Forget those final two games? No chance. Last year's late collapse has the Sooners more fired up for '04
At times during the off-season Dusty Dvoracek would be watching television in his apartment and certain images would pop onto the screen that made him recoil in disgust. Like his teammates, Dvoracek wanted to avert his eyes whenever he saw clips of Oklahoma's last two games of the 2003 season. "We don't lose at Oklahoma, so it was a sickening feeling to have to watch ESPN rerun those highlights," says Dvoracek, a senior defensive tackle. "Trust me -- no one here is going to let that happen again this season."
Through the first 12 games last year Dvoracek and the Sooners plowed through opponents like a combine through a cornfield, shredding everything in their path as they won every game, by an average margin of 35.2 points, and dominated the polls. But as some observers began comparing Oklahoma with two of the greatest teams of all time -- the 1971 Nebraska squad that went wire-to-wire as No. 1 and finished 13-0 and the '44 Army team that won its nine games by an average of 52 points -- the Boomer Sooner wagon wrecked. In the Big 12 championship game Kansas State spanked Oklahoma 35-7. Then in the Sugar Bowl battle for the BCS championship, the Sooners were outcoached, outhustled and outplayed by LSU and lost 21-14.
What went wrong? "There are a number of things I could get into to explain everything, but the number one thing is that we just didn't tackle very well," says Sooners coach Bob Stoops. "And for some reason, over those two games we didn't play on the edge. The blame should be placed on me."
"We just got beat, simple as that," says senior quarterback Jason White. "Sometimes you just have to say that you weren't the better team, and in those two games we weren't."
"We fell apart," says Dvoracek. "Those two games are all I've thought about since January. Our pride has been hurt, and that's made us hungrier than ever."
Though fellow defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who was drafted No. 14 by the Chicago Bears in April, got most of the publicity last season, it was Dvoracek who led the interior linemen in sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (16). The 6'3", 294-pound Lake Dallas, Texas, native isn't as strong or as nimble as Harris, but he earned All-Big 12 honors last year, thanks largely to his wild-eyed intensity. How crazy is Dvoracek? As kids, he and his friends liked to climb to the tops of trees and jump out of them into piles of leaves. "We'd slow ourselves by catching onto branches," says Dvoracek. "It's not as nuts as it sounds. Well, maybe it is."
Another reason Dvoracek put up big numbers was that opponents constantly double-teamed Harris, who nonetheless won the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman, and left Dvoracek to manhandle one blocker. Though Dvoracek should be the one drawing that extra attention this season, his coaches think he'll be OU's next dominant lineman. His unit's coach, Jackie Shipp, calls Dvoracek "unblockable" and predicts All-America honors for him.
"Dusty is one of the leaders of our defense," says Stoops. "With him and the other guys we have coming back, we have a chance to be a very, very good defensive team."
The same could be said of Oklahoma's offense. Last season the Sooners were third in the nation in scoring, averaging 42.9 points. This season it appears they'll be even better. They have eight starters back, including White, who shortly after winning the Heisman Trophy was awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, having played in only four games total in two seasons due to knee injuries. White was terrific in OU's first dozen games last year, throwing 40 touchdown passes and only six interceptions, but he struggled in the two losses. K-State and LSU both rattled him early with an assortment of blitzes and punishing, helmet-to-face-mask hits. By the fourth quarter in both games White was suffering from a terminal case of happy feet. He'd think blitzes were coming when they weren't and, consequently, he rushed throws and made poor decisions. White repeatedly replayed those games in his mind during the off-season and vows that he won't be flummoxed so easily in 2004.
"The mistakes I made are correctable," says White, who sat out the spring game while recovering from minor operations on his left knee, right hand and right foot but is now healthy. "Our offense has so many weapons that we expect to be challenging for the national title."
White's favorite target will again be senior wide receiver Mark Clayton, who in 2003 had the finest season ever by a Sooners wideout. The 5'11", 187-pound speedster set school records with 83 catches for 1,425 yards and 15 touchdowns.
What's new to the offense is freshman tailback Adrian Peterson from Palestine (Texas) High. Widely regarded as the top prep running back in the country last year, the 6'2", 210-pound Peterson rushed for almost 3,000 yards in his final high school season, and he could be the big-play back Stoops has been looking for since arriving in Norman in 1999. "Adrian has been here lifting weights over the summer, and everyone is comparing him to Billy Sims and Eric Dickerson," says Dvoracek. "It'll be exciting to see what he can do on the field."
Dvoracek, White, Peterson and the rest of the Sooners should breeze through September and be 4-0 when they head to the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 9 to try to make it five straight victories over Texas. The next week they travel to Manhattan, Kans., for a rematch with the Wildcats -- a revenge game that Oklahoma has circled on its calendar. "We've got as good a shot as anybody to win the national championship," says Stoops. "Hopefully last year taught us a few lessons."
-- Lars Anderson