Wildcats leave once-mighty Sooners licking their wounds
Posted: Sunday December 7, 2003 2:59AM; Updated: Sunday December 7, 2003 3:25AM
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Darren Sproles, you just ran for 235 yards in a 35-7 upset of college football's most dominant team of the past eight years. So, did you see it coming?
"Nah. We thought it was going to be close."
That's funny, not a lot of other people thought so. Most of us figured your Kansas State Wildcats -- you know, the team that lost to Marshall -- would become the latest victim to get steamrolled by the Sooner Schooner. After all, they're supposed to be one of the greatest teams of all time.
A strange thing happened, though, on Oklahoma's path to the Big 12 and national championships, immortality and overall world domination.
Somebody beat the Sooners.
Check that -- somebody whipped the Sooners.
That somebody was Kansas State, which, when you think about it, is kind of ironic, seeing as this was probably the most significant conference championship game upset since 1998, when Texas A&M knocked off ... No. 1 Kansas State.
Here was the team that "never plays anybody," clobbering the toughest anybody in the country. The team that never wins the big one knocking off the team that always wins the big one. The team that hadn't won a conference championship since 1934 beating the team that was going for its third since 2000. A team that was slotted for the Alamo Bowl locking up the Fiesta.
Needless to say, it will go down as the most significant win of the already historic Bill Snyder era, probably the most significant of any Kansas State era.
As for how painful it will go down in Sooners lore -- well, that may well depend on how the pollsters react to such a lopsided finale. The assumption coming in was that Oklahoma was Sugar Bowl bound either way, but that was also under the assumption they wouldn't fall below third in the polls.
Even Sooners coach Bob Stoops, who was proclaiming this team's championship possibilities even before the season started, didn't have the heart to toot any horns after this one.
"I'm not going to sit here and lobby anyone," said Stoops. "We just got our butts whipped."
So unprecedented was this Oklahoma performance that there's no way of knowing at this point whether it was a one-time meltdown or a long-delayed unraveling. In fact, the whole game felt like stepping into a paradox.
Kansas State's Ell Roberson, the quarterback who supposedly can't throw, threw for four touchdowns, while Jason White, the quarterback with the gaudy touchdown-to-interception ratio, threw more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (zero). The vaunted Oklahoma defense, which came in allowing just 234 yards a game, allowed that many to two different players, Sproles (323 total yards) and Roberson (289).
Even Oklahoma's Lou Groza Award finalist kicker, Trey DiCarlo, wasn't immune from the Sooners' sudden outbreak of mediocrity, failing on both of his field-goal attempts after missing just one all season.
"A lot of tackles we've always made, a lot of catches we always make, we just didn't do," said linebacker Teddy Lehman. "It was uncharacteristic of the way we played all year."
Which begs the question, how did it happen? How does a team that's been beating fellow Big 12 teams -- good Big 12 teams, no less -- by scores like 63-14 and 52-9 suddenly step into the role of one of its victims?
Simple: Look at who they were playing.
Lest we forget, Kansas State entered the season a top five team for a reason. Well, two reasons actually: Roberson and Sproles.
Just as no one had found a way to stop White and the Sooners' offense this season, Roberson and Sproles have been tearing up defenses for two years now. They were easy to forget about back when they were going through a three-game losing streak in September/October, but over the past month they quietly began picking up steam, running wild in wins over bowl-bound Nebraska and Missouri, and it's not like they deviated all that much against the Sooners.
"Basically, run 'n' gun," Roberson said of a game plan that produced a stunning 519 yards against the nation's top-ranked defense. "Let the little man [Sproles] run it, and if they don't respect it, we'll throw it."
That they did, starting on their fifth possession when with Sproles shook off blitzing Oklahoma CB Derrick Strait in the backfield and dashed 55 yards down to the Sooners' 18, setting up K-State's first touchdown.
Oklahoma hadn't given up big plays all that often, and yet this would be the first of many. On the Wildcats' next series, Roberson would connect with receiver James Terry down the sideline for a beautiful 63-yard touchdown pass to go up 14-7. Sproles' 60-yard touchdown on a screen pass made it 21-7. By the end of the night, Sproles would add a 61-yard run and several others of 10 or more yards.
Those plays, combined with a defense that consistently knocked White silly and forced his worst game of the season and you have all the ingredients for a blowout.
"Pretty much in the first half," said K-State linebacker Josh Buhl, "we knew it was over."
Not something you expect to hear about what was supposed to be one of the greatest teams of all time. So, what will ultimately be the legacy of this Oklahoma team? For all its myriad accomplishments, will it slink off into the sunset, a la 2001 Nebraska? Or will the Sooners regroup, refocus and perhaps reclaim its hold on No. 1, a la 1996 Florida?
"I hope they do go [to the national championship game]," said Buhl. "I believe in them. We just wanted to make sure they didn't get a win against us."
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.