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Take That, Texas!

Dec. 01, 2008
Dec. 01, 2008

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Dec. 1, 2008

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Take That, Texas!

Oklahoma couldn't beat the Longhorns, but the Sooners did the next best thing. They routed Texas Tech, wowing poll voters and tightening an already close race among Big 12 powers for a spot in the BCS title game

SAY THIS forOklahoma fans: They can take coaching. Five days before No. 2 Texas Techbrought its vaunted Air Raid attack to Norman to face the fifth-ranked Sooners,coach Bob Stoops matter-of-factly mentioned how much louder the crowds had beenat Florida, his previous place of employment. ¬∂ Stoops was speaking at hisweekly press conference. He intended no offense to Oklahoma partisans. Really,he didn't. If they couldn't find it within themselves to be as vocal as theGators' faithful, who could always be counted on to crank up the decibels whenthe other team had the ball—well, he wasn't going to knock them for that. ¬∂ Itwas textbook passive aggressiveness, and it worked. Called out by their supremeleader, Sooners fans in the crowd of 85,646 made their presence felt from theget-go at Owen Field last Saturday night. Some, in fact, couldn't wait for theopening kickoff. There was the wheelchair-bound gentleman screaming over therailing during pregame warmups at Tech defensive coordinator RuffinMcNeill.

This is an article from the Dec. 1, 2008 issue

"Hey,McNeill! You guys aren't ready!"

It wasungracious. It was inhospitable. It was undeniably accurate.

The Red Raiderswere completely unprepared for the world of hurt awaiting them. How bad wasOklahoma's 65--21 mauling?

The Sooners, whofinished with 625 yards of total offense, had 402 of them by halftime, at whichpoint they led 42--7. Word is that Boomer and Sooner, the Shetland ponies thatdash onto the field pulling the Sooner Schooner after Oklahoma touchdowns,needed intravenous fluids at intermission.

Only alast-minute goal line stand kept the Sooners under 70 in a stunning"ass-whuppin'"—to quote their assistant defensive coordinator, BobbyJack Wright—that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. Tech's final TD,a 27-yard pass from Graham Harrell to wideout Detron Lewis against Oklahoma'ssecond-team defense, came with 11 seconds left—about 10 minutes after fans hadtaken up chanting, "Oh-VER RAT-ed!"

A year ago theRed Raiders upset the Sooners 34--27, knocking them out of the national-titlepicture. The favor has been returned. Collateral damage: Harrell, who went intothe game as the Heisman frontrunner, came out of it as roughly a 10-to-1 shot.The senior's lipstick-on-a-pig stat line: 33 completions in 55 attempts for 361yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. No fewer than 130 of thoseyards came in the fourth quarter, and many of his completions were paltrygains, quick hitches and screens that were sniffed out and blown up by asplendidly prepared Oklahoma defense.

LeapfroggingHarrell—for a week, at any rate—was Sooners supersophomore Sam Bradford, whothrew for 304 yards and four touchdowns on only 19 attempts (14 of themcompletions). Those numbers would have been fatter still if the Sooners hadn'tbeen able to run the ball with such shocking ease. Tech had been yielding arespectable 107.4 rushing yards per game; Oklahoma helped itself to 299.

Two traits hadtransformed Tech this season from an entertaining, second-tier team to a bonafide national-title contender. The Red Raiders had run the ball effectively andplayed decent defense. Both ingredients went AWOL at OU. Tech could scroungejust 45 yards on the ground. Starting with their second play from scrimmage—an18-yard dash by DeMarco Murray—the Sooners ran the ball down Tech's throat,which opened up their passing game, which resulted in touchdowns on six oftheir first seven possessions.

In the daysleading up to Saturday's game, Oklahoma players insisted that, no, revenge wasthe furthest thing from their minds. They sang a slightly different tune, oncethey'd ... gained revenge.

"Last year inLubbock," recalled running back Chris Brown, who supplemented Murray's 125rushing yards with 108 of his own, "they got after us. We vowed this timearound to be the more physical team." In victory the Sooners took more thanTech's shot at an undefeated season, as Brown sees it: "When you manhandlesomeone, you're basically taking their manhood."

Oklahoma tookwhatever it wanted from Texas Tech. The guy in the wheelchair was right. Thevisitors were not ready.

NOR IS Americaready, one fears, for the round of recriminations and bellyaching about tobreak out in the Big 12 South, whose top three teams—Oklahoma, Texas and TexasTech—now have identical conference (6--1) and overall (10--1) records. Who willplay Missouri in the Big 12 title game on Dec. 6 in Kansas City, Mo. (page 36)?If the three win this week (all will be favored), the spot goes to the teamthat is ranked highest in the BCS standings on Nov. 30.

While one thirdof a team's BCS ranking is determined by the average of six computer ratings,two thirds is in the hands of subjective humans who tend to espouse one of twoideologies:

The BOW (Body ofWork) School takes the longer view. Its members are less susceptible to thepull of current events. Yes, Oklahoma looked like an NFL squad against the RedRaiders. But teams must be judged over the course of a 12-game regular season.And in one of those games the Sooners were beaten by Texas 45--35 in Dallas onOct. 11. How could anyone elevate Oklahoma over the only team that has beatenOklahoma?

Of course, bythat line of reasoning, "you've got to keep Texas Tech in front ofTexas," argues Stoops, chief spokesman for the WHN (Who's Hot Now?) School,who was alluding to the Red Raiders' last-second, 39--33 victory over theLonghorns in Lubbock on Nov. 1. "What's logical for one is logical for theother." Where it might have seemed illogical for Stoops to leave hisoffensive starters in the game until early in the fourth quarter—Bradford wasairing it out when Oklahoma was up by 44—it made perfect sense in the contextof the BCS beauty contest, in which style points trump sportsmanship.

And on Sunday,they did. The Sooners jumped Texas in both the coaches' poll (going from fifthto second) and the Harris (fifth to third). They're still trailing the Horns inthe BCS—but just barely, by .084, down from .523 a week earlier. (UnbeatenAlabama, at No. 1, and fourth-ranked Florida will square off in the SEC titlegame, with the loser dropping out of the national-title hunt and in the processclearing a spot for the Big 12 survivor.) A victory this Saturday at OklahomaState, 12th in the latest BCS rankings, should move the Sooners ahead of theLonghorns and put them into the Big 12 championship game. Oklahoma would be onewin from returning to the BCS title game for the first time since 2004.

The Sooners wererun out of the Orange Bowl that night, you might recall, by a star-studded USCsquad. Such periodic, inexplicable implosions—most recently against WestVirginia in last January's Fiesta Bowl—have plagued them over the past fiveseasons, further debunking Stoops's onetime handle, Big Game Bob, and earninghis team the cruel, not wholly fair nickname Choke-lahoma.

On Saturday thestage seemed set for another embarrassment. Yes, the Sooners had averaged 57.8points in their previous four games. But the defense had yielded an average of30.5 points in five games starting with the Texas loss. Now, led by Harrell andAll-Cosmos wide receiver Michael Crabtree, the Red Raiders were swaggering intoNorman with the nation's No. 1 passing offense, its No. 3 scoring offense andthe longest winning streak in the land (12 games).

THE SWEAT had notyet dried on his players on Nov. 8 when Oklahoma defensive coordinator BrentVenables called them together in the visitors' locker room at Kyle Fieldfollowing a 66--28 victory over A&M. The subject of his short speech: TexasTech.

"He told useverything that was coming," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "Hetold us everything they would do, and how they would do it. And everything hesaid they would do, they did."

Venables stressedthe importance of forcing Harrell off of his first read. When he's able to findthat guy, his completion percentage hovered around 70%. In ensuing film studythe coordinator would point out to the Sooners how comfortable and casualHarrell looked in the pocket. "It's like he's writing a book backthere," noted McCoy, whose mission it became to disrupt the quarterback'sprogressions, to afflict the comfortable.

Having beensacked five times all season, Harrell was taken down four times in Norman—onceby McCoy—and hurried into bad throws on numerous occasions. How do you disruptTech's spread offense? You occlude the quarterback's passing lanes. You getyour arms up. Against this offense, if you bat down a ball, it's as good as asack.

McCoy seemed moredelighted by the pass he swatted down than his sack. He has been working on hisvertical jump at least since his senior year at Southeast High in OklahomaCity. Mike Branch, the Spartans' football coach, recalls the day McCoy foundhimself in a spot of trouble: "It was during his senior year, in scienceclass. He was standing there, looking at the table, and all of a sudden hejumped on top of it. The science teacher took exception. She was a littleheated about it. They brought him to me. I asked, 'Why did you do it?' And hesaid, 'Coach, I just wanted to see if I could.'"

Naturallygregarious, McCoy can't bring himself to engage in the traditional on-fieldtrash talk, other than to tell an offensive lineman the first time he beatshim, "How'd you like that move? I've got five more where that camefrom."

As the RedRaiders fell behind by three, then four, then five touchdowns, things gotchippy in the trenches. McCoy didn't overreact. Hit from behind, bumped andelbowed after the whistle, he would flash an indulgent smile, assuring the Techplayers, "Look, it's cool. I understand you're angry. You gotta do what yougotta do. But I'm just gonna keep coming."

As did the entiredefense. The Air Raid converted one of 13 third downs. As dominant as McCoy andhis fellow down linemen were, no unit shone more brightly than Oklahoma'slinebackers. Considered a weak link in the preseason, they absorbed anotherblow during the Texas game, when middle 'backer Ryan Reynolds tore his rightACL and was lost for the season.

His replacement,redshirt freshman Austin Box, was everywhere on Saturday night; his ninetackles included three behind the line of scrimmage. The only Sooner with moretakedowns was outside linebacker Travis Lewis, a 6'2", 232-pound convertedhigh school running back. Lewis was demoted to second string in the off-seasonfor butting heads with strength coach Jerry Schmidt. So luminous was Lewis'stalent, however, that Venables—without Stoops's permission—put him back on thefirst team on the eve of the season. In the most important game to be played atOwen in eight years, Lewis racked up 13 tackles, forced a fumble and returnedan interception 47 yards.

No one defendsLeach's spread better than Venables, his old friend and former associate atOklahoma. "The perception is they're doing a million things," saysVenables. "In reality they're just executing nine or 10 things reallywell."

After nine yearsof busting his butt to avoid being embarrassed by Leach, Venables has a fewthings figured out. "Depending on the formation, where the back is, you canreally break them down," Lewis said afterward. "We really tookadvantage of their tendencies tonight."

Ticking off otherfactors in the victory, Lewis noted the chips on the Sooners' shoulders:"We watch TV. Everybody was dogging our defense." And he saluted thecrowd.

As did Stoops.Standing on the field after the game, facing the same masses he had manipulatedearlier in the week, he bowed, and they in turn chanted his name. A few morewins like this and they'll be back to calling him Big Game Bob.

"Last year in Lubbock, they got after us,"Brown said of the Red Raiders. "We vowed this time around to be THE MOREPHYSICAL TEAM."

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PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverRED STORM Lewis (28) punctuated an overpowering first half for Oklahoma, returning an interception by Harrell (6) to the Tech one-yard line to set up a sixth TD.PHOTOBOB ROSATO SQUEEZEPLAY A 66-yard snatch by Manuel Johnson (1) was the longest of four touchdownpasses from Bradford (14).PHOTOBOB ROSATO[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (TAYLOR)SLAM DANCE Adrian Taylor (85) reveled in a 24th straight home win; Lamont Robinson (30) leveled Heisman hopeful Harrell.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (ROBINSON)[See caption above]PHOTOBOB ROSATO (LEACH)GROUNDED Leach's Air Raid attack never took off against an Oklahoma defense that was ready for Tech's every move.PHOTOBOB ROSATO (MURRAY)SETUP MEN In rushing for a combined 233 yards, Murray (7) and Brown (29) paved the way for the passing game.PHOTOBOB ROSATO (BROWN)[See caption above]PHOTOBOB ROSATOCHEERLEADER Stoops challenged the crowd, and his ploy paid off.