HIS WORK was almost done. He had shredded another hapless defense with another Heisman-worthy performance and put his team in position for a trip to Miami for the BCS title game. But even after he had connected with nine receivers on his 34 completions (in 49 attempts) for 384 yards, and even as the hour neared midnight in frigid Kansas City, Mo., last Saturday night, Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford wasn't through working the crowd. He hoisted the Big 12 championship trophy in the middle of the field, then jogged halfway around Arrowhead Stadium, slapping hands along the way with the giddy fans in crimson-and-cream. "There was a lot of talk about how we didn't deserve to be in this game," Bradford said later. "There was a lot of motivation for us to come out here and make a statement."
This is an article from the Dec. 15, 2008 issue
Against an underachieving Missouri team with the nation's 91st-ranked defense, the Sooners, with their 62--21 whupping of the Big 12 North champs, still delivered a message to anyone who believed one-loss Texas—a 45--35 winner over Oklahoma on Oct. 11—was the more worthy Big 12 South rep. The Sooners' defense, an injury-bitten unit playing with a third-string middle linebacker, shut down the country's sixth-ranked attack, holding it to 126 total yards in the first two quarters and forcing two turnovers as the halftime lead grew to 38--7. And the Oklahoma offense, even without star tailback DeMarco Murray, who was knocked out of the game with a left-knee injury on the opening kickoff return, rolled up 243 yards on the ground to complement Bradford's big day.
The following night the Sooners received the official Jan. 8 invite to face off with Florida, certainly to the disgust of the Longhorns fans who arranged for an air show over Arrowhead three hours before kickoff. A banner trailing a plane read ENJOY THE BEATBYTEXAS.COM BOWL.
When the Sooner Schooner broke down after Oklahoma's first touchdown (the crew frantically spent a commercial break repairing the wagon on the 20-yard line), the Sooners were otherwise in cruise control all night long. The too-good-to-be-true QB—a one-handicap golfer and finance major who has all A's and one B in five semesters—Bradford made his final case for the Heisman, even though his nation-leading quarterback rating dropped from 191.0 to 186.3 (a figure higher than that of any of the last 10 quarterbacks to take the award). "The poise, the precision he plays with," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops of Bradford. "The guy is just amazing and probably the best we've had."
With the game in hand, and with many of the Tigers faithful heading for the exits before the marching bands had taken the field for the halftime show, the Sooners used the second half to rewrite the record books: They set a Division I-A mark for points scored in a season during the modern era (702) and became the first team in 89 years to score 60 or more points in five straight games. Even if the Sooners counted only their first-half points, they would still rank 18th in the nation in scoring.
While Bradford (48 TD passes and only six interceptions) is enjoying an otherworldly season, what has turned Oklahoma into a juggernaut is its evolving ground game. Against Missouri, junior Chris Brown (122 yards on 27 carries) and sophomore Mossis Madu (114 yards on 15 carries) combined for six rushing touchdowns. In the seven games since their loss to Texas, in which Oklahoma rushed for 48 yards (on 26 carries), the Sooners have pounded out an average of 247 yards on the ground. The biggest reason for that surge is Brown, Murray's best friend and roommate. "It's easier to see what a great player DeMarco is," Stoops says of his sophomore tailback, a slasher who rushed for 1,002 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. "Chris is subtle. He's so smooth. You look at his yards per carry [5.7], and you're like, Wow!"
"As long as I've known him, he's never wanted to be in the spotlight," says Sooners defensive back Nic Harris, who grew up with Brown in Alexandria, La. "When we were kids, he'd hit a home run but would just smile and not say anything. On the basketball court he'd make a big shot and go right back on defense." A backup last year who was slowed by a right-knee injury, the 5'10", 210-pound Brown added eight pounds and underwent microfracture surgery in the off-season. Now the quiet bruiser can no longer be ignored: He's averaged 109.7 yards and 6.3 yards a carry in since the Texas game. With Brown's breakout on Saturday, which pushed his totals to 1,110 yards and 20 touchdowns for the season, the Sooners became the first school in Division I-A history to have a 4,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard rushers. (Only seven schools have had a 4,000-yard passer and one 1,000-yard rusher.) "We have so many weapons," says Bradford, "defenses don't really home in on Chris. But he's as dangerous as anyone. I think teams are finding that out real fast."
They're finding this out as well: The Sooners, scarier than ever, are peaking, and at just the right time.