie hears from the NFL. Tommie told reporters after the game that he would make his decision on Wednesday, and that he didn't know what he was going to do. He said that he wanted to talk to the NFL and then talk to his family. If Tommie hears that he is a top five pick then he will be gone with Coach Stoops' blessing. If he is a 10 to 18 pick, then he has to make a decision on whether to accept that money, which would be less but still significant, or take a risk and come back and become an even better athlete, have a great senior year and then become a top five pick. This is weighty stuff for any 21-year old kid and who knows what he will do. Depending on what coach you talk to, you get a different opinion and this. It will be very interesting to see which way Harris goes."
MEDIA: Would you say that he is leaning towards going?
BS: "What is leaning and why would you say that?
MEDIA: Because he all but told me (reporter) that he was close to going last night.
BS: "Really, that isn't what he said to me, so I really don't know. I am not going to sit here and guess what he is going to do. I think that is for you guys to do."
MEDIA: How good of a chance do you have of playing in this exact same game next year?
BS: "We have a lot of guys coming back next year. I would think that we would have just about as good a shot as anybody with our starters coming back and the young players we have coming up. Hopefully, we would have a pretty good shot."
MEDIA: Is it hard to appreciate the season you have had with last two games, or can you still appreciate it?
BS: "I don't know if people will or not, or if you guys do. I know that I do. I said that after the game. I appreciate my players' efforts and hard work through a long year. It is not easy to win 12 games, and I think we are one of only two teams to have done that. The other team has won 13 and that isn't easy. I appreciate their hard work and I appreciate how hard they played last night. As a coach, that is all you want. Oh sure, you want to win, but these guys are in college and there has to be more to it than just that. I for sure love the fight in them. We kept giving ourselves opportunities up to the end to win, but just couldn't do it."
MEDIA: What are you thoughts on the Big 12 in the post season, and the talk that the league was overrated?
BS: "I don't know, but I don't buy that. You guys can write it however you want, but I don't much care what it looks like. We just care about our own self and winning. Is that to say that we were so far off in this game? We were right down there at their goal with two minutes to go fighting to win it. Are you trying to say that shows we weren't very good? Well, we played about as average as we can play, and we were still there with a few minutes to go fighting for the National Championship."
MEDIA: Did losing the Big 12 and the National Championship game leave you with a negative feeling at the end?
MEDIA: Did you lose your edge down the stretch, because you didn't play as well towards the end of November and December than you did in September and October?
BS: "Shoot, I don't know, you know? I guess you can say that, but I don't believe that we did. I want to make sure that I give the teams that we played their due and I have a bunch, but do I feel as Tiger Woods would put it that we played with ‘A' game? No, I don't feel that way. Why? I don't know. I am not much for reasoning it through, but it happens and it happened to us. However, put it all on me, because it is my responsibility."
(We'll have more with Bob Stoops on Wednesday plus more commentary from Chuck Long and Brent Venables.)
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