Oklahoma proves tough scheduling provides lessons for teams
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The 56-yard touchdown pass nestled in the hands of a freshman named Rashad Greene, but at that moment in Saturday night's fourth quarter, his name might as well have been Peter Warrick. A school-record crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium partied like it was 1999. The garnet-and-gold masses chanted as if the past 10 years had never happened, as if Florida State had never drifted away from the center of the college football universe to an orbit on the periphery.
On the Oklahoma sideline, center Ben Habern called the Sooners' offensive linemen together. After three quarters in Oklahoma's favor, the score was tied. The game sat upon a fulcrum, and whichever team tipped it next would win. "This is where we've got to do it," Habern remembered saying. "This is where we've got to have the confidence in ourselves to do it. If we play Oklahoma football, we'll be fine."
Six plays later, the Sooners faced third-and-12 on their own 41-yard-line. Florida State's defense, so hapless last year in Norman, had grown up and grown teeth. The result of the next play could decide the game. Still, quarterback Landry Jones called the play with the enthusiasm of a guy placing his soup order. Then he took the snap, stared down the Seminoles' rushers and fired over the middle to Ryan Broyles for a 22-yard gain. The next play, Jones threw high, deep and slightly behind Kenny Stills. No matter. Stills adjusted, leaping over cornerback Greg Reid to corral the go-ahead touchdown.
At some point this season, maybe against Texas, Texas A&M or Oklahoma State, Oklahoma will face similar adversity. At that moment, the Sooners will think back to their trip to Tallahassee and remember the calmness, the determination and the sheer moxie required to make the plays that must be made to piece together a potential national title run. The fourth quarter of Saturday's 23-13 win proved Oklahoma has the mental makeup to challenge for a crystal football. Plenty of challenges await, but the Sooners can overcome them if they duplicate their attitude from Saturday's final 15 minutes.
That's why Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione scheduled this home-and-home series against Florida State. It's why Oklahoma recently played a similar series against Oregon and why, pending the imminent realignment apocalypse, it will play series against Notre Dame, Tennessee and -- maybe, just maybe -- Nebraska in the future. "We schedule," Castiglione said, "for success."
Bless Castiglione and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops -- and their Florida State counterparts, for that matter -- for having the guts to schedule this game. While most of the rest of the nation kicks tomato cans until the conference schedule begins, the Sooners and Seminoles challenge themselves. Maybe more should try. Consider this: The likely top three teams in next week's Associated Press poll (Oklahoma, LSU and Alabama) all scheduled marquee non-conference games. LSU opened against Oregon. Alabama played the second half of a home-and-home at Penn State, which wasn't much of a challenge in 2011 but promised to be one when it was scheduled.
Good programs shouldn't be afraid to schedule other good programs. Champions are built with blocks forged in such games. Auburn learned much in an overtime win against Clemson last year. Alabama opened against Virginia Tech to launch a 14-0 season in 2009. In 2008, Florida, which rarely schedules tough early out-of-conference games because of its annual end-of-season meeting with the Seminoles, played Miami in September. In 2007, LSU played Virginia Tech.
Should Oklahoma make a run this season, several Sooners can look back on Saturday for inspiration when they need a boost. Linebacker Tom Wort, a player coach Bob Stoops said has grown up more than any in the past year, made his first interception since high school in the second quarter. With Florida State in the red zone, Wort tipped an EJ Manuel pass to himself to erase the threat and preserve a four-point Oklahoma lead. "Soft hands," Wort said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, fellow linebacker Travis Lewis played through the pain of a foot injury that was supposed to keep him out for two or three more weeks. After Oklahoma opened the season with a win against Tulsa, Lewis resolved to come back Saturday. He barely made it, semi-practicing Wednesday before convincing doctors on Friday that he was fit to play. Wearing a cast inside his shoe to protect the foot, Lewis tied Wort and Tony Jefferson for the team lead in tackles with eight. Did the foot bother him? "Oh yeah," Lewis said. "It's still broken."
Safety Jovan Harris' anguish was mental. After the high of a second-quarter interception returned to the Florida State 3-yard line, Harris was one of the two Oklahoma defensive backs who whiffed on Clint Trickett's third-and-28 heave to Greene for the tying score. Late in the fourth, as the Seminoles tried to drive to match Oklahoma's go-ahead touchdown, Harris picked off Trickett to set up a Jimmy Stevens field goal to ice the win.
Then there was Jones, who had a chance to lead his team to a win last year at Missouri and couldn't muster a drive. In the final stanza of that loss in Columbia, Jones finished off a three-and-out to start the quarter. Then he threw an interception on the first play of Oklahoma's next possession. Then another three-and-out before the Tigers put the game out of reach.
Saturday, Jones -- who passed Sam Bradford on Saturday to become Oklahoma's all-time leading passer -- refused to let Florida State capitalize Greene's touchdown gave the Seminoles the emotional edge. "When they sense blood, this stadium is on you," said Stoops, who has some unpleasant memories of Doak Campbell Stadium from two losses suffered as Florida's defensive coordinator. "They had the momentum, and we just seized it right back." They seized it because Jones refused to get rattled on third-and-long, and they seized it because Stills made a play on a less-than-perfect throw from Jones to cap an eight-play, 83-yard drive that took only 2 minutes, 28 seconds. "I guess it was a little underthrown, now that I think about it," Stoops cracked. "I thought it would be easier. But, hey, Kenny made him look good."
Jones' teammates knew he would come through on that drive -- especially on third-and-long. "Everybody looks at us to be in the big game this year. To do that, we need plays like that," Lewis said. "Landry's as big as it gets."
Saturday was as big as it gets. Oklahoma will learn from its win. Florida State, which proved it can hang with the nation's elite again, will learn from the loss. Hopefully, even in the impending age of the superconference, athletic directors won't be afraid to schedule similar lessons for their teams.