The Kansas State Wildcats had just taken a 3-0 lead over Oklahoma, and now they were smelling upset, a scent that has clung to the Sooners all season. On the minds of the 75,008 fans packed into Memorial Stadium in Norman was the question: "Is Kansas State this week's West Virginia?" Then K-State kicked off, and Marcus Dupree, one of only two scholarship freshmen at Oklahoma not redshirted, downed the ball in the end zone.
Taking over at their 20-yard line, the Sooners lined up in the I formation instead of the familiar Oklahoma Wishbone. Dupree, the tailback, flowed right and took a pitch from Quarterback Kelly Phelps. He began mincingly, as is his habit, before exploding to the inside behind blocks by Fullback Stanley Wilson and Guard Steve Williams. With tacklers all around him, Dupree paused, almost provocatively, then cut again and his body reticulated—or seemed to—pads and all. The arms of Wildcat defenders bounced off him. He made the right sideline in two mammoth strides and outran Defensive Back Greg Best, who had appeared to have an angle on him, for an 80-yard touchdown.
Dupree's romp ruined Kansas State's upset dreams and ignited Oklahoma to a 24-10 win, its sixth straight following losses to West Virginia and USC. Better still for the Sooners, the 6'3", 233-pound, 18-year-old Dupree and the I formation have put the long, brilliant run back into OU football.
"It ain't the alignment, it's the alignee," insisted Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer after Saturday's game. "And Marcus Dupree is the best freshman ever to set foot on this campus. I don't know if any freshman ever went to school with his equipment."
Or, Switzer might have added, his history. Dupree, who's from Philadelphia, Miss., came in second in the 100-yard dash (9.8) at the state meet as a freshman at Philadelphia High. In his sophomore year he played baseball, first base and catcher, and hit .481. In his final regular-season football game as a senior, against archrival Neshoba Central, he rushed for 340 yards on 14 carries—an average gain of 24.3 yards—and scored five touchdowns. The slabs of excess muscle on his body were laid down when, as an overweight fifth-grader, he began lifting weights every other day. "But," says Dupree, "I didn't get serious until seventh grade."
Dupree was the most heavily recruited high school running back in the nation last year. "Yeah, I'd imagine he's the type that Bear let up in the tower," says Switzer, who himself sent Billy Sims to Philadelphia in a private plane to help in the selling of Oklahoma.
"Matter of fact, I did watch Alabama practice with Coach Bryant up there," Dupree says. "But my final decision came down to Texas or Oklahoma. I wanted to run the football where they know how best."
The Sooners were 1-2, had been shut out for the first time in 181 games (by USC, 12-0) and, well, looked lost in their Wishbone when Switzer took the wraps off Dupree. Against USC Dupree had had four carries for zip, and after three games he had just 12 carries for 20 yards. "I think they wanted to bring me along slowly," he says. Meanwhile, Sooner fans and alumni were calling for Switzer's resignation. Edward L. Gaylord, publisher of The Daily Oklahoman, editorialized, "As a winner [Switzer] may have been tolerable to some, as a loser maybe it's time for him to move on."
Dupree's style is best suited to the tailback position in the I, but despite the itensifying heat, Switzer was understandably reluctant to abandon the Wishbone. In the '70s, Alabama and Oklahoma, Wishbone teams both, were the only Division I schools to accumulate 100 victories. But while Alabama tinkered with its Wishbone—flanking its backs, throwing play-action passes, even dropback passes—Oklahoma remained classic, or stoic, with gradually less impressive results. This season, the Sooners still are the only Division I school without a touchdown pass.
"If I had the talent I had in the '70s, we could still run the Wishbone," Switzer says wistfully, recalling the days of Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington and Sims. But scholarship restrictions have dispersed the talent more evenly, and teams are doing a better job of defensing the Wishbone. So the week after the USC shutout, Switzer implemented the I. Dupree ran 13 times for 62 yards and a touchdown in that game, a 13-3 defeat of Iowa State, and he has gone 30 or more yards for a touchdown in each of the five Sooner victories since.
Against Texas Dupree opened the scoring with a fake flanker reverse (no one but Dupree and Switzer knew the handoff would be bogus) that was good for 63 yards and a touchdown. Against Kansas, Dupree, on his first carry of the game, bolted 75 yards for a touchdown, pausing along the way to plant the final defender with a stiff-arm so stunning that Switzer said later, "It's not fair for a guy to be 6'3", 233, 9.5 and know karate, too." In that game Dupree carried nine times for 158 yards and scored three touchdowns. The next week, against Oklahoma State, he scored from 30 yards out on fourth-and-one. Against Colorado he was held to 53 yards in 12 carries, but he ran back a punt 77 yards for a score after shrugging off an attempted necktie tackle that might have turned even a good back into a soprano. "Can you imagine?" asks Switzer, "230 pounds, running back punts?"
With each subsequent dash, the cheers for Dupree grow louder, the comparisons grander, the attention greater. And the Wishbone has been placed farther back on the shelf—the Sooners used it only 20% of the time against Kansas State. The comparisons abound. Dupree is Herschel Walker II, Sooner fans say. "He's Earl Campbell all over again," says Williams. Switzer says that Dupree is "unlike any back we've had here. Bigger, but still a runner." No one has mentioned Jimmy Brown yet, but the similarity is obvious.
Curiously, it wasn't one of Oklahoma's Wishbone runners that Dupree admired most when he was being sold on Oklahoma. "I liked [Quarterback] Thomas Lott—a lot," he says, grinning. "The way he ran the offense. He seemed to know what he was doing." But Lott departed in 1978, and, as Switzer says, "Poor quarterback running ability has allowed teams to defense us." Now the Sooners are humming again. Wilson rushed for 143 yards and Dupree for 118 and two TDs against Kansas State, the first time all year two Sooner backs had surpassed 100 yards.
The Sooners will need that sort of devastating running attack if they hope to defeat Nebraska and go to the Orange Bowl. "At the beginning of the year, I thought Oklahoma had no chance against Nebraska," said Kansas State Coach Jim Dickey. "Now I think they do." The chance is Dupree, a quiet kid with shy eyes, a B+ student who has a 6.9-yard average per carry and remarkably little hubris. "None of it, football or studies, is overwhelming," he says. Nebraska, however, may be.
Perhaps in anticipation of the Nov. 26 showdown with the Cornhuskers, Dupree ran an option run-pass sweep at the Thursday practice before the Kansas State game and fired a 40-yard bullet completion. A bespectacled 13-year-old named Kathy, sheltered against evening shadows and prairie winds by her father's arms, said, "Look, Daddy! He's the quarterback, the runner, the tank, everything!" Her father, Barry by name, adjusted the tobacco in his lip, squinted, and said, "Yep."