When you are Oklahoma and line up against a team like UTEP you not only have to win the game, but you have to dominate the game, which is exactly what the Sooners did in their 68-0 win over the Miners.
The game was never in doubt and the Sooners corrected many of the mental mistakes they made against Alabama, and a Bob Stoops just about emptied his bench in the lopsided win. It was great to see talented young players like Paul Thompson, Travis Wilson, Abner Estrada, Davin Joseph, Bubba Moses, KeJuan Jones, Michael Hawkins, Brodney Pool, Wayne Chambers and Jacob Hager get extensive playing time and all play well.
"The game was just about perfect for us," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables. "Considering the mental mistakes we made against Alabama, we needed a game where the guys could go up against just about the same kind of offense and this time execute and the get their assignments correct. We had a lot of success in the game and we had a chance to play a lot of players. We made some big plays on defense and for the most part did the way we wanted to do."
It was a game where a great deal of attention fell on the quarterbacks. Senior Nate Hybl was getting his first start of the year in a role where he has now become the main man. With Jason White sitting in the coaching booth in the pressbox, Hybl demonstrated to the Sooner faithful that he is a much better quarterback than a year ago by completing 13 of 22 passes for 278 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
However, it wasn't just the fact that he had a good day completing passes; it was how he completed the passes that impressed the Sooner coaches.
"I think Nate had his best game since he's been at Oklahoma," said Offensive Coordinator Chuck Long. "Nate has become a good quarterback and we saw that coming in the summer and during two-a-days."
"First, Nate is healthy and that is something that he wasn't all of last year. Second, he is more comfortable now and he has some experience under this belt," Long continued. "Remember last year was Nate's first real football action in two years and that showed at times. Now, he is an experienced quarterback and taking his game to another level. Third, our team is better around Nate. Last year we were banged up in the offensive line and outside of Trent Smith really didn't establish any receiving threat. Our run game was bogged down as well and Quentin (Griffin) wasn't 100 percent. This year we are healthy, establishing a running game and have a lot more weapons that Nate can go to."
"Last night Nate was very calm in the pocket and did a great job of leading our team in the huddle," Long continued. "The rest of the team, especially our young players, lean on Nate if they are unsure of their assignments, and Nate is always good about giving advice on what other players should do. I thought he did a great job of finding his second and third receivers, and he completed some very tough passes. Many of his completions were passes that had to been thrown with some tremendous touch and he was outstanding at laying the ball into the receiver at just the right spot."
"On our second play he audibled from a run into the pass and it was a perfect call for what the defense was giving him and it led to a touchdown to Antwone (Savage). Nate has always had ability and he has always been able to throw the football, but now he is a mature, confident quarterback with some weapons around him."
At this point there is not question who is the offensive leader of the Sooner football team. Hybl came into the Big Red Room where the media gathers to talk to the players and coaches, and before he talked to the media he walked around the room and shook hands with all of his teammates that were in the room. That was a perfect show of leadership that often is overlooked with Hybl.
"I have always tried to be a leader and that is even more of the case now that Jason (White) is out for the year," said Hybl following the game. "I have always been a take-charge-guy on the field. The quarterback has to do that, you can't have ten players screaming in the huddle, you need to keep things simple and that is what the quarterback is in charge of."
"I feel better this year than a year ago for a number of reasons and I think we are a better offensive unit than we were last year. The comeback against Alabama has really given us a spark. We still have a long way to go, but we are getting there."
While most of you were curious how Hybl would play in his first start of 2002, you still know what you are getting with Hybl. I believe some of you may not like it, but still you know what you are getting. You went to Oklahoma Memorial Stadium last night wanting to see the rookie. Admit it. You went to see Paul Thompson get his first action as a Sooner. Come on, admit it!
With 2:13 left in the third quarter the redshirt officially came off Thompson. Nerves almost cost him interceptions on his first two throws, but once he settled down he didn't disappoint, hitting on 6 of 10 passing for 56 yards and one touchdown. He also showed he could scramble, scampering out of the pocket for an eight-yard gain.
"I am not used to coming off the sideline and I thought I was handling things well until I got into the game, then I got pretty nervous," said Thompson. "I am not used to being nervous and on that first serious I just wanted to get things under control. When I went to the sideline Coach Stoops (Bob) and Nate both told me to settle down and both told me not to worry, that I would be back out there soon."
"The second series went a lot better for me and in the last touchdown drive things really worked well for us. Once I got into a groove I thought things came pretty easy for us. For my first action I would give myself a C-, but it's a start."
"Paul did a great job for us and we couldn't be happier for him," said Long. "Paul did a great job of preparing all week and he has learned a ton over the last couple of weeks. He has so much to learn that you just hope that when he gets into the game that he does trust what he knows and plays to the best of his abilities. I think, for the most part, Paul did that and that performance gives us something to build on for the future."
When Thompson got into the game his mind was racing a mile-a-minute. Thus, every time he came off the field to the sideline he had a million things that he wanted to talk over with Coach Long and Hybl. For Hybl, it was an alarming experience.
"Man, when Paul was in there I felt old," said Hybl. "I felt like the grizzled veteran or something. He would be coming off the field talking so fast that I couldn't understand him, and there I was holding my hand up or putting it on his shoulder to try to get him to calm down."
"Then he would look straight at me like he was waiting for the master to give out words of wisdom, which blew me away because believe me, I am no master of anything. Then he would walk over and get on the phones to Chuck and then come back over and talk to me about what Chuck told him. Then when he was in the game I found myself going through the motions with him and even one time talking to myself begging him to throw the fade route, because he had Travis wide open. He completed a hitch route, but the fade was so much better and it would have been an easy touchdown."
"When he was in the game I certainly felt 23 and I realized, compared to Paul, I have been playing football for a long time. He was just so young out there and looked and acted like a young kid, just like I used too when I was 18 years old. Paul was having fun and that is what it is all about. For a moment I wished I was 18 years old again just like him."
Thompson's touchdown throw late in the game appeared not to sit well with UTEP Head Coach Gary Nord. When Nord and OU Head Coach Bob Stoops met at midfield after the game they talked for a couple of minutes with Nord doing most of the talking. Could Nord have felt on the last drive that the Sooners were trying to run up the score? The Sooner fourth-year head coach explained that nothing could be further from the truth.
"We had a young quarterback in the game at the time. If we are going to play him we are going to let him run our offense and try to learn something from the experience," said Bob Stoops following the game. "What good would it have done for Paul to just have him take a knee or hand the ball off? We weren't trying to run up the score, but I wasn't going to let Paul get into the game and not execute our offense."
"He and the second unit did a good job and got the ball into the end zone and that is what we want them to try to achieve. I talked to Gary about it after the game and he knows exactly what we are trying to do. He wasn't upset about it and told me so on the field. UTEP was a well coached football team, who plays with pride and they fought us for the entire 60 minutes."
What is ironic is that when Coach Nord was the Offensive Coordinator for Howard Schnellenberger they always took the same approach that Oklahoma took Saturday. They were always looking to score, even with young players in blowout games late in the fourth quarter. Schnellenberger always took the Billy Tubbs stance and that was that ‘we are going to play our game and we expect you to do the same thing to us.
Of course, Schnellenberger was a cocky head coach at the time and so were his assistants and now Nord is the head coach at a program that is in the second or third level of D-1 college football. I feel for Gary here, but looking back if the shoe was on the other foot he would have done the same thing.
One OU coach told me that there is no question that Paul Thompson is pretty good and in fact "he is better than Brent Rawls wants him to be." It is expected that Rawls will be the backup quarterback when he returns from his thumb injury, but that is not set in stone. Rawls will not be able to throw until the South Florida game week and even then nobody is sure how much he can throw. Until then, Thompson will be getting every second team rep and getting a chance to throw a thousand passes.
If Thompson is smart, he is making his push to be the starting quarterback in 2003 right now. He may not play much this year, but not only will he be ready this year if needed, he will be working to catch the coaches eye and earn their confidence that he can be the man in 2003.
Nobody knows if Jason White will be able to play in 2003 and nobody knows at what level he can play at. Thus for Rawls, Thompson, Noah Allen and Tommy Grady, a tremendous opportunity is in front of them and the opportunity is just about equal.
Rawls is a year older, but he now has less experience in a D-1 football game than Thompson. That may still hold true after the South Florida game and depending on how the season plays out. Rawls can really throw the football, but as we witnessed on Saturday so can Thompson and I can tell you from experience that Thompson is a mature athlete at this point in the game.
The quarterback of the future race will be interesting to watch over the next three months.
The Sooners played so many outstanding young players on Saturday that it can make you giddy thinking about the future.
"We still have a lot of things that we are not as good at and we have some young players who still have a lot to learn, but the success of our team over the last couple of years has led to great recruiting across the board," said offensive line coach Kevin Wilson. "There is some tremendous young talent in our program. We keep getting Brandon Jones in the game and he is getting better. KeJuan Jones is getting better and J.D. Runnels is playing well enough that we are going to have to give him a chance to get into the game more often than just at the goal-line. You see these young quarterbacks, Davin Joseph and Abner Estrada and that just shows you that there are a lot of good young players on offense that have helped with the success of this team."
"Our tackles - Jammal Brown and Wes Sims - are just sophomores," Wilson continued. "On that last drive we had four true freshman on the field. We had Abner, Davin, Paul and Travis (Wilson) on the field. We would have had JeJuan (Rankins) on the field if he had not been hurt. Then look at the redshirt freshman that were in the game. Bubba Moses, Will Peoples and Kelvin Chaisson were in the game as well, so you have six or seven guys in the game at that time that were getting their first extensive action and they did pretty good."
"Driving for a touchdown that last drive was pretty impressive. We ran quick traps and misdirection and that looked pretty good. We are still trying to mix a little bit of power with the quick trap game and move the pocket enough so that we can run OK."
While the Sooners dominated against UTEP in a number of areas, improvement needs to continue in the offensive line.
"We have to get better at pass protection. To be a team that is a passing team we are not as good there as we need to be," said Wilson. "For the time that has been put on pass protection we have to be a better pass blocking team. It's the hardest skill to learn in the offensive line. Just watch those guys that were playing and you can see that it is really hard to keep that defense out. Most of the time the o-linemen are matched against the best athletes on the field, because most coaches put their best athletes on defense."
The big key for the Sooner defense was that they handled their assignments much better.
"The game just came so much easier for us and when that happens then guys can really get after it and play much harder," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops. "We knew where we were going and where we were supposed to be and that was very evident in the game. I was happy with our young guys and how they played. I thought Eric (Bassey) and Brodney (Pool) both played well and all of our young guys played well."
Michael Hawkins had his first big moment as a Sooner returning an interception for a touchdown, which touched Mike Stoops as much as anything he has seen on a football field in a long time.
"Michael is a neat kid that has been through a lot, but he has a great attitude and a great sense of humor about him," said M. Stoops. "He doesn't get rattled very often and I really like him a lot. He has a chance to be a really good player. He is a real neat guy and he just has to keep maturing. If he does he is going to be a real good player."
"Considering what he has had to go through it is amazing how good of a kid that he really is. Many kids in his situation would have been a thug or something, but he has kept on the straight and narrow and is one of the best kids I have ever been around. Michael is further along than I anticipated, because I thought college football might be a struggle for him. However, he has shown me a lot of toughness and he is easy to coach and that is what I like about him."
After the game Hawkins admitted that he was awed by the big crowd at Owen Field.
"I couldn't believe how many people were at the game," said Hawkins. "At both Alabama and now tonight I kept looking up in the stands and I was just amazed at how many people were at this stadium. I have never seen a crowd that big and last Saturday was the first time I was ever in one place with a crowd that big."
"Man, I was wondering how we feed all those people and how we get them in and out of the stadium. I guess we know how, because they have been doing it for years. I loved hearing my name and I could hear the fans calling my name after the touchdown. That was such a great feeling and it makes me want to come up with a big play again so that I can go through it again."
The Sooners are playing a lot of young players on defense as well. Besides Hawkins and Pool in the secondary, Jowahn Poteat saw his first extensive action along with Zac Latimer at defensive end.
"Zac looks tiny out there and he is at 207 pounds, but as I grade the film he graded out better than any other defensive end I have," said Sooner defensive end coach Bobby Jack Wright. "He can't just line up and try to power over people, but he uses his speed and quickness to get around people and he made some plays.
"I don't know if we can keep him at defensive end or not. I would think that he would have to play at 235 to play defensive end and I'm not sure we can get him there, so we may have to move him back to linebacker. However, he can be an outstanding defensive end for us if we can get the weight on him."
The decision to play Latimer was made this week.
"We weren't sure whether to play Zac or not, but he has come along at practice and he has a lot of natural ability," said Mike Stoops. "We just felt that we have get guys like Zac and the other guys ready to play. We have so many good players and we are able to recruit good players that we just want to get them some playing time. That puts them further along next year. They have to be accountable and learn everything when there is a chance they are going to play."
"It's different when you are going to play or not play. When you know you are going to play, then you see what you have to learn at practice and your retention becomes that much greater when you are expected to play and get in there and perform. I feel that makes them learn that much quicker. Again, in Zac's case we feel he can get in there and help us. It's a long season and we don't know what the outcome is with injuries and we just feel we have to get guys ready to play."
The Sooners will use the off week to work on themselves, but they will also take the time to work on Missouri, Texas and Iowa State. The Sooners plan on practicing Monday through Thursday and if the team works well then they will get Friday and Saturday off.
Super wide receiver Mark Clayton had his knee scoped Sunday to remove some loose particles that were bothering him. He is expected to be out only 10 days and he is still expected to play against South Florida.
My question is if Clayton has been this good with an injured knee how good will he be with a good one? Can you say Super Star?
During the 51 minute rain the delay the Sooners kept busy in the locker room as Bob Stoops and his coaching staff got creative.
"We actually broke out into units and worked on adjustments in the locker room," said Hybl. "Coach Stoops was really firing us up in the locker room and really trying to put a charge in us. We actually ran some plays and starting talking trash to our defense and they started to get after us a little bit. By the time we were ready to come out we could have run through a wall and knocked down the stadium."
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