Where some of the finest minds in college football have failed,
police in Norman, Okla., met with rousing success. How do you
stop Oklahoma senior quarterback Josh Heupel? Simple. Nail him
with pepper spray. All right, smart guy, let's see you go through
your reads now.
Last Saturday afternoon Heupel and his coach, Bob Stoops, found
themselves just outside a crowd bent on tearing down the goalpost
in the south end zone of Oklahoma's Memorial Stadium. The next
thing they knew, they were rubbing their eyes, having come too
close to the mob the cops sought to subdue with pepper spray.
While Heupel wasn't one of the yahoos dangling from the crossbar,
he was indirectly responsible for the bedlam, having thrown for
300 yards and a touchdown in the Sooners' 31-14 win over
Nebraska, which had entered the game ranked No. 1.
In wresting from the Cornhuskers the top spot in the polls,
Oklahoma, which had been No. 3, also wrapped up the most
memorable October in its history. The month began with a 63-14
dismemberment of then No. 11 Texas, continued with a 41-31 upset
of second-ranked Kansas State and came to a sublime conclusion
for the Sooners, who in recent times had found themselves on the
wrong end of serial ass-kickings by the Huskers. (Combined score
of the last two: Nebraska 142, Oklahoma 28.) "We're No. 1!"
shouted the Sooners' faithful as the uprights wobbled and then
fell--and they were, for the first time in 13 years. This wasn't
vandalism; it was Oktoberfest, Oklahoma-style.
Because most of the Sooners were pre-teens the last time this
matchup meant anything to the rest of the country, Stoops tried
to educate his players on the rivalry's storied history. Team
meetings last week began with five-minute film clips of
celebrated moments from the series. Some of the legends seen on
tape came to life on the sideline before the game. There was
former Sooners linebacker Brian Bosworth chatting up former
Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne. The Boz is still trying to make a
career of acting, while Osborne is running for Congress. How was
he enjoying the campaign trail? "It's like recruiting," Osborne
said, "but it lasts longer."
Long, sustained drives were precisely what Oklahoma feared from
Nebraska, which entered the game having outrushed its previous
two opponents by 901 yards to 24. As it turned out, the Sooners'
defense had nothing to worry about. Yes, Nebraska scored
touchdowns on its first two possessions, but those drives were
anything but prolonged. With junior quarterback Eric Crouch
mixing option runs and play-action passes as deftly as Tom Cruise
mixed drinks in Cocktail, Nebraska cruised 76 yards in six plays
for its first touchdown and then 91 in five for its second. All
this occurred before the game was seven minutes old.
After Oklahoma dug itself into that hole, one couldn't help
thinking, The Sooners have had a nice little run, but they can't
hang with the big boys. It was unreasonable, really, to have
thought that they could bump off the Huskers, who had won 88 of
97 games and three national championships since the start of the
1993 season. Stoops, after all, was less than two seasons into
this reclamation project. His team was callow--24 players on his
two-deep are redshirt sophomores or younger--and his defensive
line was light, giving up an average of 40 pounds per man to
What's more, how was Oklahoma's no-name offensive line supposed
to keep the fearsome Blackshirts pass rush off Heupel? That
didn't turn out to be a problem, which, paradoxically, turned out
to be a problem. Heupel explained after the game, "Early on,
there were some blitzes and stunts. Even though our offensive
linemen did a great job picking them up, I didn't think they'd be
able to. So I was getting rid of the ball quicker than I had to."
After two fruitless possessions, offensive coordinator Mark
Mangino paid his uncharacteristically jittery quarterback a visit
on the bench. Holding out his laminated play-call sheet, Mangino
asked Heupel to pick the plays he felt most comfortable running.
"I like everything!" came the reply.
"I know you do," said Mangino, "but tell me what you're really
Like a man ordering sushi, Heupel worked his way down the menu,
just as he would soon work his way down the field, leading
Oklahoma to scores on its next four possessions. It was a points
explosion that put the game out of reach and allowed Heupel to
showcase his corps of sterling sophomore receivers.
There was Andre Woolfolk, inadvertently kicking a pass into the
air and then snaring it one-handed while lying on his back for
the 34-yard gain that set up the game-tying touchdown. Woolfolk,
from Denver, played cornerback in high school and wasn't
recruited by Colorado or Colorado State.
There was Curtis Fagan, finishing that drive with a 34-yard
touchdown catch of a wobbly ball Heupel threw off his back foot
while blitzing cornerback Erwin Swiney launched himself at his
left ear hole. "You'll never play here," wide receivers coach
Steve Spurrier Jr. had told Fagan on his first day of practice in
August 1999, after watching Fagan's unsuccessful attempts to
touch his toes. "He's the most inflexible player I've ever seen,"
says Spurrier. Fagan enrolled in a stretching class earlier this
semester but dropped it. "It hurt too much," he says.
There was Antwone Savage outleaping cornerback DeJaun Groce for a
37-yard catch that was the prelude to another touchdown. "We
signed Antwone out of Georgia," says Spurrier. "He was an option
quarterback for a bad team. We beat out Tulane for him."
Slot receiver Damian Mackey was headed for Stanford until he blew
out a knee in the last quarter of his final high school game.
When the Cardinal backed off, Mackey accepted a scholarship from
the Sooners. With Heupel distributing the ball relatively evenly,
says Spurrier, "I really don't have one guy that stands out. I
emphasize that to them. I want them to know that none of them is
better than the other."
Heupel's receivers prove the adage that there's no limit to what
a group can accomplish if the individuals in it don't care who
gets the credit. They also serve as a reminder that Stoops's
oft-maligned predecessor, John Blake, had a good recruiting
staff. Each of those receivers, in addition to a number of other
key Sooners, visited Oklahoma on the same December weekend in
"It was a big mix of guys, and we had a great time together,"
says sophomore tight end and Norman native Trent Smith of the
group that also included safety Roy Williams, linebacker Rocky
Calmus and offensive linemen Mike Skinner and Frank Romero, all
of whom should be four-year starters by the time they leave. "We
sat around in a hotel room until two in the morning. We knew
about Oklahoma's tradition. We all got close over that weekend
and kind of decided that we'd come here."
Some were redshirted and some weren't that first season. All
suffered. The Blake era came to a merciful end in 1998 after a
5-6 season whose low point, according to Calmus, was a 29-0
drubbing at Texas A&M. "After that game, I just broke down," he
says. "I mean, they gave us a whuppin'."
The Sooners' suffering had only begun. Among Stoops's more
inspired hires was highly regarded strength coach Jerry Schmidt,
who worked the previous four years at Florida. Schmidt was
unimpressed, to say the least, by the fitness of the Oklahoma
players he inherited. Not long after arriving in Norman, says
Schmidt, "I took a bunch of guys out on the field for a little
warmup. Pretty soon about 15 of them were throwing up. This was a
No one blows chunks during Schmidt's warmups now, although some
Sooners admit they curse him during his torturous workouts. They
also take justifiable pride in their conditioning. Heupel, for
instance, doubles up on off-season training sessions, working out
with the quarterbacks and then, later in the day, with the
running backs or receivers. Under Schmidt's watchful--some Sooners
would say sadistic--eye, the quarterback has improved his 40 speed
from 5.06 to 4.75. On Saturday he broke off runs of 11 and 17
yards on Oklahoma's penultimate possession, during which the
Sooners force-fed Nebraska a dose of its own medicine: running
the ball down the Cornhuskers' throats to eat up the clock.
Crouch, the maestro of Nebraska's option offense, also slipped
out of character. While he did rush for 103 yards on 24 carries,
he looked ill at ease throwing a season-high 27 passes. He
completed 12, including a 39-yarder to Matt Davison for the
game's first score. The throw that will haunt him came in the
third quarter with Oklahoma leading 24-14, after Sooners senior
linebacker Torrance Marshall had sacked him on successive plays.
Crouch scrambled to his right and threw the ball directly to
freshman cornerback Derrick Strait, whose 32-yard return for a
touchdown sealed the victory.
As they left the stadium together, Calmus and Marshall diverged
toward their respective families. Calmus was embraced by two
dozen friends and relatives. Marshall was nearly tackled by one
Gloria Thompson, who knocked the hat off his head and shouted,
"How could you drop that ball? Good thing you're not a receiver."
Both laughed. She was referring to a second-quarter pass that
Marshall should have intercepted.
"I came all the way from Miami," Thompson said. "He said he'd get
me a pick." Marshall calls her Mom, even though she's not his
biological mother. He had a troubled upbringing in southwest
Miami, but at 15 got a second chance when he was taken in by
Gloria; her husband, Leslie; and their four children. Gloria is a
dental assistant, Leslie an electrician. "It was a sacrifice,"
she says. "It wasn't like he was a small eater."
Neither Gloria nor Marshall cares to elaborate on what kind of
trouble he was in. "But he was struggling," says Gloria, who
along with Leslie, became Marshall's legal guardian. "He was
falling behind in school. If we didn't get him settled, we were
in danger of losing him."
They got him settled. Torrance arrived in Norman by way of
Miami-Dade Community College and, before that, Kemper Military
Academy in Boonville, Mo. He was Oklahoma's third-leading tackler
last year, with 92, and has 59 this year. "His life is back in
order," says Mangino, who recruited Marshall out of Kemper.
"Whether he plays in the NFL or not--and I think he will--he's a
success story that we're proud of."
During a phone conversation earlier in the week, Marshall had
confided in Gloria that he was disappointed to have been left off
the list of 11 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which goes to
the nation's best linebacker. Gloria decided he needed to be
cheered up. She and Leslie and their son Leslie III got in a car
last Thursday night and drove the 1,560 miles to Norman in 25
hours. They drove through the night to see the team that, like
them, had come a long way in a short time.
October in school history.
care who gets the credit.