In one of the best games that I have ever seen at Memorial Stadium, the Oklahoma Sooners pulled out a dramatic 37-27 win over a very tough and determined Alabama team on Saturday.
The game was a roller coaster ride and because it had so many ups and downs, there are as many questions about the Sooners as answers. The bottom line is that the Sooners showed some tremendous character in coming back with under four minutes to play to win a game, and one, for all intensive purposes, looked like they had lost.
For the first time since Bob Stoops took over as head coach the Sooners stunk on special teams. OU made a mistake in every special team area and toward the end of the game OU fans were holding their breath every time an OU special team unit came on the field.
"Our special teams were awful in a lot of ways," said Bob Stoops. "Some of our mistakes are very puzzling, because veteran guys made them and they had not been making them before. The wing (either James Moses or Chris Chester) allows inside penetration and that is the first thing that you learn as you block on that unit. He allows an inside guy to go and pays too much attention to an outside guy. We work on this every single day in practice and why he does that in a game I don't know. Same with the punt block. It wasn't like it was some elaborate twist or wild scheme. Our three guys on the right block the three guys on the defenses left coming in. The guard has the third guy in, but he doesn't step out and block the third guy in. Here is a guy (Trent Smith) who has been on our punt team for three years at the same position, why he doesn't do it in this game, I don't know."
"You just have to hope that some basic fundamentals you have practiced and learn begin to come through," Stoops continued. "Teddy Lehman is waving for a fair catch, which he should have, and a player in back (Derrick Hurst) doesn't have enough poise to see what is going on in front of him and cuts his legs and there they have the ball when they shouldn't. All the mistakes are mistakes that we can correct, but the players need to realize they need to start executing better or we are not going to win as many games as we are capable of."
In the first half the Sooner offense was rolling, and for the most of the second they couldn't pick up a first down. Same goes for the defense in the first half, but in the second Alabama assaulted the Sooners and won most of the battles. The question is why and how?
The tragic loss of starting quarterback Jason White, puts senior Nate Hybl back under center. This does not give most Sooner fans, or some media for that matter, much hope for the Sooners because they don't believe he can do the job. I had one of my media brethren, who has never seen a practice, tell me that Hybl was the worst quarterback in OU history. This, about a player who almost killed himself in leading the Sooners passed Kansas State last year, who played injured most of the year and who threw for 2, 234 yards and 14 touchdowns last season against 13 interceptions. Please, the worst QB in OU history? Does anybody remember the QB's under John Blake?
Let's the start the bulk of this report by saying how badly I feel for White. I have been covering White since his junior year at Tuttle High School and have grown to like him very much. He has always been great with me and he has been a pleasure to cover and will continue to be so.
It is a darn shame that White has now blown out ACLs in both knees on plays where he wasn't even hit. He has blown both out in a similar fashion by rolling to his right and extending his leg and planting his foot. Both times the ACL just exploded and White went down to the turf as if he had been shot.
The Sooner victory left the mood in the locker room jubilant, but it was tempered somewhat by the tragic injury to White. Players were happy with the win, but so disappointed for White. White was named team captain because of his tremendous courage and the guts he showed as he rehabbed his left knee. White worked around the clock to get back for this season and the team loved him for it. They believed in him, because of his toughness and when White would take on Jimmy Wilkerson and Tommie Harris in scrimmages as a blocker, they cemented their belief in him.
After the game all the players had mixed emotions about White's injury and the win, but none more than Hybl. Hybl also worked incredibly hard over the summer and many times on his own organized passing practices so that he could continue to work on his game. Hybl would call all the receivers and defensive backs personally until he could get enough of the two groups back out to practice so that they get an additional hour of practice in.
At practice Hybl answered any question from any position player on assignments or general practice habits, and believe me, several would be asked of him every day. Hybl was crushed when White was named the starting quarterback, but he didn't pout. He continued to work and work hard. The fact he continued to practice as if he was going to be the starter has brought the football team closer to him.
Hybl played injured all last year and he understood as well as anybody that he was only one play away from becoming the starting quarterback again. Nobody wanted an opportunity to show that he is a better quarterback and is a better player than Hybl, but he didn't want to earn the job back this way.
After the game I bumped into Hybl. and with his voice chocking he talked about his situation.
"I can't believe that this has happened," said an emotional Hybl. "Jason worked so hard and is in the best shape of his life. It just shows how precious our athletic time is. Some of us may play for 25 yards, some only one play. I saw the injury happen and just couldn't believe it. Jason is so tough that I thought he just twisted an ankle or something, but when he grabbed his knee I knew something was wrong. Jason certainly didn't deserve this and it's one of those things you can not explain. I certainly can't, maybe somebody else can."
"Now, I just have to pick up the slack and to get the job done," Hybl continued. "Jason did the same thing last year when he took over for me. I am without question a better quarterback than I was last year and I think that showed today. I was much more comfortable in the offense and love the fact we are taking our shots down field. I think that plays into my style of throwing."
"The fact we came back and won the game gives me a lot of confidence and our team a lot of confidence," Hybl continued. "We didn't do much in the second half, but when we needed it we found some offense and won the game. I feel good about our team and our offense. I know people will have a tough time believing this, but I would rather Jason be healthy and still be on the field for us."
The key question is who will be the backup quarterback for the next three to four weeks while redshirt sophomore Brent Rawls continues to rehab his injured thumb? Today, the coaches were still trying to decide whether to take freshman Paul Thompson or Noah Allen out of redshirt to get him ready to see some action.
"I don't think we have any choice right now," said Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long. "We need a backup quarterback for the next few days and we don't have anybody else. Brent isn't available to us and we are not sure when he will be. We have to have somebody, so it has to be one of the freshmen. Plus, just because we play a guy as a freshman doesn't mean that we can't redshirt him as a sophomore. I am not so sure it isn't a bad idea anyway to separate the two."
It appears that Thompson will be that guy. The OU coaches have actually worked both with the varsity the last couple of weeks. In fact, Thompson worked with the scout team last week posing as Tyler Watts for the Sooners' varsity defense.
It has been the general thought, while Rawls has been down, that if a third QB was needed that Thompson would be the guy. The coaches love his athletic ability and feel they can do some simple things for him in the run game to help move the football team. Allen does know the Sooner offensive system a little bit better, but Thompson would give them a better chance to win right now if they had to go with one of the two.
The game was very much up-and-down for the Sooners and Stoops still can't believe how inconsistent his team was.
"There is a lot of positives and a lot of good parts to the game," said Stoops on Sunday. "To go into the half leading 23-3 proves you did a lot of good things in the first half to be in that position. The offense came up with some big plays when we had to throw the ball. The defense held them to a little over 60 yards in the first half and two firstdowns, which gave us field position and got us a big lead. We didn't play as well as we would like in the third quarter. We really did do everything we could to give them an opportunity to win, but we were still good enough overall in the fourth quarter to win."
"That is a major positive when you play not near as well as you are capable of and still beat a good Alabama team," Stoops continued. "That means you have a chance to be pretty good, and I believe as we go along we will be."
The Oklahoma coaches learned some good things and some bad things about their team, but most of all they found out that their team has some heart.
"We learned that they do have a lot of character about them and a lot of toughness about them," said Stoops. "We will need to see more as we go, but you like it when they are able to come back, especially against such an awfully good team. That wasn't against just anybody, that was against Alabama, a team picked to contend for the SEC West title. That does say something about their character."
Stoops is sick over the loss of White, but on the other hand was pleased with the effort of Hybl.
"What happened to Jason is really one of the tragedies of sports," said Stoops. "He worked so hard to get back and then to blow out his good knee just doesn't make any sense. However, the game and the comeback was great for Nate. It was great for him to come in and have a chance to participate in the hero role and he took advantage of it and played well. That shows the kind of team guy he is, because he has been preparing all along and the first chance he gets he comes through. He has looked good in everything that he has done from all his practices and throughout the summer. So again, for us, his performance didn't surprise us one bit that he came in and threw the ball well and executed our offense."
The Sooners had a lot of hero's in the game, but none more so than junior Renaldo Works, who took two shuttle tosses and turned them into game saving runs late in the fourth quarter.
"Both of his runs were fantastic. Renaldo demonstrated tremendous ability running the football," said Stoops. "He showed some great vision, great cuts and great determination. They were both exceptional plays and the spark we needed. It's great that Renaldo had a chance to be a hero. For him to come in and be the spark in that drive was motivating to everyone watching him run."
Quentin Griffin is the Sooners primary running back. Just the week before against Tulsa, Griffin rushed for over 230 yards and led the nation in rushing, but this week it was Works and KeJuan Jones who moved the sticks on the ground.
"Football is the ultimate team sport and we are not here for anybody's personal pleasure," said Stoops. "We are here to field the very best football team we can on each down and we do that the best we can. Renaldo realizes that he is a very important part of this team and earns the way on the field like everybody else. He earns it everyday in practice and with everything that we do. He is no different than every other guy that is not playing constantly or as much as they want, but he has a great value to this team whenever he steps on the field."
For the most part the Sooner run game was shut down. Was it poor offensive line play? Poor play calling or poor running by the running by the Sooners?
"I think a lot of it was the way that they chose to defense us," said Stoops. "They way their safeties and backers were crowding the line of scrimmage, blitzing and doing all of that put a major emphasis on stopping the run. Now, if we choose to get in the I-offense and two tight ends then we would not have to worry about all that stuff. However, we don't choose to do that. So, for the most part, it was how they chose to defense us, but I am sure there were a number of plays we would have liked to have blocked better. That is going to happen at times. I think the important part is when we had to run it for the go ahead touchdown, and for our fourth down play, we ran the ball very well. On the fourth and short, KeJuan almost breaks it for a 70-yard run. Remember, we lost a lot of yardage through sacks."
What is ironic about Coach Stoops decision to go for it on fourth and one from the 29-yard line with around nine minutes remaining and trailing by one was that it was his brother Mike Stoops who talked him into it?
"The defense was exhausted and it was Mike who went up to Bob and told him that he thought he should go for it," said Offensive Line Coach and Run Coordinator Kevin Wilson Saturday night on KREF Radio. "Bob was all set to send in the punt team and they were just going on the field, when Mike went up to him and told him the defense was spent and they needed a break. Mike told Bob that he had to get a first down, because his defense was so tired he wasn't sure they could stop Alabama at that point."
"Bob called a time out and then turned to me and asked me if I could get the first down and I said, 'Of Course.' I then turned to my guys on the sideline and got KeJuan over there and told them that is what we had worked all summer for, and this is what we were going to be about all year," Wilson continued. "I told them if they couldn't get one-yard here then we weren't as good as I thought we were. Then of course not only do we get the yard, but KeJuan almost takes it to the house."
Overall Wilson thought his offensive line was decent against Alabama.
"I wouldn't say we were as bad as it looked. That may sound stupid, because stat-wise we were one guy short on a guy making a block that needed to be made," said Wilson. "Maybe we fell down, didn't get out on a linebacker or we run a counter play and lose a guy because of penetration, but we always seemed to be a block short."
"I think we got a little impatient in the third quarter instead of staying with some things that had a chance, even though in the first half they loaded up blitzing and we took advantage of it passing the ball. The second half they played with us sitting on the sideline most of the third quarter. Then we got a little impatient in the third quarter, which got us out of rhythm. On that last drive Renaldo's two runs and the touchdown are all the same play, they are all out of our power scheme, and so that is 70 yards of running down the stretch
"I thought we got one dimensional in the third quarter and got easy to defend," Wilson continued. "They teed off on our pass and we didn't get out of that pattern. I wasn't here last year, but it looked like last year's offense in the third quarter to me. In the third quarter, we got behind the chains with a penalty, our guys were standing over there quite a bit and then we screw up the reverse. We just think we got a little antsy in the third quarter. The things that we saw on tape that caused us to stall can be correctable."
The coaches continue to say that they are looking to find ways to get more snaps for KeJuan Jones and Quentin Griffin.
"Definitely, we have said all along that running back may be our strongest position," said Long. "We actually have five backs we like, four that we would like to get into the game. We have come up with a package to get Jerad Estus into the game in the future. Donta Hickson is our fifth back and we think he is pretty good. We will continue to look for ways to get Renaldo and KeJuan into the game more. And like we have said all along, KeJuan may be our best running back with a football under his arm."
Earlier in the week Brent Rawls told this reporter that he would be in a cast for two more weeks and then would have to go through rehab for another two weeks before he could return to the football field at 100 percent. Well, that may still be the case, but the OU coaches want to find out exactly how long he is going to be out.
"We have talked to Brent about getting back as soon as possible. And of course, nobody wants to get back sooner than him," said Long. "We have to go by what the trainers tell us and we will go from there. I am sure we are going to have a big evaluation of him this week. He hasn't picked up a ball since the injury and we don't know when he can. He has been taking the cast off of his thumb every day and rehabbing it before putting it back on before he goes home.
"I don't think he will be able to throw this week for sure, but I am hoping that he can throw by the end of next week. I don't know if we can accelerate his healing process. The doctors have told us all along that you have to be patient with this type of injury because the natural instincts is to come back early. The only part that I do understand from this surgery is that you can't hurry it. If you push it too fast then you can have setbacks and the get the thumb to sore to get well."
In the second half the Sooner defense seemed to be on their heels and it didn't seem they could stop Alabama at all. The Crimson Tide ran right at OU and with great success as well, but it wasn't a case of the Sooners getting whipped as much as they were not mentally getting the job done.
"We played like the scoreboard read in the first half. We were in the right spots, tackled well, covered well and adjusted well," said co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "Then we didn't do a lot of those things in the second half. Some of our youth or inexperience showed. They didn't line up correctly and made a lot of mental mistakes on the field that you would not like to see."
"I want to tip my hat to Alabama, but to say they beat us physically was not the case," continued Venables. "We were not lined up correctly at least half the time and in our defense that will cost us. Many of the things we do are very simple. If they line up three guys on the left we send three guys to the left to cover them. Yesterday we didn't get three men over to cover them, despite the fact we worked many hours to cover everything Alabama threw at us."
"We're letting guys go wide open in the flat and not even covering them and that is something that we have to coach up and get corrected," Venables said. "We need things understood when a guy has curl or he has stop. We have to give ourselves a chance and many times in the second half we had no chance to have success stopping them in the run game, or certainly in the pass. If we line up correctly, I am confident that we would have stopped them. Or let me put it this way, I think things would have been similar to what we watched in the first half."
The Sooners didn't tackle well in the second half either, and Eric Bassey and Brandon Everage missed numerous tackles. That is something that the Sooners will go back to the drawing board to get corrected.
"Just because we are into our season doesn't mean that we can't work on tackling during practice," said Venables. "We have drills that we can go through and we can stress fundamentals of tackling even during a game week. We need to have Eric realize that he has to wrap people up and drive through the ball carrier. Brandon needs to quit just shoulder tackling and he needs to wrap people up as well. They weren't the only two, but it seemed a lot of the guys on our defense tried to body block people down instead of tackling them. We will get back to fundamentals this week."
True freshman Brodney Pool learned real quickly that you can be a great prospect, but still get pulled from a game. Pool was guilty of blocking below the waist on a punt return in the first half and he never saw the field again the rest of the game.
Late in the second half the Sooners had freshmen Wayne Chambers and walk-on Smokey Hurst on the field at the same time at linebacker. Chambers was in for Lance Mitchell, who needed an IV in the second half and Hurst was in for Pasha Jackson, who really struggled with lining up in the second half. Watch for Chambers who has a maturity level beyond his years.
Jackson and Everage struggled lining up all game. It was shocking to see many times Teddy Lehman frantically trying to get the defense lined up correctly. It seemed like he had to get five to six players set every time.
On KeJuan Jones' go-head TD run late in the fourth quarter, each offensive lineman received a passing grade. Center Vince Carter, guards Brad Davis and Mike Skinner and tackles Wes Sims and Jammal Brown all had successful blocks.
OU's young tackles were put to the test and at times they struggled, especially in pass blocking. However, they survived and the Sooners won and both figure to be better in the future.
The coaches are concerned about Trey DiCarlo's kickoffs. They will work Brent Ferguson some this week to see if he can get more distance.
Finally, how much of a difference does a healthy Mark Clayton mean to the Sooners wide receiver corp? Clayton is the best WR on the Sooner team and he opened the season on a bruised knee. The knee is still a little sore, but he can run at full speed again and you saw the results. Now, the key is for Long and company to figure out a way to get the ball to Clayton more often.
One forgotten key play in the Sooners drive late in the fourth quarter was the Hybl to Antwone Savage slant pattern for a first down on third-and-ten near midfield.
If you think the football team doesn't believe in Hybl leading them the rest of the way, think again. Hybl has either seen personally or talked to on the phone each member of the offense on the two deep, telling him that he is their man.
Andre Woolfolk always is one of the best on the squad in the off-season athletic test. He has the best vertical jump on the team and if you will watch on each field goal or extra point, he comes close to blocking each kick. He was able to block one field goal on Saturday and don't be surprised when he blocks a few more this year.
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