The look on the faces of the Oklahoma players and coaches as they came off the field was one of disbelief and shock. The Sooner locker room entrance was right underneath a group of Boise State fans, who were celebrating to high heavens their improbably 43-42 overtime win over OU.
Anybody that was wearing crimson and cream was getting the business from the Boise State fans, and by the look on the faces of all associated with OU you could tell each word was like a punch in the nose.
To say the Sooners were stunned is an understatement. To say they were disappointed is an understatement. What works? Shocked? Stunned? Come up with what you want and make it ten times more dramatic and that is how OU felt suffering a loss at the hands of the Broncos.
The locker room was also located in an area where Ian Johnson had just run in his two-point conversation so a squad of Boise State players raced into the area. The Sooners had to walk through them as well and they couldn't help but look or glance at the celebration taking place. The Broncos didn't trash talk the Sooners, or at least I didn't hear any as I stood in the area with my head on a swivel watching as much of the scene as I could. Some Boise State players stopped and hugged OU players. It seemed like senior defensive end C.J. Ah You was get hugged and searched out by a number of Broncos.
The BCS mandates open locker rooms, so this was the first time this year that the media was actually allowed in the OU locker room. If you have any feelings at all as a media rep you felt for these guys. Nobody thought they would lose to Boise State and OU was confident going it. Then, on top of all that, to rally from behind to take the lead on Marcus Walker's interception only to get beat on three trick plays that work to perfection. The Sooners emotions were so up and down the entire second half and then wound up on the floor in the locker room. The players looked as if they had been kicked in the stomach. Not a player was talking unless questioned by a media rep.
Every player had his head down and by the time I got into the locker room some 40 minutes following the game some players were still in uniform sitting in front of their locker. One of those was Marcus Walker, who among the Sooner players may have had the most up-and-down night of the team. Early in the game Walker was burned for the Broncos' first touchdown and he never seemed to get into a rhythm during the game until his interception that briefly gave the Sooners the lead.
Up till the game Walker had played brilliantly at corner once he was inserted into the starting lineup the third game of the year. Secondary coach Bobby Jack Wright and defensive coordinator Brent Venables couldn't say enough about Walker's quality play and how much he meant to the defense.
For some reason Walker and several others didn't fire early against Boise State, but just like the Sooner season, Walker kept battling and for a brief time he thought he had come all the way back only to experience Boise State driving 78 yards with less than a minute to go to tie the game. Then Boise State beat the Sooners in a form of a statue-of-liberty play on the two-point try.
More than a half hour after the game, Walker was in the locker room and had his legs stretched out in front of him leaning back in a chair. He still had his uniform on and, in fact, had not even removed his tape. Walker has always been good me and I knew that he would talk to me, but to be honest he looked so sad and disappointed I almost didn't approach him. However, losing is a part of sports and when I sat down to talk to him and I didn't even have to ask him a question before he started answering a question that I was going to ask anyway.
"I am an aggressive corner and I play aggressive," said Walker following the game. "I gamble at times and sometimes you are going to get beat. I got beat early in the game so I had to find a way to keep myself motivated. My teammates did a great job and my coaches did a great job of keeping me motivated. They kept me aggressive and I made an aggressive play on the ball and made a play. I got a touchdown out of it so that worked out well. I was on the opposite side of the field with the hook-and-ladder, but that is a play that we have been watching since we were knee-high-to-a-duck. We never watched Boise State run that play on film and we watched all their games, but they executed and it won the game for them in the end."
The double whammy for the Sooner defense is not only did they get beat by one trick play, but three when you count the overtime touchdown pass from wide receiver Vinny Peretta to super tight end Derek Schumann that set up the winning two-point conversion.
"We should have been able to execute against it," said Walker. "We watched those gadget plays on tape for over a month. We didn't see the hook-and-ladder, but they used the rest of those plays all season so obviously we should have executed better at the end of the game.
"We still had a minute on the clock when I scored my touchdown and you can't quit playing. You learn that when you start playing football and know anything can happen in the football game like we saw today and earlier this year at Oregon. It is unfortunate that we came up a tad bit short. I don't know what else to say. We came up a little short and there is nothing more that I can say."
With that, Walker finally started to take off his tape and get undressed with a distant look of disbelief on his face and just couldn't keep from shaking his head.
The first player I reached sitting in front of his locker was senior defense tackle Carl Pendleton, who announced during the season that he was not going to play football his senior year and that this would be his final season in a Sooner uniform. Pendleton was having just an average season until he made his announcement, but once he let his intentions known he played some of the best football of his career.
Pendleton thought out his decision through the year, but I am not sure it really hit him until after the game. I watched Pendleton come off the field and he was in deep thought walking almost on autopilot. When I got to him in the locker room he had his shoulder pads and jersey off, but was still partially dressed in his uniform and he didn't seem in any hurry to take it off.
"I don't know what to say about this game," said Pendleton following the game, fighting off tears. "We just didn't play well early in the game and we had to fight back. At the end of the game they were better than us and made the plays that they needed to win. We didn't make enough to win. That is what it all gets down to.
"I can't explain the slow start. You just never know and it is just one of those things. Some times you click and sometimes you don't and we just weren't clicking in the first half. I feel for the seniors and the guys who are finishing their career today. It would have been nice to come out with a win, but the future is bright on this football team and everybody has a lot of talent. As for me, I am just ready to go onto the next phase of my life and see what possibilities are out there for me ahead. This game hurt, but we played as hard as we could and we competed as hard as we could and that fact will always be with me."
When the matchup was announced the OU coaches let everybody know that Boise State was a good football team and without question OU respected Boise State and what they had accomplished this year. After watching Boise State film for a month their opinion had not changed and there is no question that going into the game the Sooner players and coaches respected Boise State as a team.
OU had great practices going into the game and the coaches spent extra time putting together the game plan. They totally respected Boise State and from my estimation did not overlook Boise State in anyway.
So why did the Sooners get off to such a slow start in the game? Why did they fall behind 14-0? Why did they trail 21-10 at the half, and early in the third quarter fall behind 28-10? Why was it that OU didn't start playing Sooner football until midway through the third quarter? Why, after rallying, didn't the Sooners hold a seven-point lead with a minute to play?
Those are questions that are still being debated six days following the game and immediately following the game even coach Stoops struggled to find words as to what happened to his Sooners during the game, especially in the final minute and overtime to a football team he cares so much about.
"I was very proud of my football team and they have been a great football team to work with this year," said Stoops at the postgame press conference. "This game doesn't change that. It was a crazy, wild game and I felt early on we made too many major mistakes that really put us in a bad position. However, I am glad how the guys fought back and put us into a position to give ourselves an opportunity to win. In the end, Boise made the big plays on some fourth downs and a two-point play. Give them what they deserve — the credit for making those plays and they did an excellent job. Again, I am very proud of these guys and my entire football team for the way they competed and the way they have handled themselves the entire season."
After a restless night sleeping, Stoops once again explained what happened to his Sooners with a minute to go in trying to defend all those trick plays.
"We defended the one throw back to the quarterback that they tried to run in overtime," said Stoops. "Even on the other ones, it wasn't like we didn't have people around him. Even on the halfback pass on fourth-and-2, Zach Latimer is side-by-side with the guy. They just kind of got it in there just right and just hit it just right with their timing. On the hook-and-lateral, Zach is slipping down and he is right in the middle so when the receiver catches the ball he is not able to get to him. So when I look at my guys it is not like we weren't sitting there in position and reading it.
"On the statue-of-liberty one of our guys didn't line up wide enough and we lost leverage. On the big play to the tight end that got them to midfield on the final drive, we are in the most conservative coverage we can be in, but we are in a basic coverage that we use and not in a prevent. Our linebackers don't quite get the depth that we need and they put it right in there and get a big gain out of it. However, we rushed four and had a good coverage called on the play, but just didn't make the proper play on the ball."
The Sooners got behind the eight ball early for a number of reasons. One of the biggest was the up-and-down play of senior quarterback Paul Thompson, whose erratic play early cost the Sooners dearly. Thompson fumbled deep in Oklahoma territory that cost the Sooners a touchdown. He missed two open receivers on post patters, badly under throwing passes to sophomore wide receivers Malcolm Kelly and Juaquin Iglesias that should have resulted in Sooner touchdowns. Early in the third quarter, he throws an out-route that is picked off and returned for a touchdown.
Following that interception, Thompson settled down and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson ordered the offense to pick up the tempo. By picking up the pace the Sooners began to move the ball, especially through the air. With Kelly out early in the first quarter with a knee injury, Boise State had trouble covering Iglesias and Manual Johnson in the second half.
"We started off a little rough and I made some passes that I really didn't want to make," said Thompson following the game. "Looking back on it, I may have been trying to do too much in the game being a big game. I really wasn't playing within myself, but we were able to regroup toward the end of the game. We never doubted ourselves and we never quit believing that we could come back. We definitely started off rough and I was a little nervous. I was trying to do too much early."
Despite his hot-and-cold play against the Broncos, the struggles early in the passing game were not all Thompson's fault.
"The pressure on the one is not his fault," said Stoops. "We get pressure and then the other one is a tipped ball. Sure, there were a couple of passes that Paul wishes he could have back. We are just a couple of plays away from turning things around in the first half. It is the same thing on defense. We have two bad plays in the first half defensively, but the score doesn't indicate that. Sometimes it is just a few plays that beat you and that is the way it was. The last play before half we miss a sack (Calvin Thibodeaux) and he (Jared Zabranski) slings the ball back across the field and then we slip (Latimer) and miss the tackle and then all of a sudden the receiver has a seem and a touchdown. You look at our offense in the first half and we are driving the ball. Nothing stops us other than the turnovers. Then we are going in at their 30 and we throw the other interception. Turnovers are going to beat you. It was amazing, really, considering everything that happened against us that we were in the position that we were with those kinds of turnovers that we had."
Thompson was as senior playing in his last game, but nobody was ready to say that Thompson was suffering from seniorities in the game.
"Maybe, but I don't know," said Stoops. "I think he just saw an opening and tried to make a play. There are two throws that I know he would like to have back. When you watch him and what he has done he knows those are two that he would like to have back. Paul was great in our two-minute offense and we did better when we sped up the tempo. Our coaches had a great plan in the two-minute offense and our guys executed that well in the game. That is what is always interesting about playing quarterback. If you are good — and Paul is — and you keep competing then many times as the game wears on things will start clicking for him and he will start to make plays. That happened to Paul in this game."
The Sooners didn't start playing Sooner football until five minutes into the second half. OU was the bumbling-fumbling Sooners until early in the third quarter and they struggled to take their first lead until there was one minute left in the game.
"The first half, defensively, there are two big plays," said Stoops following the game. "On the second one I thought their quarterback just made a great play. We are all over him and he slings it back out to their sideline. Other than that we are playing well defensively. Offensively, I felt we were pretty average to poor in the first half. We didn't do a very good job running the football at all — again to their credit. They did a nice job taking it away. Then the turnovers really hurt us. In the second half we started executing a little bit better and making some plays.
The Sooners did manage to finish with 177 yards rushing in the game — and had to earn every yard. The Sooner offensive line never knocked Boise off the ball and on the edges Joe Jon Finley struggled to block Boise State's smaller defensive ends. Brody Eldridge was the one Sooner who was still racking up pancake blocks, but even with that the Sooners had to earn every one of those rushing yards.
"They crowded the line of scrimmage with a lot of people," said Stoops. "They condensed the area and there is always, if you are not running the option, a guy unblocked. That is part of it, but we have seen that a lot from a lot of people. They read our schemes well where we weren't able to fool them with different misdirections. Then they spun out of or cross faced on some blocks where we could have been better to. All that being said I still think we rushed for 177 yards, but it didn't seem that way. I felt we needed to run it better earlier. We still ran it decently, but we didn't get the big chunks that we were use to getting."
Peterson was playing in his first game since he broke his collarbone against Iowa State in October. He did look rusty at times and made a couple of bad decisions with the ball. However, as we have come to expect from "AD," he competed with every ounce of ability that he had and despite missing out on Billy Sims' career rushing record, or a move into second place on the career rushing chart, Peterson did finish with 77 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns, one coming on the first offensive play for the Sooners in overtime.
"I came out and had a good feeling about the play," said Peterson. "Basically, it was just the guys blocking up front where I could make a good cutback inside and then bounce it back out. I had great blocking by the receivers and I was able to get into the end zone. At that point I was very excited and was looking forward to the defense to get out there and get the job done. Unfortunately, it didn't happen that way."
Today, it is always what have you done for me lately? In sports it is always what happens late in a game is more important than errors and miscues early. Thus, the offensive is let off the hook because they got going in the second half, while the defense has to answer a million questions about giving up a seven-point lead with 1:02 left on the clock and your opponent needing to cover 78 yards to tie in the game.
"You have to tip your cap to them," Stoops said. "I have a hard time faulting our kids, because we have good position on a lot of it. It is not like we are sitting there blind to it and a guy is wide open. They executed it and the timing of it and the way they hit it and it just worked. On fourth-and-19 you do get some plays like that and they executed it as good as it can be. Their timing just happened to be right."
The Sooner defensive ends chased Zabranski all game and that was not an easy chore.
"They made a lot of big plays back there," said senior defensive end C.J. Ah You. "Zabranski is a great player and we were trying to get to him all night. He just seemed to buy time for his receivers and they did a great job. We have seen quarterbacks who can move all year and we faced a lot of guys like him. They have a great program at Boise State and they deserve the win tonight. The called some great plays on fourth down and they made plays and we didn't."
The one player on defense that appeared to be playing up to his level was senior linebacker Rufus Alexander, who finished the game with 17 tackles and one forced fumble.
"Yeah, he did and he did make a bunch of tackles in the game," said Stoops. "He also pulls the ball out and causes a fumble. Rufus has always been great for us and he seemed like that again the other night."
Alexander was on the field for the two-point try and just couldn't get into position to make a play.
"The play that they scored on the two-point conversion we had actually seen on tape," said Alexander. "We were kind of in awe how well he did the misdirection or the fake with the ball. I saw him fake the pass and keep the ball and I was flowing over the top, but when Ian got the ball he kept stretching it out and he never cut back. They executed their plays and they did a great job of doing it. We didn't execute on defense and didn't defense on a number of plays like we should have."
Alexander's running mate, on and off the field, struggled in his final game. Latimer had played very well the second half of the season and was playing himself into the NFL draft. That still may happen for Latimer, but if so then the NFL scouts will overlook his Fiesta Bowl performance. Latimer appeared to be a step slow all night and he was slipping all over the field, but in the locker room was his typical self talking to anybody who wanted to talk to him making no excuses for his poor play or that of the defense.
"When Marcus got that interception we got a little carried away with our celebration thinking the game was over," said Latimer. "We still had to go out there and play and never in my wildest dreams did I think they would hit a fourth-and-18. They just sucked everybody up as we over pursued and they went down and scored. Then, on another fourth-and-2, I just couldn't bat the pass down. Then, whatever that play was they ran on their last play is a great play. So, you have to tip your cap to them because they did everything that they were asked to do to win the ballgame.
"There is no quit in Oklahoma. We are going to fight and scratch and we play better sometimes with our backs up against the wall. We always came back swinging and that is what I love these guys for. There is no quit in anybody around here. We have nothing to hang our heads about because we gave it 100 percent and just came up a little short tonight."
Now that we know what happened in the game we can play a game of "what if."
"I was thinking about after the game and I know not many people think of this," said Stoops. "If Marcus Walker does step out of bounds then we are going to run the clock out and kick a field goal. They review it and you think you are getting a break and in hindsight you didn't. I was thinking about it at the time. I was like it is OK if he is out of bounds. That is alright, because Garrett (Hartley) has been great, and we are close. Then the fumble; (Ian Johnson, who admitted to Dean Blevins following the game that he did fumble) was it or was it not a fumble? They could have just as easily ruled it one, but they didn't. I mean if they had ruled it a fumble, then they probably would not have over ruled that either. It is just one of those circumstances and there were a lot of those circumstances or bounces that we get and that happens. I am not complaining about them, but that is just the way it went. It is the same thing with injuries. I have obviously never dealt with as many, but that is part of the game."
Did the Sooners loss cost them momentum going into the final month of recruiting and into spring football?
"You know, everybody makes a little too much of that," said Stoops. "Last year at the end we win and all and that didn't make much of a difference with how we started the year off. Each year is a different deal and I know everybody likes to write about momentum and now how do we deal with a loss. Well, nobody is taking away our Big 12 Championship and the way we ran through our league. That is what I told our players after the game. That trophy is going to be in our place and their picture is going to be on our wall forever. Championships don't come easy. So, there is a lot of momentum and pride in how we played overall that won't go away.
"We understand the mistakes that we made and I think it will be important, for as young as we are we will watch this game — even though it is the end of the year — to learn from it. There are some things that we can't do. There is a ton of good to come out of this year and with an awfully young team that is only going to get better from it. It is not easy to win a Big 12 Championship and it is not easy to do. That, and then the few seniors that we had and what good guys they are. Then all the young players that we have and how they stepped up and played like we like them to play."
It is the third straight BCS loss for the Sooners — also losing to USC in the Orange Bowl and LSU in the Sugar Bowl — and it seemed on all three games the Sooners started slow and struggled in the first half.
"It depends on your definition of starting slow," said Stoops. "In the Orange and Holiday Bowls we go down and score on our opening drive. You are looking at it because we have lost. The other night what do you do preparation wise so that Marcus does not bite on the stutter-and-go? We see that route all year and we worked that route all preparation. So, I am not going to sit here and say we are not doing anything right. If Calvin Thibodeaux sacks the quarterback instead of missing him at the end of the first half then what are we doing wrong? So I don't think we started slow.
"Our preparation here is really good and our players had energy in every practice. You have to come out and make plays when you have opportunities to and we didn't do as much as we should have in the game. We have played in a bowl game every year in our eight years here and we use the same formula that we have been using from the beginning. It gets down to the game you have to make plays. I don't feel that we have been unprepared."
It took the Sooners just a half a day to start thinking about next year. The Sooners will return 28 players who have started at least one game during their career and the nucleus of the 2006 team returns. However, the primetime quarterback position is up in the air as the Sooners return absolutely no experience at quarterback.
In the spring the competition will begin for junior college transfer and 2006 backup Joey Halzle, redshirt freshman Sam Bradford and true freshman Keith Nichol. The competition is going to be fun to watch.
"It is going to be good," said Stoops. "They are all good-attitude guys and they work hard. They are not selfish guys and they will work with the team and let it unfold. It is like everybody wants to hurry the process and get it done now. However, it is a process and it is developing it and we will. We will be fine. Those guys work hard and just like with Paul, they have more ability than everybody gives them credit for."
The Sooners have the talent back to repeat as Big 12 Champs and be a contender for a national championship, but just how far the Sooners go will depend on just how good the team is at quarterback.
"That is always a factor for sure," said Stoops. "However, we weren't real far off this year with a guy who had not taken a snap for a year and who had never started much. As I said earlier this year, we were much more capable of handling our situation that happened before the season this year than we were a year ago. Believe me, we will be a lot further along next year with the players around that position even that we were at the start of this year. It is because of everybody else that we have returning. We may or may not have Adrian, but how many games did we play without Adrian this year? All of those guys that made that happen are going to be back. All of them are going to be a year more experienced, stronger and bigger."
There are reasons to be disappointed with the loss, but now that several days have passed you realize that the Sooners lost by a single point in overtime to a team that is undefeated this year. No, they are not as talented as the Sooners, but Boise State played better than OU in the game. OU made too many mistakes to win, yet they were just more than a minute away from winning the game.
Many are calling Boise State's one-point win over OU one of the greatest college bowl games ever and Stoops feels the same way.
"I do and I have said that a lot," said Stoops. "I am a competitor and that is the excitement of being in our profession and I know that you are going to be on the other side of it every now and then. That is why during the game in the fourth quarter when there are so many highs and lows and you are right in the middle of that, then that is as exciting as it gets. Of course, I would want to be on the other side of it, but it didn't work out for us this time. With all the emotion swings I have never been a part of or seen anything like it."
In all for coach Stoops and the Sooners, 2006 will be a good season to look back upon with fond memories.
"It was and an incredibly fun and exciting journey," said Stoops. "Heck, even this game, for the most part, it doesn't get any better than that. It gets better than that if you are on the other end, but it was close to being as good as it gets. It was wild! My solace in it is thank God it wasn't the Big 12 Championship game. There is a lot of truth in that or the last game of the year against Oklahoma State. Then you are really wondering about the closure of the season. However, we were fortunate to win those games and we had a great deal of fun doing it."
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