Grade Card: Sooners pass Kyle Field test

Sooners Illustrated Editor Jay C. Upchurch grades Oklahoma's 42-35 win over Texas A&M. Pictured above: Junior cornerback Chijioke Onyenegecha forces Texas A&M receiver Terrance Murphy to fumble in the third quarter. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — OK, you can breathe now.

Oklahoma's trip to Kyle Field Saturday did not result in the same heartache that accompanied its ill-fated 2002 visit. The second-ranked Sooners did not see their national title hopes go up in the smoke of the cadet war cannon, and there were no celebrations deep into the Texas night. At least not by Aggie faithful.

And while there were plenty of similarities between OU's 42-35 triumph and the wild battle two seasons ago that saw A&M stun the No. 1 Sooners 30-26, the difference between victory and defeat is all that matters.

For the second straight week, Oklahoma's defense and special teams units struggled mightily, needing plenty of help from the offense to keep an undefeated season intact and the team pointed down the road to potential Big 12 and national titles.

Adversity reared its ugly head in a major way and the Sooners again found a way to conquer and prevail.

"To overcome all that we did today, I think is a positive thing. People can criticize, which will happen, we're one of those teams that gets it when we win," said Bob Stoops, whose team improved to 9-0 overall and 6-0 in league play. "All that we overcame — down here in this atmosphere — and to still come away with a victory, makes me proud of our players and our coaches who hung in there and made the plays in the end that won the football game."

No doubt it took a team effort to escape the hostile environment that had seen the Sooners suffer defeat on five of their previous six visits to the land of the 12th Man.

Jason White threw for five touchdowns, Adrian Peterson rushed for 101 yards, Mark Bradley caught a pair of key touchdown passes, Joe John Finely and Bubba Moses played critical roles, as did OU's offensive line and guys like Lance Mitchell, Larry Birdine and Dan Cody.

The positives far outnumbered the negatives, but that didn't seem like such a comforting thought during the opening half when Texas A&M was scoring touchdowns on each of its first four possessions. Mental mistakes and special teams blunders were cause for more than just a few anxious moments for Stoops' Sooners.

"We know there are areas we need to improve and we'll continue to work to get that done. I don't believe I could walk away from this (game) and be comfortable — seeing what we did in the first half," said Stoops. "But knew it wasn't going to be easy and we were able to do enough positive things to find a way to win."

Oklahoma's win Saturday came on the heels of a heart-stopping 38-35 Bedlam victory a week earlier. It also came almost one year to the day after the Sooners handed the Aggies a shocking 77-0 setback in Norman, the worst loss in A&M's 108-year history.

Despite everything that pointed to another potential blowout — including the fact A&M lost at Baylor last weekend — the Sooners again found out nothing is ever easy in College Station in front of 81,000 screaming Aggies.

So just how did the Sooners rate across the board vs. the Aggies. Check it out in our weekly report card:

Texas A&M's entire focus was geared toward stopping Adrian Peterson and the Sooner ground attack, and the Aggies did a solid job of forcing OU to fall back on guy who just happened to win the Heisman Trophy last season.

Numbers-wise, it was OU's least productive outing of the season. But Peterson somehow still managed to top the 100-yard mark and his presence was just what Jason White needed to engineer another stellar attack through the air.

Peterson was limited to 67 first-half yards when the Sooners found themselves trying to rally from 14 points down, and his longest run of the day was a 15-yarder, which came on his very first carry. The sensational freshman entered the contest averaging 6.1 yards per carry, but managed just 3.5 against the Aggies' swarming front seven.

"Just having the threat of Adrian was enough to keep (Texas A&M) occupied and open up some things for us in the passing game," said offensive coordinator Chuck Long. "We kept them honest by not going away from our running game and both Adrian and Kejuan (Jones) did a good job of making the most of what room there was."

The Sooners, as a whole, ran the ball 42 times for 141 yards, which over 80 yards below their season average of 225.5 per game. The lack of big numbers was not a reflection of how the O-line performed, rather it had more to do with the sacrifices the Aggies were willing to make by stacking the box and ignoring White and Company.

"When you've got someone like Adrian who has done what he has done this season, it's going to draw the attention of your opponent's defense," said White. "We knew if they tried to stop the run we would have to be successful throwing the ball. And even though we struggled at times, we took advantage of some opportunities and got the win."

Peterson actually left the game with shoulder and rib injury during the final quarter. But he returned to spot Jones during the Sooners' final clock-killing possession. His 4-yard run for a first down, coupled with seven carries by Jones, allowed OU to take the clock from 4:35 to 1:09.

"Kejuan came in and did a great job of running the ball and running the clock down. And that's part of having good depth at tailback," White added.

Davin Joseph and Chris Bush turned in big efforts up front for the Sooners, who produced 12 first downs on the ground.

Five touchdown passes is enough to move any quarterback to the head of the class. In fact, it ties White's own school record. White, however, is already standing in the spotlight and while he looked sharp when the game was on the line, the sixth-year senior still hasn't found that perfect rhythm.

White locked onto too many receivers too early at times and misfired on almost half of his passes during what turned out to be a very productive performance against A&M.

"As an offense, we kind of sputtered a little bit but we came through when it counted," offered White, who completed 19 of 35 passes for 292 yards. "We made some mistakes offensively and some of those were my fault. But we stayed focused on what we had to do. We realized we were going to have to score every time A&M scored. We knew our defense would get some stops and we'd eventually come out on top."

That victory was accomplished thanks to White's ability to find open receivers and deliver any number of clutch throws with the game on the line. And that was the case much of the afternoon, as the Sooners constantly found themselves in rally mode.

"Again, we knew our defense would make some things happen and when they forced some turnovers in the second half we took advantage of them and scored," said White.

After connecting with Travis Wilson on a 31-yard TD strike in the opening quarter and setting up a 4-yard Peterson TD run with a 44-yard pass to Mark Clayton, White hooked up with tight end Joe Jon Finley from 24 yards out to cap a perfectly-executed 2-minute drill to end the half.

"We caught them in the right coverage and it was a great pass, great protection — Jason put it right there and all I had to do was catch it," said Finley of his first career TD catch.

It was more of the same after the intermission, as the Sooners capitalized on a mishandled kickoff. Just 52 seconds into the third quarter, White found Bradley with an 11-yard scoring toss to tie the game 28-28. And just over six minutes later, White and Moses connected for a 2-yard score that gave OU its first lead.

"Jason White was sensational and the offensive line's protection was great," said Stoops. "Jason is so resilient and so tough. When the game is on the line he makes plays that matter."

After misfiring badly on a fourth-down pass in A&M territory midway through the third quarter, White bounced back by leading the Sooners on what proved to be the game-winning drive in the final stanza — an 8-play, 80-yard march that was capped off by a 39-yard scoring pass to Bradley.

"We felt every drive was crucial today, every play call was just crucial to the outcome, especially in the second half," said Long. "Jason factors so big into that. A lot of being a quarterback is making your reads and throwing it properly, but you have to make one play on your own. And Jason made that play by stepping up away from the pressure and finding (Bradley)."

White, who has thrown for 14 touchdowns in his last four games, completed balls to six different targets, including six to Clayton who finished with a 102 yards.

If not for some shoddy play by the secondary, OU's special teams might be considered the program's Achilles heel, which is very unusual for a Stoops-coached team. Try as they might, the Sooners just can't seem to get it together on special teams.

Their first special teams blunder came six plays into the contest when Will Peoples was flagged for interfering with A&M's Erik Mayes as he tried to field a punt. Instead of being pinned at their own 9, the penalty gave the Aggies the ball at the 24.

More glaring, however, was the fact that A&M twice called for fake kicks — one punt and one field goal — and both turned into touchdowns.

Punter Jacob Young threw a short pass to Earvin Taylor, who broke loose via a block from Jason Jack and then took advantage of some poor OU tackling. By the time he stopped running, he had gone 71 yards to made give the Aggies a 28-14 lead.

OU came up with a special teams turnover to open the second half when Tony Cade pounced on a misplayed kickoff. That play helped turn the momentum in OU's favor.

"It was huge, just huge to make something positive happen on special teams," said Cade. "I was just doing my job and it just so happened he dropped the ball. This was a game where our character was tested and we've got to keep getting better."

Later, A&M tied the game when holder Joey Thomas hit Chad Schroeder with a 4-yard pass off of a fake field, despite the fact OU was looking for a fake.

"That's really frustrating especially when you are looking for them," said Stoops of the two fakes. "That's definitely a poor job of coaching on my part for letting that happen."

The biggest positive from a defensive standpoint was the fact the Sooners did a decent job of containing quarterback Reggie McNeal and his ability to improvise his way down the field. Before leaving the game with an injury, McNeal managed just two yards on nine carries.

OU's front seven also put the clamps on the rest of the Aggies' ground attack, limiting the hosts to 129 yards on 33 carries. Courtney Lewis led the way with nine carries for 57 yards.

Lewis did create some problems once McNeal loosened up the OU secondary with several key completions early, but most of the damage came via the air.

"We gave up some plays early, but we just had to bite down and get together," said OU lineman Lynn McGruder. "A&M is a good team, but we were making too many mistakes to help their cause. We knew once we settled down, everything would work out."

Linebacker Lance Mitchell was extremely solid against the A&M run, especially in the early going. He eventually recorded three tackles for losses among his team-high eight tackles, including one quarterback sack.

Many of A&M's ground yards came late in the contest when the Sooners were playing prevent defense and backup quarterback Ty Branyon was able to scramble out of the pocket. In fact, OU had held the Aggies well below 100 yards on the ground until A&M's final drive.

Again, it was a tale of two halves for OU's secondary, which struggled beyond belief in the opening 30 minutes. During that span, McNeal completed 8 of 15 passes for 159 yards and two scores.

The alarming part of that equation was the fact both A&M receivers were wide open behind busted coverage.

"The mistakes we made early were more mental than physical. We let a couple of guys get free and that's just unacceptable," said co-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. "Another thing that hurt us was the fact the quarterback kept getting out and making thing happen and we just weren't playing good team defense."

McNeal did scramble away from pressure to create a few more opportunities, but that did not explain why the Sooners have struggled so mightily to cover the pass the last two games.

On A&M's first drive of the contest, they produced more yards (76) than they did during the entire game last season (54). McNeal capped the 7-play march with a 1-yard run that set the tone for a wild and crazy opening half that saw OU staring at a 14-point hole twice.

"There were some guys complaining, some guys who were mad, but no one panicked and the bottom line is we won," said Dan Cody, who finished with seven tackles and one QB sack. "I think back to when we came in here in 2000 and I think this game builds a lot of character."

Things, however, got so bad prior to the intermission, the OU staff decided to burn the redshirt of freshman defensive back Marcus Walker, who was inserted for Eric Bassey.

"I was proud of Marcus. We put him in a tough spot. That's about as adverse a situation as you can put a guy in," said Pelini.

"It wasn't just Eric, we needed a shake-up. We had a gut feeling we needed to go to someone else. Eric Bassey is still a big part of what we do on defense. I don't want anybody to think that just because we made a lineup change that everything was Eric Bassey's fault, because that's not the case."

No, there was plenty of blame to go around on Saturday. The entire secondary looked lost at times, especially on A&M's first three drives. That all changed after the break, but it's a problem the Sooners must find an answer for.

"We knew we were going to have to pick ourselves up and start making plays. Give A&M credit, we knew it was going to be a dogfight," said defensive back Jo-Kay Onyenegecha.

Pelini said all of the errors were correctable and fortunately the Sooners don't really face a big passing threat in their last two regular-season games. So there is time to get things fixed and to get cornerback Antonio Perkins back from his knee injury.

"It was a tough game with a lot of adversity, but I give our kids credit on both sides of the ball for responding the way they did and winning the football game," added Pelini.

The only score OU allowed in the second half came on the fake field goal, not against the defense, which gave up some yards but no points.

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