Orange Bowl Locker Room Report: What went wrong?

Bob Stoops, Chuck Long, Brent Venables, Bobby Jack Wright, Bo Pelini, Brent Venables, Jason White, Adrian Peterson, Davin Jospeh, Wes Sims, Brodney Pool, Marcus Walker and Lance Mitchell talk about what went wrong in Oklahoma's 55-19 Orange Bowl loss to USC.(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Nobody saw this coming.

Not Austin Murphy of Sports Illustrated, Dick Weiss of The New York Daily News or Bruce Feldman of Not the LA Times, ESPN, The Sporting News, Dallas Morning News, Kansas City Star, beat reporters for USC, or beat reporters for OU.

Nobody thought USC was 36 points better than OU. And in fact, more media in Miami thought OU would beat USC in the Orange Bowl to claim in the 2004 National Championship.

The more the reporters watched practice and the more they talked to the coaches, the more they felt OU was going to win.

So, what happened? How in the world did OU lost to USC 55-19?

That is a question that every member of the OU coaching staff has been asking since the conclusion of the game. Stunned, shocked and trying to understand to a man on the OU football team from the players, coaches, training staff and administration. Everyone at OU is trying to sort out what happened in the biggest game of the year.

For the second straight year the Sooners came up short in a National Championship game. However, the loss to USC is much different than the loss to LSU. A batted and bruised OU stormed back in the second half against LSU and should have won the game in the fourth quarter. Against USC, the Sooners only played well for one quarter and never had an answer for a Southern Cal explosion in the second quarter.

What went wrong? How can a team as talented as OU from the coaching staff, training staff and to the players lose by 36 in a championship game? In many ways the answer to that is simple — you can't turn the ball over five times against a great team like USC and expect to win. Turn the ball over and they get hot, like they did, and it becomes fastbreak football. Make a couple of super plays, which USC did, and you find yourself blown out of the game.

That is the simple way to explain it, but a very truthful way and the way that most of the Sooner coaches explain it. However, we can get a little deeper than that, but you may find that the answers are still very simple and that you already know the answer.


What is the most puzzling about the Sooner performance is that they had great practices leading up to the game. The coaches loved their gameplan and they loved how the team was executing and understanding the gameplan in practice. OU felt they were totally ready to play the game and the team just didn't fire.

"We have talked as a staff and we go back and look back at what we did leading up to the game, and we prepared like we always have," said OU Head Coach Bob Stoops in an exclusive interview recently with this reporter. "Practices were good, we practiced great. I just don't say things like that, and I will get on our guys if we don't practice well, but we did practice well. However, in the end you get into games, and in a span of the end of the first quarter and the end of the second, when you haven't turned the ball over the entire year, we had only 13 times the entire season, and then we turn it over five times in one game. When you are playing a really good team who is hot then this can happen to you."

"Lets give them credit first as Matt Leinart made some great throws," Stoops continued. "They made some incredible catches despite the fact we had tight coverage. Then you give them possessions inside the red zone, a couple inside the 10-yard line with some turnovers. Then you let a couple of people behind you and it doesn't take a lot. Boom! All of a sudden in that second quarter there it is — you are behind 28-7 and it hard to fight your way back from it. You are pressing and just make matters worse. They did an excellent job, and in the end we didn't. That is how the score ends up the way it is."

Coach Stoops wasn't the only coach who felt the Sooners were prepared to play.

"We had great practices heading into the game," said OU defensive end coach Bobby Jack Wright from the team hotel following the game. "We were ready to play. We had great practices, some of our best all year. I can't tell you what happened in the game. Darn, I wish we would have played better or just played like we can. We didn't give ourselves a chance to win that game and they were good enough to make us pay for our mistakes."

"Our practices were great and our gameplan was sound," said junior fullback J.D. Runnels. "There were several times when we came out of the huddle and we had the exact defense we wanted for the play that was called, and then we just didn't execute. I need to look long and hard at this game because it was the worst game that we played offensively since I have been here, in my opinion."

So many times over the last couple of years it was the Sooners forcing the emotion in the game and the momentum shifts. Even against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M this year, when it appeared that the momentum was totally against the Sooners, they were able to turn it around immediately with a big drive or big play. In the Orange Bowl, after the Sooners fell behind 14-7 on a botched punt return, not only did they not swing the momentum back in their favor, but they compounded the problem by throwing an interception.

"The momentum shift in this game was huge," said Coach Stoops. "We start the game with a couple of good defensive stops and we go a good 92 yards on our first series for a touchdown. We have the momentum, but they come back and they have a tight end (Dominique Bird) who makes a great catch off a great throw. We have tight coverage on the tight end down the middle and they make a one-handed catch in the end zone. So, they tie it up and then we trade punts a time or two, and then that is when we try to pick the ball up at the one-yard line and fumble it. Then we back that up with a poor throw that gets intercepted, and from there all of a sudden they get three quick scores.

"You are sitting here thinking what in the world is going on? How are we behind 28-7 already," Stoops continued. "I know how, because you can't make those kinds of mistakes. And when you do, that is what is going to happen. We have played a lot of games where we have done a lot of people that way, and we happen to be on the other end of it were we made the mistakes against a really good football team. When you do that, that is what is going to happen."


A lot of blame has been thrown around about those two plays involving Mark Bradley and Jason White, two of the Sooners better players. All year White and Bradley have made great plays to help the Sooners win all their games, and without those two OU would not have been playing for the National Championship.

Bradley has been a smart player all year, but he has been an aggressive player. And in fact, for most of the season he held his aggressive nature in check. Bradley takes advantage of his great talent many times by taking a chance in an effort to make a play. His game-winning touchdown against Texas A&M is a case in point. In fact, he is blocking the gunner so aggressively on this particular play that it is amazing that he is even around the area where Antonio Perkins lets the ball bounce.

"Mark is an aggressive player by nature, and for the most part that aggressiveness has served him well this season," said wide receiver coach Darrell Wyatt. "However, on that play maybe that aggressiveness got the best of him. Mark had already made a great play on our touchdown drive that helped set us up to score. He has made big plays for us all year, but this was one I know he wished he could take back."

Bradley would second that.

"I was just blocking on the gunner and I saw the ball bouncing around," said Bradley after the game. "Right now the play is a blur for me. I just saw the ball and looked up and saw an opening that I thought I could get through. I don't know if USC touched the ball or not. It was a bonehead play on my part. Outside of that, I really don't know what to say about it. I wish I would have just blocked my guy clear out of the stadium and not worry about it."

Players are schooled from day one not to touch the ball on a punt inside the 10-yard line. There are too many bad things that can happen when trying to touch a ball inside the ten, so it is easy to understand why every one involved with the Sooners were frustrated with Bradley's play.

It was no surprise that Coach Stoops was asked about the punt return in the post game press conference, but now days later many people are upset with Coach Stoops' comments surrounding Bradley and the punt return. Many feel Coach Stoops called out Bradley with his answer, but I contend he was just giving an honest answer to a question in the press conference. Here is the question from a member of the media, and then the answer that has a few people upset.

"That first fumble seemed to be a turning point considering the short field," said a reporter in the media room following the game. "The field position on the first two drives was very poor, so were you just trying to make a play? Or do you have any idea what you were trying to do."

"I have no idea why a guy or why Mark would have done that," said Stoops after the game. "I was as shocked as anybody in the stadium. How do you explain that? I don't know because that goes back to Pop Warner football. Mark should have made a better decision. I am not going to go any further in front of the media, but that is as bad a play as there is."

All of us get tired of coach speak and everybody that follows college football knows that Mark Bradley was involved with that play. I admit that I was surprised that Coach Stoops mentioned Mark in his answer, but not because he did anything wrong. But because he goes out of his way to protect his players so much so that many times his answers become very dull and unrealistic. In this case he gives an honest answer that everybody knows is the right answer and in some circles his is criticized for it. We were all thinking the same thing and everybody in the media was going to say the same thing or write the same thing one way or the other.

I realize Mark Bradley has been a great player for the Sooners this year, and I realize he is a great guy. He is one of my favorite players that I have ever had the pleasure to cover. But if Bradley himself said it was a bonehead play after game then nobody can be angry at Coach Stoops for making a true statement. In this day and age, negative plays by college athletes are pointed out in talk shows and the internet every single game. College athletes are no longer protected in the media like they were 10 to 15 years ago. In big games, a bad play will be talked about in various forms for years to come and any more there is no getting around that.

Heck, we all still wish the great Billy Sims didn't fumble against Nebraska, but as great as Sims was that play is talked about by many when his named is mentioned. Whether that is right or wrong will be debated for ever, but in today's media that is the way it is.


One thing that is certain is that the botched fumble return only left the Sooners trailing 14-7. It was still early in the game and Oklahoma was still very much in the game. As pointed out before, OU had turned around many bad moments in a game on the very next series to get the momentum swung back around in their favor.

On the very next series, the Sooners looked to be doing exactly that. OU drove to the USC 38-yard line early in the second quarter. Faced with a second and six, Jason White made a rare mistake.

"I don't know what I was thinking on that play," said White several days after the game. "That is one of the worst plays that I have made at OU. I mean, I have made some bad ones, but that just killed us. I was flushed out of the pocket and saw Mark (Clayton) and thought he had single coverage. I got to much air under the ball and it turned out he was double or triple covered. That was just a terrible play on my part. That play hurt us the most. If we score on that drive then we overcome Mark's fumble. In fact, Mark is probably going to score later on that drive. He was getting open early in the game, but that pass just got away from me. Mark (Clayton) really had no chance to catch the ball and they got a big play from their offense and we never recovered."

Nope, OU never recovered. Dwayne Jarrett streaked down the left sideline beating Brodney Pool and the Sooner secondary for a score. Clayton then slipped down on a pass route and White was intercepted again. Blessed with great field position inside the 10, Leinart found Steve Smith for the first of two touchdowns, and within a span six minutes USC had put up 21 points and the Sooners were reeling.


The touchdown catches by Jarrett and Smith bring up another major problem for the Sooners against USC. The Sooner secondary reverted back the bad form they showed against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M earlier this year. They let wide receivers behind them and they didn't break on the ball, letting the Trojan wide receiver core have their way with them.

"We just didn't execute like we are capable of," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables. "On the Jarrett touchdown, we have the perfect call as we are playing two halves with our safeties and they run a pass pattern right into it on the boundary. A million times this season our safeties have covered that and either gone over and knocked the ball away or intercepted the ball. I know when Leinart first let the ball go I am thinking that we are going to intercept it, but we don't break on the ball. And in fact, we don't even tackle him and it turns out to be an easy touchdown for them."

"Then on Smith's touchdowns, they are off of plays that we have covered a thousand times this years successfully," said Venables. "There is nothing magical about what they ran and they didn't come up with any new formation. Our own offense runs that play out of the same formations, so we see it a lot in practice. They are spacing routes and our linebackers have specific rules. They have done a great job against those routes all year, but against USC they didn't execute at all and they had two easy touchdowns. We worked on that in practice and it just didn't happen in the game. Why? I am not sure why, but I need to find out to make sure it doesn't happen again."

"On the deep pass to the tight end in the first quarter, Rufus (Alexander) has great coverage on the guy and he makes a fantastic one-handed catch," Venables continued. "We had the right call defensively and had the right guy covering the receiver, they just made a great play on us. Nine out of ten times the tight end can't make that kind of catch, but on this night they were good enough to make a circus catch and score on us."

Coach Stoops echoed the same thoughts and said both times the Sooners had the right calls.

"Yes, we were in position," said Stoops. "They are spacing routes. Anyone who follows football knows that when they are running spacing routes down on the goal line against Lance Mitchell, they are spreading people out all across the end zone and he has to spot people. Lance tries to be aggressive and knock the receiver off his route and lunges at him and misses him. We are not in man-to-man, so he is not covering them in man coverage. He has help on the outside and if the receiver breaks in his basic zone coverage, which is inside the red zone that everybody runs, he is responsible for that little short area. You lunge at a guy and miss them then he is going to be open. If you sit in there and space yourself and wait for the throw, then you have a much better chance of covering the play, and that is what we try and do. USC runs the same coverage down there. As far as zone coverage in the middle, that is where Lance has been all year, where he has been in our defense for the last six years."

"We also had the right coverage against the tight end in the first quarter," Stoops continued. "We have had linebackers cover tight ends down the middle every year that we have been here. As far as two deep coverage goes, a lot of people play all linebackers are responsible for tight ends down the middle in that coverage."


Many questioned that the Sooners weren't prepared or stated that the USC coaching staff totally outfoxed the OU staff, but in reality USC didn't show OU anything that they didn't expect.

"The bottom line is that they made plays and we didn't on both sides in the game," said OU Co-Defensive Coordinator Bo Pelini after the game. "They beat us in every aspect of the game and you have to give them credit. I feel bad that we didn't play up to our capabilities, but that is what it is. They didn't run anything that we didn't expect and their guys made plays and our guys didn't. Things snowballed on us and started going in the wrong direction. We needed to make a play on either side of the ball to get it to stop and we couldn't make a play. You can't put your finger on one thing with this game, because it was a total team deal. Us, as coaches have to look at it and try to figure out how it went that way and why."

Lance Mitchell was the middle linebacker that was involved with both of Smith's touchdown catches.

"I didn't want the season to end this way," said Mitchell. "We have to accept our losses and accept our wins, but tonight USC was the better team. We really couldn't anything tonight as it wasn't just the run. They didn't do anything special. I want to say we weren't ready, but I thought we were. We just didn't show up like OU tonight."

"We didn't make a play all night," said a disappointed Brodney Pool following the game. "In the secondary, you have to make plays against a good passing team like USC. We didn't and they did. End of story."

Did the Sooners make a mistake with their gameplan? Should they have done something else? You are talking about a coaching staff that has just put together gameplans for 13 consecutive wins and that was playing in back-to-back National Championship games, so the odds are they know how to gameplan.

"They ran the same plays that they had run all season and the same ones that we had worked in our preparations," said Stoops. "Again, they blocked us and they made us miss a few times. They made the runs in the run game that they needed to. So, in the end we failed in every part of the game. Maybe in our kicking we did well. Outside of Garrett Hartley's first kick-off out of bounds, he was good. He made his first field goal as he nailed it. I thought our cover units were great. We did make a mistake when we tried to pick up the punt and that should never happen. How that happens you can't even explain it. So, outside of that, USC won the battle at the line of scrimmage. And I said going into the game whoever could make the bigger plays in the passing game would have the best chance to win as well, and they made them and we didn't."


Turnovers stopped the Sooner offense for the most part, but OU could never get their running game going either. Adrian Peterson did break the NCAA freshman rushing record and the Oklahoma single season rushing record with 1,925 yards, but the Trojans held him to just 82 yards on 25 carries.

"I don't care about breaking records because we didn't win the game," said A.D. "We tried as hard as we could, but just couldn't get anything going. I don't know why, but we just didn't."

All year the offensive line won the battle at the line of scrimmage, but against USC they met their match. The Sooner O-line knew going into the game that the Trojan front four was outstanding, but they still felt they were going to move the ball.

"We just made too many mistakes early," said junior offensive guard Davin Joseph. "Against a great team we can't do that. We got behind and couldn't catch back up because they were too good of a team. We didn't convert on third downs tonight and we couldn't stop them on third downs. That played a big role in the outcome. We made a lot of silly plays in the game. We made some uncharacteristic plays in the game on the field that really hurt us. We didn't win enough of our individual battles tonight.

"Turnovers killed us at first and after we turned the ball over they got the momentum. There was nothing we could do after that," said senior offensive tackle Wes Sims. "USC has a lot of great players along the defensive line and they were really good up front. I don't know if they were that much better than anybody that we played all year, but they were really good. They were moving around a little bit, but nothing more than we really expected. We came out that first drive and did pretty good, but after that we turned the ball over and lost momentum. They are just a great team and managed to stop us."

Despite what people think, USC didn't not do anything defensively that OU didn't expect.

"No, their structure was just as we had worked all month," said Coach Stoops. "They ran their base structures. They played a little more three man front than they had most of the year, but we see three man front from everybody and it is something that we had success against. There was just a sprinkling of that, so there wasn't much. Again, give their defensive backs credit. Both of them (corners) broke in and broke up a bunch of balls and made plays on some throws that in our secondary that we were tight on, but they found a way to complete the football. Again, that is what it comes down to sometimes."


Many complain that the Sooners were too vanilla on offense and too predictable. Of course, the Sooners have called the same plays in basically the same way that led them to average 36.1 points per game and 469.9 yards of total offense per game in their undefeated run up to the Orange Bowl.

"We ran over 60 different formations in the game and had a different look on almost every single play that we ran," said Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long. "Even when we got behind we wanted to continue to run the football some because we have had so much success at it all year, and we have one of the most explosive running backs in the country in our backfield. We needed points and AD has just as good a chance to get us some points quickly as anybody else that we have on offense, and he can get them quick too. We had to throw it quite a bit midway through the third quarter, and at that point they just pinned their ears back and put a good rush on us. We still protected pretty well, but struggled at times."

Where were the trick plays? And whey didn't OU throw the ball on every down?

"If that is all you are doing is running trick plays and running bombs, then it becomes easy to blitz you and attack you as well," said Stoops. "You can second-guess play-calling all you want, and that is fair enough. I am not sitting here acting like we did things exactly right. I am to be criticized, sure. In the end, we felt that we were doing the things necessary to fight our way back in it. Lets face it too, we have created some big plays in the running game throughout the year and we have a guy at tailback who can go 85-yards pretty quickly. You figure too that they think that you are going to throw all the time and you hope that they come with the blitz that you can catch them on and you can create a big play. They did a great job defending it and we didn't do a very good job obviously. So in the end, we didn't get the job done.

"When you lose like that we are to be second-guessed and questioned, and that is fine," Stoops continued. "We did win 12 ballgames and we did win the Big 12 Championship. We are not going to scrap everything that we do and go into the biggest game and all of a sudden change things. We have to dance with what brought us to the dance. They executed it better than we did and entire staff and team. That is hard to take as a coaching staff and team, but sometimes things snowball on you. They made some great plays and then you help them with some major mistakes on your part, and there it is. In the end, you can reason it and explain it all you want, but that is what happens in these games. You have to make plays when you get the opportunity. We made some very critical errors, and then we gave up some big plays on defense. In the end, it is open when that happens and you get those kinds of scores."


The Orange Bowl was a tough way for Jason White to end his career at OU, and it certainly wasn't how he wanted it to end. He did throw two touchdown passes, but he knows that his three interceptions played a big role in the loss.

"We turned the ball over and that killed us the first half," said White after the game. "We were playing catch-up the rest of the time. You have to give them credit because they played a great game, they are well-coached and they have great athletes. They won at the line of scrimmage tonight on both sides of the ball. They were prepared to play and they came out to play, and we didn't."

The Sooners also couldn't run the ball, and White said that USC's team speed was tough to adjust to.

"They didn't do much different to stop the run or do anything that we didn't expect," said White. "Like we said all week, they have a great front four and the most speed on defense that we have seen this year. They are extremely fast and they were coached to stop the run, and they did that. We tried to take advantage with the pass and we did that on our opening drive, but after that we just didn't make any plays."

White is the ultimate competitor, and several days after the game he is still shaken by the loss."

"I have gotten over the loss physically, but not mentally or emotionally,' said White. "I am so embarrassed how we played in the game and so disappointed in how we played. I am disappointed in how I played, and I know I could have played so much better. I can't do anything about it either, and that is what makes me mad. I don't have any more eligibility left and I can't ask for another year. If I could I would, but I know it is time to move on. I hope that next year the guys can get back to the National Championship game to make up for our disappointment. I wish them the best of luck and I know they are going to be real good again."

White is working to get an invite to the Senior Bowl and he does say that he will go to the pro combines and prove to them that his knees are sound and that he is ready for a career in the NFL.


The loss hurt all of OU's players a great deal. They are still shocked and humiliated about the score. However, you are talking about a team that has won a lot of football games over the last few years and they will always carry that with them.

"This run that we have been on the last two years is something that I wouldn't trade for anything," said Joseph. "Some of the guys that I have been playing with are not only great players, but great people. They will be some of my best friends for ever."

Joseph will move to right tackle next year and have a chance to win the Outland Trophy, but he is also looking forward to developing a new offensive line next season.

"We will go into next season gunning for a third straight trip to this game," said Joseph. "Some guys next year will have never played in a game like this, but a lot of guys that we have coming back will have played in these kinds of games. I lose a lot of great guys that I have played with the last couple of years, but I will have a lot great pups that are itching to get in there and play. I look forward to being a leader next year along the offensive line and picking up with Jammal (Brown), Vince (Carter) and Wes (Sims) left off."

Another player the Sooners are going to build around is sophomore cornerback Marcus Walker.

"We all have to come back from this and learn form our mistakes," said Walker. "I can play a lot better than I played in the Orange Bowl, and I am going to work incredibly hard to be a much better player next year. We will have a great secondary next year. I wish we could get started today."


There have been many questions asked about the Sooners' terrible performance in the Orange Bowl. Many questioned the Sooners attitude, the play-calling and the gameplan. Those of us that have been around Oklahoma for a long time understand that and that kind of thinking certainly is not surprising to OU Head Coach Bob Stoops.

"People have been asking or saying that we should have done something differently," said Stoops. "Sure, we should have protected the football. We should be wiser with it and don't make those poor decisions. What do you do as far as covering a guy deep? Well you stay on top of him. There isn't any science to it. You take a better angle, you respect his speed better and you stay on top. Our guys do that and for the most part did a good job of that all year. We worked all month on our guys being in position. But hey, when you get in the moment you have to do it as well. If you don't you are going to give up big plays and the game is going to be over."

"We just got whipped. Overall, all the responsibility for the poor game comes to me," said Coach Stoops after the game. "We didn't get it done and I feel we are capable of playing better. When you turn the ball over four times in the first half you make it pretty difficult to win. I feel like the second quarter pretty much took us out of it. You have to complement USC.

"I am still proud of my players to be in this position, but I can't say that I am proud of how we played today. Their work through the entire year is not something that we take for granted. Our young men work hard and I appreciate their efforts, and I complement them for the hard work, for winning the Big 12 Championship and putting us in a position to win the National Championship. I wish we could have done a better job playing today. It didn't happen and USC needs to be given credit for that.

"You really soul search as a coach how this could happen," said Coach Stoops. "Sometimes they are good enough as it is and you are contributing their success with your own turnovers and things. You give them the ball when they are not supposed to have it in those kind of situations. And then you let a guy run by you when you are in a safe and protected coverage, then bad things happen quickly to you. It doesn't take much for it to happen."


The OU fan wants answers and they want detailed answers as whey the Sooners suffered such a shocking defeat, and you have them in this story. Sometimes football isn't as complicated as we try to make it. OU got whipped in every single area and they lost the battle at the line of scrimmage. They turned it over and USC was good enough to stick it down the Sooners' throat. The secondary allowed USC to get behind them and the Trojans secondary battled hard against a good group of OU receivers and came up with three picks and won a few other battles.

OU never got going offensively and USC stopped the running game. Again, USC won the battle at the line of scrimmage. OU will look at how they prepare for a game as they worked out very hard for the game, and maybe the team was tired for the game? The OU coaches don't really buy into this because conditioning and toughness is a major part of the Sooners' game. However, USC didn't run sprints in Florida and didn't run them much in the game. And in football, schools copy each other, so we will see what comes from the Sooners' study.

Bottom line like I have said many times OU laid an egg in this one. They flopped, choked or whatever you want to call it. However, OU won 12 games this year and they won 12 last year, and they have won an NCAA Championship under Stoops.

The Sooners are 67-12 under Stoops, so he knows what he is doing. OU is not going to stop what they are doing because they turned the ball over and lost one game. OU always makes adjustments in the off-season, and this off-season will be no different. However, OU is not going to junk the system. Yes, the Sooners will improve the system, but they are not going to junk it.

The Orange Bowl loss hurts and hurts bad, but fortunately OU has a coach that looks at the overall big picture and understands that one loss doesn't make or break a program. It looks like the Sooners are going to return their staff next year, and that is great news. OU will come out firing next year and don't be surprised if the Sooners are right back in the Rose Bowl playing for another national title.

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