Oklahoma improbably Big 12’s hottest team

By Tim Griffin
Special to ESPN.com & Sooners.Wordpress.com

Even in his wildest dreams, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops wasn’t thinking about Bowl Championship Series berths and Big 12 titles when Adrian Peterson went down with a broken collarbone.

The Sooners were struggling with a 4-2 record after Peterson was injured diving for a touchdown in a victory over Iowa State on Oct. 14. With the Sooners’ tough upcoming schedule, some pundits were thinking Stoops’ team would struggle to win seven or eight games this season without its Heisman contender.

A funny thing happened on the way to catatrosphe for the Sooners. They suddenly developed into the Big 12’s hottest team.

A five-game winning streak has boosted the 8-2 Sooners back into South Division contention. And as they’ve kept winning, the backdoor to the BCS has opened ever so slightly as other national contenders have kept losing.

Stoops isn’t spending much time worrying about the BCS with two games left in the season.

“I’ve got my energy and focus on what we do about it,” Stoops said. “There are still a lot of games to shake out. There’s a lot of football to be played. And that’s why I won’t let our focus change.”

Instead, Stoops has kept this team together with Band-Aids, chewing gum and bailing wire as it has eked out a series of gritty victories in one of the most masterful coaching performances of his career.

Although he might not say that the recent run is one of the most satisfying stretches, his players can tell how much he has been pleased by their recent play.

“A lot of reason we’ve been able to overcome the things we’ve done is because of him,” OU quarterback Paul Thompson said. “He has always told us that one person isn’t any bigger than the rest of the team. He even said that includes him. That’s the mind-set we have — mainly that the next guy will step in and pick up the extra slack.”

The key for the resurgence has been Thompson, who has mirrored his team’s late run with a strong finishing kick.

Thompson has proved to be a better quarterback than expected when he was forced into action after Rhett Bomar was sent packing a day before preseason practice began. Teammates say he has been a calm, decisive leader. His coaches said that his passing skills have been better than they thought.

“Paul is just a natural-born leader,” OU running back Chris Brown said. “He’s brought so much to our team. He just stepped into the job we needed him to do. He didn’t complain and his leadership has always been there. He’s been the glue that stuck us together all year long.”

That leadership has been important through a trying year that included a controversial defeat at Oregon and a second-half collapse against Texas that left the Sooners floundering with a 3-2 record. Peterson’s injury came in the next game, making some wonder if the Sooners could remain afloat.

The Sooner defense was in shambles earlier in the season. After allowing 501 yards of total offense against Oregon in Week 3, OU ranked 97th nationally in total defense. Heading into Saturday’s game against Baylor, the Sooners rank 14th nationally in total defense, an improvement of 83 places.

After watching his secondary get torched in the first three games, Stoops reworked the unit by moving Reggie Smith from corner to safety, inserted cornerback Marcus Walker into the lineup and placed converted wide receiver Lendy Holmes in the starting lineup at cornerback.

Linebacker Rufus Alexander struggled early in the season, but has rebounded to play like one of the Big 12’s best defenders over the past few weeks.

After Peterson was injured, converted safety Allen Patrick churned out three-straight 100-yard performances. The Sooners’ running game actually was more productive with Peterson out of the lineup (an average of 190 yards rushing over their last four games) than when he was active (171.7 yards per game).

The grit and tenacity was best seen in the Sooners’ 34-24 victory over Texas Tech last week. Patrick missed the game with a sprained ankle. Brown, a fourth-string tailback, relieved Jacob Gutierrez and produced a team-high 84 yards.

“We’re loaded at running back right now,” OU center Jon Cooper told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We could get hurt five or six deep and we’d still be moving the ball. That’s somewhat attributable to us up front.”

A young offensive line that includes one senior, three sophomores and one freshman starter has jelled as the season has gone on.

“This has definitely given us a lot of pride,” Cooper told the Star-Telegram. “We’re kind of like the Denver Broncos. Any back they’ve got there gets a thousand yards. It says a lot for our coaching, too, and our whole zone blocking system. Anybody they put back there, they’re going to get their yards.”

Wide receiver Malcolm Kelly, who pouted after not getting the ball enough in the Nov. 4 victory over Texas A&M, tied the school single-game receptions record with 11 catches against Tech.

The Sooners and Thompson made a remarkable comeback after Tech had claimed a 24-10 lead late in the first half on Antonio Huffman’s 54-yard pass interception return for a touchdown. Thompson coolly led a 69-yard drive on the ensuing drive, hooking up with Kelly on a 40-yard TD pass with 10 seconds left in the half.

“You have to appreciate the courage and toughness it takes to come back from that,” Stoops said. “And to rally and play like he did. He never flinched.”

From there, OU’s defense did the rest. Tech’s potent offensive attack was shut out in the second half as the Sooners rallied for the victory. Tech posted 51 yards in the second half, with most of that coming in on the final drive.

Coming into Saturday’s game against Baylor, the Sooners are sizzling. Their five-game winning streak since a 28-10 loss to Texas on Oct. 7 includes road victories over ranked teams in Missouri and A&M.

Even without Peterson, the Sooners still have slim South Division title hopes. In order to earn their first South title since 2004, the Sooners must beat Baylor and Oklahoma State and hope that Texas loses to A&M next week.

Stoops said he hasn’t discussed that unlikely scenario with his team.

“I’m just talking about beating Baylor,” Stoops said. “But they are smart guys and they don’t need it as motivation. We’re more than able to count, and in the end we have to win this week.”

The Sooners are still able to count how close they could in reality to being 9-1. If Pac-10 replay official Gordon Riese hadn’t butchered two calls in OU’s 34-33 loss at Oregon, the Sooners would have won that game. They then would be a solid candidate for an at-large BCS berth.

“One of our losses needs to be looked at,” Stoops said. “It’s not one of those things I’m going to trumpet, but everybody should be aware of how it happened.”

But even after vociferous complaints from Stoops and OU president David Boren, it appears that the nation is looking elsewhere for ranked teams. OU is ranked 17th in the most recent BCS poll. Their lack of sizzle is probably as much a result of the Big 12’s lessened national appeal as anything else.

“We talk about the polls amongst ourselves, but as far as showing our frustrations in public, we don’t do that,” freshman tackle Trent Williams said.

The Sooners might provide one of the most intriguing story lines of any bowl team not involved in the national championship with the return of Peterson, who has said he likely would leave college for the NFL after this season.

Peterson has maintained he would try to play for the regular-season finale against OSU next week, although Stoops has not placed his return on any kind of timetable.

His teammates sense how much he misses the action.

“It tears him apart that he can’t play,” said Walker, Peterson’s roommate. “It’s real tough on him he can’t be out there. He’s trying to get back out there as fast as he can, but he needs to be sure he’s healthy first. Hopefully, that will be in the next couple of weeks.”

But with or without him, the Sooners have proven to be a tenacious and competitive team that has kept plugging away despite all the adversity this season.

Just like their coach.