The holy trinity of a passing game that was supposed to light up the nation watched as Miami hung on for a 21-20 win that simultaneously validated the Hurricanes and knocked the Sooners out of the national title race. That may not be fair, considering Oklahoma has lost its top offensive playmakers and only lost two games by a combined two points, but that's life. Of greater concern is that Miami exposed some nagging flaws in a program that has always found a way to reinvent itself under coach Bob Stoops in spite of the circumstances.
The Hurricanes, who hadn't gotten a lick of pressure on an opponent all season, sacked Sooners quarterback Landry Jones three times and hurried him four more. When Oklahoma absolutely needed its veteran defense to rise up, stop the Hurricanes and get the ball back, the Sooners allowed quarterback Jacory Harris to find tight end Dedrick Epps for eight yards on third-and-six.
Stoops understands his team doesn't have its best lineup on the field. He doesn't care. Saturday, he refused to make a single excuse. "I'm not going to sit here and accept it," Stoops said. "I understand it makes things more challenging and different. As I told the team, we're not going to sit there and talk about 'That's why we can't win.' In the end, we've got to be able to overcome injuries - regardless of who they are. We've got eight Big 12 games coming in a row. They're not changing, so we've got to find a way to overcome them."
The Sooners could take a lesson from the Hurricanes, who played with a patchwork defense that used backups and, at times, third-stringers to frustrate the Sooners. After Miami allowed the Sooners to march 84 yards in 2:27 for a touchdown on its first possession, the Hurricanes settled. And it didn't matter if a backup had to start - as safety Ray Ray Armstrong did - or if a starter went out with leg cramps - as linebacker Sean Spence did. The 'Canes won with the players they had.
Miami had a lot to prove after its faceplant at Virginia Tech last week. After a 2-0 start, the 'Canes watched a little too much ESPN. They started believing they were as good as the talking heads said they were. They lost, 31-7, in Blacksburg, Va. They looked as if they hadn't even practiced. "That was kind of a wake-up call for us," Miami offensive tackle Jason Fox said.
Harris, who received the most attention leading up to the Virginia Tech game, decided the Hurricanes needed to forget their sorrows with a vacation to Bikini Bottom. According to Shannon, Harris ordered his teammates to change their viewing habits this week. "The only thing we're going to watch on TV from now on is Spongebob," Shannon recalled Harris saying. "We ain't watching ESPN, CBS or ABC. If Spongebob is talking about us, then we deserve it."
Early Saturday, it appeared Harris had watched Mr. Squarepants instead of game film. He threw two of his first four passes to the Sooners. Then he settled. He let Javarris James (15 carries, 150 yards) do the dirty work, and he threaded the needle to Epps or Travis Benjamin when necessary. "All I needed to understand," Harris said, "was I needed to let my teammates help me."
Oklahoma took a 10-7 lead into the half, but every minute the Sooners didn't break the game open had seemed like a victory. On Oklahoma's second play from scrimmage in the second half, Miami cornerback Brandon Harris came unblocked off the right edge. Harris stripped Jones, and defensive tackle Joe Joseph fell on the ball at the Oklahoma 11. On Miami's next play, Harris threw a touchdown pass to Epps, and Miami took the lead for good.
Noted football pundit Spongebob Squarepants would have been proud.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma couldn't find an offensive rhythm. Maybe that will change when Bradford returns from the sprained shoulder joint he suffered Sept. 5, but it's still unclear when that will happen. The Sooners probably don't need the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner next week against a Robert Griffin-less Baylor. They probably do need him against Texas on Oct. 17. "He's a Sooner. He wants to play for the Sooners," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said of Bradford. "I think he's struggling with the fact that you only have a few opportunities in your life to play this game, and he's lost a couple of them. I think he'll go about his work next week, and he'll make a judgment."
But will anything change if Bradford returns? It's easy to say things would have been different had Bradford returned Saturday, but that's probably not true. Jones had no time to throw and no one to throw to. Bradford would have faced the same challenges. "[Jones] was excellent," Stoops said. "I thought he handled everything in a really good way. The one fumble was a protection breakdown. He couldn't do anything about that. He was blindsided."
The Sooners have been blindsided by injuries to their best players, but Stoops refuses to allow them to give up on the season. In 2006, the Sooners booted quarterback Rhett Bomar in August and lost tailback Adrian Peterson to injury in September. They still managed to win the Big 12 title.
Stoops believes they could do that again this year. "I still really believe in my team," Stoops said. For that to happen, some of Oklahoma's youngsters have to rise to the occasion the way Miami's did on Saturday. "[Stoops] is right," Sooners offensive guard Brian Simmons said. "This is a Division I program - one of the most prestigious ones. We're supposed to have guys that can fill in on hand. He's definitely right. We can't use that as an excuse. We've just got to have guys step up."