(copyright 2003 by OU Insider)
I was amazed during the week leading up to the Rose Bowl that Washington State was so confident. I was having a hard time understanding why. Sure, they were Pac-10 champs and had put together an outstanding season. In fact, their season was similar to that of the Sooners.
The Cougars were blown out by eventual national champion Ohio State and lost a heartbreaker to in the Apple Cup to arch-rival Washington. Along the way, the Cougars knocked off Orange Bowl champ USC (30-27) in overtime and drilled UCLA (48-27) to end the season.
The Sooners were also upset by their arch-rival and blew one on the road at Texas A&M. The Sooners were good enough to be ranked number one for part of the season and Washington State climbed to as high as number two.
Washington State brought a great quarterback into the game in Jason Gesser, while the Sooners countered with one of the nations' most feared defenses. The Sooner defensive image was a slightly tarnished with a terrible performance against OSU and a breakdown it the secondary against Texas A&M. However, Washington State had it's moments as well losing badly against its toughest non-conference foe and Gesser was not 100 percent.
However, the most disruptive factor for the Cougars going into the game was the fact that Head Coach Mike Price had announced that he was leaving Pullman, Washington for Alabama, shocking the Washington State administration, players and media alike. Most Cougs thought that Price was going to be a lifer and the fact he decided to bolt to probation strapped Alabama
threw the Cougars for a loop.
So, I couldn't understand why Washington State was so confident going into the game. Didn't they realize that the Sooners underachieved in some ways? Didn't they realize that when the Sooner defense was playing on all cylinders that they may be the best in the country? Didn't they realize that when Bob Stoops and company have two weeks or more to prepare for a game that they were unbeatable? Did they really feel they were as talented as the Sooners? You make the call as Gesser laid this thought on me during media day from the Rose Bowl.
"We respect OU a great deal, but in no way do they have more talent than us," said Gesser. "They are very fast on defense, but we've seen a number of ways that we can exploit their weaknesses. Our defense is very fired up because Oklahoma is not complicated at all and they almost dare you to stop them. They have a nice passing game, but we play in the Pac-10 and OU won't show us anything that we haven't seen before. We respect OU a great deal, but we feel like we match up very well with them."
When Gesser was telling me this I couldn't believe it. Had he watched the same Sooners that I had all year? So, I asked him a similar question so that he could retract at least some of the things and he said the same thing.
That only coincided with Price and his Bama acceptance speechbraggadocio. Price told Crimson Tide fans that he would show them how to beat the Sooners next year in the Rose Bowl. OU and Alabama are set to play next season. Unbelievable.
The Sooners were typical Sooners, confident, but not cocky. OU worked hard and did not party like in the old Barry Switzer days during bowl week, but they did play hard. Oh, how times have changed. There wasn't one report or rumor of player staying out too late or drinking too much. I am not saying that players didn't have a beverage or two, but nothing excessive and certainly nothing after the first couple of days in Los Angeles.
Bob Stoops did the smart thing during the first two days and set a late curfew and then told the boys to get all their partying out of their system. To be honest, he totally trusted his team, and yes that included Brent Rawls, that they would handle things accordingly. One OU official told me he was surprised that 95 percent of the team was in their rooms way before curfew and the remaining five percent were out late with family. You know parents and stuff in LA.
Man does this sound like a focused team or what, and a great team to coach?
"We went to Los Angeles with a purpose and that was to win the football game," said senior Trent Smith. "Sure we had a good time, but I haven't been to a bowl game yet that we didn't have a good time. Coach Stoops had beat it into us that if we don't win the game then the trip is a waste. He lost the Rose Bowl as a junior and we could tell that still bothered him. In fact, he said he enjoyed his Peach Bowl trip a lot more because Iowa won that game. Hey, we had fun, but did so as a team. Nobody was sneaking out of the hotel or anything. If they did the seniors would have killed them. This was our last chance to win a big game in this uniform and we weren't going to let anybody screw that up."
"After a couple of days I was ready to play the game," said senior cornerback Andre Woolfolk. "I enjoy all the activities and everything, but you could tell we were ready at practice the second or third day that we were there. We had our assignments down and we knew that the coaching staff had put together a great game plan. We liked our match-ups and just felt confident going into the game. I really wanted to play because I felt I was ready to have a big game. That OSU game was still sitting in my stomach and despite a pretty good game against Colorado, I wanted to face a good passing team to show everybody I was still a good player. The Washington State game gave me that opportunity."
Make no mistake about it, the Sooners had a great time. OU made all the tourist stops at Disneyland, Universal Studios and made it out to the beach. The Lowry's Restaurant Beef Bowl was something special and each player looked forward to eating some of the best prime rib in the country, despite the fact it didn't look like it. The Sooners lost the beef bowl to Washington State by over 120 pounds of beef. When the Sooners won the game it was the first time in five years that the winner of the Beef Bowl didn't win the game itself.
Before the Sooners left for Los Angeles the young cats got most of the work. Quarterbacks Paul Thompson, Brent Rawls and Noah Allen got work with the varsity offense. Donta Hickson continued to show why nobody should rule him out of playing time in 2003 and DaBryan Blanton has improved so much at wide receiver you won't even recognize him.
Travis Wilson and JeJuan Rankins played on the varsity all year, but since their playing time was limited they received a ton of work during this time as well. Young offensive tackles Bret Rayl and Steve Taylor began to make their move and started to play with more confidence. Abner Estrada got work at both center and left guard and Kelvin Chaisson hasn't lost his confidence despite losing his starting job twice.
On defense Rufus Alexander still needs to get bigger andstronger, but he is already penciled in the backup to All-American Teddy Lehman at the same famed weakside linebacker position. Alexander was fantastic during the bowl workouts. Wayne Chambers improved every day and Russell Dennison made the most improvement.
In the secondary, Michael Hawkins returned to the team and received some intense work before the team took off for the West Coast. Hawkins didn't make the Rose Bowl trip because he failed to pass six hours towards his degree. However, he passed enough overall hours to be eligible for the spring. Jason Carter and Aaron Miller enjoyed the extra work as well, but both continue to play both safety and cornerback.
However, no defensive back gained ground as much as Brodney Pool during the extra practice sessions. A tremendous talent, all Pool lacks is experience and he received a ton during those extra six sessions.
During this time however, the varsity was studying the game plan and by the time they hit Los Angeles they already had it down pat. They believed in it and understood it and that allowed them to practice it to the point they could execute it in their sleep.
Oklahoma has so much confidence in big games that it is scary. OU loves playing the big game and they love being on center stage. The Sooners also came into the game wanting to prove a point. The Sooners understood that Rose Bowl traditionalists were upset they didn't get their traditional Big-10/Pac-10 rivalry, but OU felt some of the comments were personal. OU didn't understand how anybody could be upset with them personally, considering everything they brought to the Rose Bowl.
"I really don't feel that most of the negative things said about us playing in the Rose Bowl were directed at us personally, but the way that some things were said and the timing of them, you could come away feeling that way," said Bob Stoops. "We are proud to be playing in the grand tradition of the Rose Bowl, but we feel we bring a lot to the table as well.
"We bring seven National Titles, 38 Conference Championships, three Heisman Trophy winners and more All-American's than I can count. We have played in 34 bowl games and will stack our tradition with any program in the country. I would think that the Rose Bowl and those that support the Rose Bowl should be just as proud to have us as we are to be here. The Rose Bowl knew once they got into the BCS that there might be a chance that their tradition couldn't continue with the Pac-10 and Big-10. So why raise a question about it once the selection is done? They should have done that before the selection and should have taken steps to make sure they got what they wanted, not complain about it after we have been selected to play in the bowl."
Thus the Sooners went into the Rose Bowl with a point to
prove and a purpose as well. And that determination would serve them well throughout the game.
Oklahoma knew that Washington State would load the box in an effort to stop star running back Quentin Griffin. They also knew that the Cougars had tremendous confidence in their two cornerbacks and felt that their wide receivers would get one-on-one coverage at times. Senior tight end Trent Smith was also licking his chops because for once he would receive coverage from a strong safety and not an extra corner, the same type coverage that for the most part he ate up as a junior.
It is hard to explain, but either the coaching changed hurt the Cougars to come up with anything new or the Cougars were totally confident in their ability to stop the Sooners, but they came up with nothing new for Oklahoma. What the Sooners watched on game film for the entire season from the Cougars was exactly what they got on game day.
The game was exactly what the doctor ordered for the Sooners. Nate Hybl played the game of his Sooner life and earned MVP honors, showing all of his detractors that he was an excellent division-one quarterback. Hybl threw the ball well hitting on 19 of 29 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns against no interceptions. However, it was the no interceptions and near perfect execution of the offense that impressed the Sooner coaches.
"Nate Hybl totally came of age for us in the Rose Bowl and we saw signs of it coming leading up to the game," said Sooner Offensive Coordinator and quarterback coach Chuck Long. "I have always said that quarterbacks are always better the second year than they are the first and Nate is a perfect example of that. He was solid his first year and much better than people give him credit for, but remember we were dealing with a very young quarterbacks. That was Nate's first year of division-one football where he was the quarterback on the field. He basically had not played football for two years and at times he was rusty. This year as the season progressed for Nate he began to see things more clearly and he began to communicate things with me better and better. That is important because the more information he can give me from the field and the more he can tell me what he likes and dislikes the better I can call the game for him."
"The progress that Nate made throughout his second season was remarkable and some of the progress many of the fans or media wouldn't even notice," Long continued. "Many times he got us into the right checks for ‘Q' to have a big run, he had a great year in protecting the football and he always had command of the huddle. The fact that his teammates asked for a special vote to name him captain after Jason got hurt showed how much his teammates appreciated him and wanted to play for him. Nate got better each week, just like most good quarterbacks will throughout the season, and it's too bad we don't have him for a third season because he would be a all-conference type of player next year."
Hybl wasn't the only senior to excel. In fact, every key senior play a grand final game. Considering what Hybl, Trent Smith, Quentin Griffin, Curtis Fagan, Antwone Savage, Mike Skinner and Andre Woolfolk accomplished at OU it was only fitting they would all go out in a blaze of glory.
The Cougars shut down Griffin early, but couldn't hold him for long. In fact, in the first quarter Griffin broke a 38-yard gain and then picked his spots in the second half. When the dust cleared, Griffin finished with 144 yards and one touchdown and had two pancake blocks protecting Hybl. Smith ate up the strong safety coverage and finished with five catches for 38 yards and three first downs. It seemed like Smith would run 10 yards and turn around the ball would be waiting in his chest. Plus, Smith impressed pro scouts with an outstanding day blocking at the line of scrimmage.
Savage was outstanding, catching four passes for 52 yards and one touchdown. Savage was the star on the first touchdown drive catching one pass for 30 yards to give OU a first down at the Washington State 30 and then finishing off the drive with a 12-yard touchdown catch. Fagan also found the end zone in the fourth quarter and finished with three catches for 31 yards and a touchdown.
Skinner played very solid and Woolfolk re-established himself as one of the top corners in the country with solid coverage and a great diving interception to stop a Cougar drive at the Sooner two-yard line.
After the game the Sooners were back on top of the college football world. No, Oklahoma would not win the National Championship, but they did re-establish themselves as one of the top three teams in college football. The national media at the Rose Bowl fell in love with the Sooners and were so impressed many claimed they would be their preseason number one in 2003.
The Sooners' seniors were ecstatic and sad at the same time. Trent Smith handled the victory as if he was at a retirement party with no regrets, while Woolfolk fought back tears and Brad Davis couldn't fight them at all. Savage and Fagan were poised as usual and you had to leave it to Smith to put things in perspective.
"I am not sad it is over and for the most part I don't think many of our senior class is," said Smith an hour after the game. "It has been a long ride for us and to be honest. It is time to move on and for others to get their shot. In the back of all of our minds we know this and I guess I am just resigned to it. I have had the time of my life at OU and it is has been a dream come true. I am the luckiest kid in the world, because for the past five years I have been doing exactly what I have wanted to do since I was old enough to walk. Plus, we accomplished something here that I think OU fans will always appreciate us for."
"When we came to OU we came because we believed in the OU program, its tradition and the university," Smith continued. "OU wasn't winning at the time and the facilities weren't built yet. We came on a whim and on somewhat of a dream ourselves. We signed with John Blake and while others didn't believe in him, we did. I was surprised when he was fired, but for a while we didn't have any supervision and I thought that was pretty cool.
"Then Coach Stoops came in he showed us how to win and how to get ready to play. We were ready for that and immediately bought into his program. We brought this program from one of its worst era's all the way back to the National Championship and now OU is one of the elite programs again. We didn't win the National Championship this year, but we regained the Big 12 Championship and won the Rose Bowl for the first time in OU history. This senior class accomplished a lot here at OU and we are proud of that and we hope that our fans our proud of us for a long, long time."
Nate Hybl says that he doesn't pay attention to what the media is saying about him or what their opinions of him are, however his friends always let him know what the general thought is whether he wants to hear it or not.
However, Hybl couldn't hide from the KOCO post game show in Houston and from that point on he knew exactly which reporters were saying what about him and he knew it first hand. After the game Hybl sported a Sports Animal T-Shirt that read ‘Rose Bowl MVP' in defiance to negative statements all year.
"That really isn't like me to do something like that, but a friend gave me the t-shirt and to be honest I just couldn't resist," said Hybl two days after the game. "I just felt that those guys were so unfair in what they were reporting about me. Hey, I understand the media has a job to do and they do have opinions, but it is just as an athlete you respect those opinions from those reporters that actually cover the team and that we actually talk to. We know that the reporters that are at practice or at least at our press conferences are better prepared to voice an opinion about us that would mean something and that I would pay a little attention to. However, those guys from the Sports Animal are reporters that, outside of Al Eschbach, have never talked to me, and to be honest I haven't talked too Al much. I have never seen them at practice and am not sure I would recognize them. I never saw them after a game or a scrimmage and yet here they were taking shots and trying to influence a negative public opinion about me."
"I realize that I have to be a big boy, but I still didn't feel that is right," Hybl continued. "How can those guys who really don't cover us give an educated opinion about how I am playing or my teammates? It just didn't make any sense and especially when they tried to paint a negative picture after I had played pretty well and the team had won a big game at the Big 12 Championship. Man, being the Oklahoma quarterback is a blessing and quite a privilege, but a lot comes with it and some of it isn't easy. For the most part, I won a lot of games at Oklahoma; two bowl games and a Big 12 Championship. I realize I lost to OSU twice and I want OU fans to know that we tried as hard as we could in those games and things just didn't work out for us."
"If there are those that want to point out every single negative play then so be it, but I think at this point they look pretty bad," said Hybl. "We finished on a great note and I finished on a great note. I am very proud of our football team and loved this football team. I am very proud to be the quarterback that led the great Sooner football team for parts of two years and will always hold that honor tightly close to my heart. I am a Sooner through-and-through and I feel in the end I shut-up all those that didn't feel I was a good player or that we weren't a good team."
Quentin Griffin's humble status as a superstar grew by leaps and bounds when late in the game he turned down the opportunity to go back into the game for the sole purpose of breaking former Sooner great Billy Sims' single-season rushing record.
Griffin had already been taken out of the game in the fourth quarter so that the backup running backs could get into the game. The Sooners had the game well in hand and Griffin had come up with a tender shoulder, but primarily wanted his teammates to get some primetime coverage in the Rose Bowl.
It was Run Coordinator and Offensive Line coach Kevin Wilson who approached Bob Stoops to inform the Sooner Head Coach that Griffin was just 12 yards away from passing Sims and becoming the single season rushing leader at OU, and he suggested that they put Griffin back into the game for two to three plays and that they would have the record. Stoops was all for the idea and approached Griffin on the sidelines about the idea.
"I did everything that I could to convince ‘Q' to go back into the game to get the record, but it shows what kind of a class guy he is that he wouldn't even consider it," said Bob Stoops. "I talked to him for about two minutes I guess, and I told him that records like this are hard to come by and Billy Sims himself would want to him to have the record. However, ‘Q' would have nothing of it. ‘Q' said that he didn't see himself as an equal to Billy Sims and that he felt the record belonged to Sims. ‘Q' just didn't feel it was right for him to go back into the game when he had already come out of game, just for the sole purpose of breaking Sims' record. If the record had fallen during the normal flow of the game then I think ‘Q' would have been OK with breaking the record, but he had already pulled himself out of the game and didn't feel it was right to go back into the game and take playing time from his teammates. He also said his shoulder was sore and he just wanted to get healthy."
"As I have said before, Quentin is one of the most unselfish players that I have been around and he is one of the big hero's to this program," Stoops continued. "When he came out of redshirt after seven games his freshman year he basically gave up a year of eligibility and saved us because we had nobody else to turn to at running back. Throughout his career he has been that type of player for us and I am glad to have coached him."
After returning from the Rose Bowl Thursday I was doing the afternoon talk show on KREF talking about the Sooner win and about Griffin's unselfish manner. During that show Cale Gundy, his running back coach at OU, called him to give his thoughts on the Sooners' legendary ball carrier.
"What everybody has to understand about Quentin is that his reaction to that situation wasn't a surprise to those of who are round him every day," said Gundy. "Quentin is the most unselfish football player I have ever been around and he is most team oriented star I have ever been around. He has been the perfect player to coach. Do you realize that he has never missed or been late to a team meeting or practice and he is always the last to leave each and every practice? Quentin has never back-talked me at practice or questioned anything that I or any other coach has said. Whatever he is asked to do he does it at 100 percent and he never asks questions. He is always willing to help out other players and always has time for younger players."
"I haven't even talked about his talent, which wasn't always evident to everybody," Gundy continued. "I don't know how many times at the beginning of the year or last year I was asked by fans and media if I was going to take ‘Q' out of the starting lineup. Each time I was asked that question I had to shake my head a little bit because I just couldn't believe they couldn't or wasn't seeing what I could see. He was a talented running, fantastic blocker and tremendous receiver, which is exactly what we are looking for in our running backs. Last year during his junior year, ‘Q' was hurt and our offensive line wasn't every good. Our entire offense suffered and despite the fact Quentin didn't have the year rushing he still blocked and caught the ball well.
"‘Q' is a poor man's Barry Sanders and he is the first collegiate back to come along after Barry that can do some of the things that Barry did," Gundy continued. "I was around Barry when he was at OSU because my brother Mike was the quarterback at that time, so I know all about Barry Sanders. ‘Q' is a small back like him and has similar moves and balance. He is not quite as powerful and maybe doesn't have the straight ahead speed that Barry had, but ‘Q' is in the neighborhood. I know that sounds farfetched to some folks, but just watch his films and you will see what I am talking about. I promise you this, Barry can't block half as well as Quentin can."
For the Sooners' defense, the Washington State game put the swagger back into the players walk. Oklahoma completely shut down one of the nation's best offenses and going into the game they figured that they would. Washington State lined up very much like Florida State and Texas Tech, two teams that the Sooners have dominated in the past.
"We didn't see anything out of Washington State that we haven't seen before against Florida State, Texas Tech or Texas," said Co-Defensive Coordinator Mike Stoops. "Jason Gesser was a great quarterback, but we have dominated great passing quarterbacks before. Gesser was good, but he wasn't any better than Chris Weinke, Chris Simms or Seneca Wallace. Their receiving corp was good, but not spectacular and their offensive line was solid. It was the just the type of match up that we have cleaned up on in the past, so it didn't surprise us that we would go out and have great success."
The Sooner defense will be the major strength of the team next season. The Sooners lose a great player in Woolfolk, but have another super athlete in Antonio Perkins waiting in the wings. Micheal Hawkins will be the third cornerback and seems in good sprits again within the Sooner program.
Brandon Everage will be back for his senior year at free safety and will work throughout the off season on getting his shoulders and legs healthy. The real battle will be at strong safety where redshirt freshman Eric Bassey struggled all season.
The Sooners have already signed the top JUCO strong safety in the country in Donte Nicholson out of Mt. San Antonio, California and he has the Roy Williams' size and speed the Sooners are looking for in that Roy Williams position. The defensive coaches are also very excited about Pool, who will now get a full spring to learn more about the difficult position. Pool's talents are better suited for the position than Bassey's and Pool is considered a much better tackler than Bassey.
Bassey came to OU as a cover corner and he may be put into a position where he can utilize those skills better next season. With Perkins moving to cornerback on a fulltime basis, Bassey may assume his role at deep safety when the Sooners go to nickel and dime coverage. That would leave the Roy Williams position to Nicholson and Pool.
The spring will also be a key for the future linebacker corp of the Sooners. The Sooners will start three seniors next year and will totally retool in 2004. Rufus Alexander will start asserting himself as the heir apparent to All-American Teddy Lehman at weak side linebacker. Can Russell Dennison show enough to give the Sooners confidence he is the man at strong side linebacker? Who will win the battle between Wayne Chambers and Clint Ingram for the backup middle linebacker job? The odds favor Chambers because not only is a perfect fit at middle linebacker, but his football intelligence is very similar to Lance Mitchell's, while Ingram is still learning the game.
In the Rose Bowl sophomore Jonathan Jackson played his best game of the year and finally started to show some of the promise that the Sooners coaches held for him. Jackson and Dan Cody split time the second half of the season and will do so again next season if Jimmy Wilkerson returns. Wilkerson played much better against Colorado in the Big 12 Championship game, but was overshadowed by JJ against Washington State. Wilkerson never played up to his sophomore form. It is really unreal that Wilkerson is thinking of going pro considering the year that he had. If Wilkerson isn't careful it may be JJ and Cody as the starting defensive ends next year. Larry Birdine will emerge out of the spring as the number four defensive end and he will challenge for playing time. Birdine has 'great one' written all over him with Calvin Thibodeaux behind him.
The only thing the Sooner defensive tackles need for next season is to be healthy. Tommie Harris, Dusty Dvoracek, Kory Klein and Lynn McGruder will form one of the top defensive tackle groups in the country. Jacob Hager is still suspended and his future is still up in the air at press time. In fact, he may be joining the Sooner wrestling team soon.
How will the Sooners replace Griffin and Hybl will be two of the main concerns going into the spring. At least at running back the Sooners have KeJuan Jones and Renaldo Works, who have both performed well under fire. However, quarterback is a totally different story.
The key question is whether the Sooners will try to use two different running backs for their one-back and I-formation sets. Senior Renaldo Works plans to play at 230 pounds next season and says he will give a herculean effort to win the job.
"I am running out of opportunities and I have been told I will be given an equal chance to win the running back job," said Works. "I have to admit that my situation is frustrating at times, but I just try to do what the coaches tell me. If I can get the football regular I think I can pick up good yardage. I think I make plays when I am in the game and again if I can get more of an opportunity, I think I can make some things happen."
Jones figures to be the frontrunner to replace Griffin, but only if he regains his moves that made him a star at Jenks and drew ooh's and ah's from Sooner coaches and fans in early scrimmages. Jones was a power, straight-ahead running back out of the I-formation this past season and didn't juke anybody. A couple of jukes could have resulted in long touchdowns for the redshirt sophomore. To run out of the one-back set, running backs have to make a defender miss and both Jones and Works have that capability, but need to show it more.
It is do or die for senior Jerad Estus as well. Estus is still the fastest running back in the Sooner stable and still intrigues the Sooner coaches. But the wild card is sophomore Donta Hickson, who has excelled on the Sooner scout team and looked good in Monday Night Football.
At wide receiver the Sooners will miss seniors Antwone Savage and Curtis Fagan, but the young players remaining on the roster have more potential. Will Peoples became the Sooners big play receiver this year and Mark Clayton has a tremendous knack for making plays.
Brandon Jones earned a role as the Sooner receiver in the I-formation and he proved that he can make big plays as well. Jones just needs to take care of his class work and become more consistent on the field.
It will be hard to keep these three off the field next year when the Sooners go to three wide receiver sets. Don't be surprised if Clayton doesn't play both the slot and a wide receiver spot. What may keep Clayton outside is the continued development of sophomore Travis Wilson. Wilson worked with the varsity all year and played well in the Rose Bowl.
(I apologize for not getting this out last week. My illness prevented it and I appreciate all the 'get well' wishes and kind words of encouragement. I hope you enjoy it and look forward to providing coverage leading up to spring practice. James Hale).