It was ironic that Nebraska's gallant quarterback Zach Taylor and his Husker offense were still firing as time was running out in the Big- 2 Championship game. Taylor had taken a beating from the Sooner defense, but he was earning their respect as well as on every single play it seemed Taylor would either hang in the pocket or run for life. Either way, he was getting hammered by the Sooner defense.
On pass number 50, he was smashed to the ground again by Sooner C.J. Ah You, and he was getting up slowly. Taylor was sacked three times in this game, and that made 12 times in his last two meetings with the Sooners. He was hit another 30 times, but to his credit he hung in the pocket and tried to give his troops a chance.
However, once again the Oklahoma defense was up to the task coming up with three picks and two fumble recoveries. And despite giving up 366 total yards, they were in total control. On offense, the Sooners had come up with one of the best drives in school history starting off their own goal line and basically going 100 yards in 11 plays to knock the Cornhuskers out it certainly sent them to the ropes.
When the gun sounded, the Sooner faithful erupted and the players, coaches and administration jumped for joy. To steal a line from OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, this season had been 'such a grind'. So when they finally won the Big 12 Championship, it was time to celebrate.
Senior quarterback Paul Thompson was mobbed by reporters on the field, and after a few quotes he couldn't stand it any more. He had to apologize to the media and started to scream at the OU fans who were screaming back. I couldn't blame PT. He was trying to be nice to the TV types, but man he wanted to celebrate. He wanted to party!
I have no idea if PT knew who he was screaming to in the stands or not, but he was screaming Big 12 CHAMPS, BIG-12 CHAMPS as loud as he could and the fans were giving it back to him.
Junior cornerback Marcus Walker is normally quiet, but he walked up to this reporter and shouted, 'Hey Mr. Hale, call us CHAMPIONS baby.' Senior defensive end Larry Birdine yelled, 'Hey James, we are the best. We proved we are the BEST!'
University of Oklahoma President David Boren, came down to the field with about 5:00 minutes remaining and admitted that he could not have been more proud of a team.
"I am as proud of this football as I was of the team in 2000 that won the national championship," said President Boren at Arrowhead Stadium. "This team overcame so much adversity throughout the year, yet each time an obstacle would stand in their way they would run right through it and become a better team. This team will be a team that we will all be talking about for many years to come."
When the clocked reached zero, President Boren, OU Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione, Toby Keith and our own Jim Ross walked onto the field to join in the celebration. Players, coaches and all the rest were hugging and jumping up and down celebrating the victory. Despite the 28 degree temperature, Bob Stoops got his Gatorade bath and it soaked several others around him who were getting their championship hugs.
As the Sooners got on a makeshift podium to accept the Big 12 Championship trophy, they kept celebrating by yelling the OU Chant with many fans celebrating in the stands. Thompson was front and center giving the 'OU' sign as the chant went on. It looked to me that Paul was enjoying this victory more than anybody. I am sure that he had 100 equals out there, but just watching PT you know that he was celebrating something that he knew many people felt he would ever be close to.
"We deserve this. We deserve this more than any team in the country," said a jubilant Thompson immediately following the game. "Nobody thought we could win this, nobody. Now we have proven to everybody that we are the Big 12 Champs."
It took a good while to get the Sooners off the field and after a long game. Super receiver Malcolm Kelly was the first to enter the postgame press conference with his new Big 12 Championship hat and game uniform. Kelly was in the room by himself for about three minutes before he realized that he was by himself in his game uniform.
He wanted to take that grimy jersey off at least, so he raced out as my media brother Brian Davis said something about his hat. That got Mr. Kelly antsy and the media was back to nobody in the media room from Oklahoma for another five minutes. Brian is one of the best writers in the country, but at that point none of us thought much of the funny man from the Dallas Morning News. It was already a long night for us and the Sooners were so busy celebrating in their locker room that forgot about us poor media types. Like they cared at that point!
Finally, coach Stoops came in wearing that game championship hat followed by Thomspon, Rufus Alexander and C.J. Ah You. Finally, Kelly found another shirt to put on and he was the last to arrive.
The Sooners had just come all the way back from their disappointing loss to Texas and once again had put the Longhorns in their rearview mirror. The mighty Longhorns are once again back where they belong in the Stoops era, and that is wishing they were Oklahoma. Oklahoma had won eight straight, were Big 12 Champs and heading to the Fiesta Bowl to play Boise State on January 1st, which is exactly where Texas wanted to be.
However, they didn't play a perfect game against Nebraska. Nebraska did something to the Sooners that nobody thought they could do — they shut down their rushing game holding them to just 42 yards rushing. But the Sooner game was in high gear as Thompson finished 19-34 for 265 yard two touchdowns against one costly interception.
"My compliments to Coach (Bill) Callihan, his staff and the Nebraska football team," said Stoops following the game. "It was a fun, hard-fought game. They played well and we played well. Everybody has their moments at different times. We just, fortunately, made some big plays to start the game. We made some good turnovers defensively, the huge drive coming off our own 1-yard line. Paul was sensational that drive. We just played great, great defense the entire night. Starting the third quarter, I don't know how many times they had possessions with great field position and we were able to come up with stops."
"I just feel fortunate and blessed to be able to work with players like Malcolm (Kelly) and the guys in the locker room who are just a special group of players. They are very selfless, very much of a team. They just pulled together the entire year and never made excuses. We had plenty of excuses if we chose to grab on to them—nobody ever did. They just kept working through the year. Our assistant coaches deserve a great deal of credit. Managing the different personnel changes we've had through the year, they have done it in a great, great way. Again I am just fortunate to work with all these people."
You know how it is? Everybody wants to talk offense following the game. Yes, OU is plenty good on offense and always has been, but if you have followed Oklahoma as long as I have you know that it is defense that wins championships. And OU has won a lot of championships, which means they are always playing great defense. That was the case again on Saturday as the Sooner D bent a little, but never broke. The only time that Nebraska reached the end zone was after a short field on Thompson's only interception.
"They were awesome," said an emphatic Stoops after the game. "Maybe that performance was one of our best defensive games. We gave up a couple of big plays, but again compliments to Nebraska. They're a good football game and they're going to do that.
"But boy did we come up with a lot of big plays, turnovers and stops when we really had to have them. I just thought the secondary; I thought the coverage was just outstanding. They came up with interceptions when the pressure was there. Outside of a few plays, we settled in and really defended the run, which we felt was the biggest part of the game. We played the run well."
Nebraska is a very hard team to defend. They have become a power running team once again, yet throw the ball out of the West Coast offense. A little Nebraska of old, without the option, and a lot of Nebraska of new.
You have to be able to tackle in space to beat Nebraska and they are good enough to make a defense look bad on occasion. That happened to the Sooners at times on Saturday, but most of the time it was the defense who forced the Huskers into mistakes.
"Nebraska has great skill players," said senior linebacker Rufus Alexander following the game. "Zac Taylor, he made a lot of things happen out there for his team. We knew going into the game that we had, you know, eliminated our missed tackles and we had a few out there that we've got to get better on. We made a few mistakes out there, but we focused in and we fought an uphill battle all game long and we just came out with the victory. That's all that really matters."
Taylor did make some plays, but by his own admission after the game he never was able to get settled. He was constantly being harassed and forced to scramble out of the pocket, and it seemed like all day he was staring right into the jersey of the Sooners' No. 99.
"We just knew we had to pressure them all game," said senior defensive end C.J. Ah You. "For him to just sit back there, he could easily pick our defense apart. We took that responsibility and made sure that we got a lot of pressure on him, made sure he wasn't comfortable there. Everyone did a great good job today."
Larry Birdine seconded that thought.
"We got after Taylor all day. We had to or he would hurt us," said the senior defensive end on the field following the game. "Nebraska does so many different things offensively that you really have to know what you are doing to get pressure on him. Coach Venables and our defensive coaches did a great job of coming up with a gameplan. Everything that coach (Chris) Wilson told us they would do, they did. I told Calvin (Thibodeaux) during the game that we are on top of everything that they were doing. That allowed us to get after it on the edge and they never really blocked us all night."
Despite the great effort by the defense it was THE DRIVE that was drawing the most attention following the game. With the Sooners leading 14-7 and seemingly going backwards, they found themselves a football length off their own goal line facing 3rd and ten. With no room for error, the Sooners came up with the offensive call of the year.
"We started the second half and we didn't have a great kick return," said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. "We get pinned on the first one. On the first play we have a nice run, but they call Joe Jon (Finley) for holding and that puts us back on the 15. Then we run the ball and lose four and throw an incomplete pass. On third and long, we get a sack and we are on the five. They get the ball at midfield and our defense does a nice job and hunkers them down.
"We get the ball back about the eight-yard line on the next drive and the same deal, three-and-out. We can't get anything going. We punt it back to midfield and the defense again does a great job of fighting them and bending. I remember it was fourth down and somebody said, 'watch the fake' and I said they are not going to fake it because they think they are going to pin us down here again and they have all the momentum. They think, sooner or later they are going to make play."
"They did pin us down on the one-yard line, and on the first play of the drive we tried to do a double-move, stop-and-go type route expecting Malcolm to have one-on-one coverage, which he did," Wilson continued.
"The route wasn't executed clean and he kind of ran into the guy. They collided and didn't get a clean release and it was an incomplete pass. On second down, we ran it and we got stuffed. We were on the one-and-a-half and we barely got it back across and we lost about a yard. We are back to our half-yard line and my comments to coach were that if we went to our spread set to throw the ball I thought he (Nebraska) would blitz us, which he did.
"Earlier when we had our one turnover and we were backed up, the crowd was rolling and we went to a spread set to throw the ball, and they brought an all-out blitz. I didn't make a proper call for us and that put us in a bad situation. We give up a hurried pass and Paul is trying to throw it away and he doesn't have enough arm to get it out of bounds, and they get a pick and that is where they get their seven points."
"I am thinking it is 3rd and 10 here on the one, and if I spread it out this guy is going to blitz me," Wilson continued. "I just said to coach that I am going to put the big guys out there because if we run it we are only going to go for one or two yards and we are going to be punting from the two or three. And then I said, 'What is the difference if we punt from the one? Whether we are punting from the one or the two, it is going to be a short punt. I said I want to fake it and throw the power pass, where we fake the run and run the fullback slot into the flat and the tight end runs the corner route.
"He (Coach Stoops) said 'go for it'. To me, there was safe protection and no real chance of having a sack. When we put that big line-up out there they said, 'Hey, they are just going to try to punch it out and get a yard or two and then punt us back the ball. We just got lucky and executed a nice play. The fullback was open in the flat and Jermaine (Gresham) was open up high, and Paul delivered a good throw."
"After that play, we fire up a little play-action pass and hit a corner route to Juaquin (Iglesias) for about 22 yards," Wilson continued. "We came back off of that with a little play-action roll out, back it up with another play-action rollout, and then another bootleg. I think we had a 2nd and 1 and we ran the ball one time. We kind of got into a little mode there moving the pocket, and it was safe protections. It was easy throws and we got down on the goal-line and we ran it once. Then we threw a play-action pass and our fullback Dane (Zaslaw) had a chance, but he just couldn't make the catch on second-and-three. On third down, Malcolm had the nice catch. His play was a combination route that if it was covered one-on-one on Malcolm, we were going to throw him a jumpball fade.
"They cover him one-on-one and Paul saw and read it properly and made a nice throw there. A lot of people will say it was as gutsy call, but to me it was a safe protection on the 3rd and 1. If we run we are only going to get a yard here. They were totally committing and stuffing the run, and they were playing great run defense. We almost threw the same play last year against Kansas on the same end of the field and Joe Jon caught a 30-yarder. It was after that great interception that Rufus had that was as great interception in the same corner of the field down there. So that must be our favorite play to throw that little pass when we are backed up to our own one, I guess."
In our locker room reports, coach Wilson and coach Venables have both often talked about conversations or comments they give and receive from coach Stoops in the game. It is obvious that Stoops has tremendous confidence in both is coordinators, because he goes with their gut and on this occasion they came up big.
"That was the drive of the year, without question," said Coach Stoops. "It was huge. Just a lot of great plays, and I thought Paul threw some great balls on that whole series. We executed in a great way and punched it in. That was a big blow to them."
One thing is for certain, once the Sooners got the ball off of the goal line it was Wilson's decision to throw the ball and to keep throwing the ball.
"I don't have to tell Kevin," said Stoops. "Everyone makes an issue. We felt the way they were trying to defend us we had opportunities to pass, and we were going to keep taking advantage of it. I don't tell Kevin what to do. Occasionally, he will ask me my opinion in certain situations when he wants my opinion. But I am listening all the time and he did an excellent job."
Just how big was that play off the Sooners own goal line?
"Huge," said Coach Stoops. "When you get that big one on 3rd and 14 from your own one-yard line, that's pretty big. I don't know if that is exactly right, but it was a big play."
The significance of the play and the drive were not lost on Thompson, who has seen a great number of big plays during his career. But now this is a player coming through with those big plays.
"That was definitely real big," said Thompson following the game. "Being in the situation that we were in the second half, we weren't really moving the ball well. The defense was doing a great job of getting us the ball back. They were getting the ball at the 50-yard line and plus 40 yard line coming in. Our defense did a great job of holding them every time. So we weren't having as much success running the ball or getting anything rolling. Jermaine was able to make a good corner route cut in. I laid it out there for him and that kind of got it rolling. We just kept rolling from there. What was a big moment change in the game."
During the drive, Kelly made two catches for first downs before catching the fade route in the end zone, but he believes the key catch in the drive belonged to the freshman from Ardmore, Oklahoma.
"I would have to say the same thing," said Kelly following the game. "Just the way things were going for us in the second half. In the halftime locker room, coach Stoops told us things were there for us but that we needed to execute better. Then we come out to start the second half and we still aren't executing. Coach (Wilson) just called a good play and Jermaine got open.He is a freak out there you know what I am saying, for anybody that can see him. It was just a good play call and PT put it out there and that sparked us the rest of the half."
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