The day White set the record was also the day that marked a sea change in Oklahoma's offense. While it was the fourth game in which Peterson had gone over the century mark--he finished with 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, and had a 57-yarder called back on a holding penalty--Saturday was his first collegiate start. His coaches made a show of explaining that the freshman got the nod on account of the tender ankles of the erstwhile starter, junior Kejaun Jones, but let there be no doubt: Saturday was the beginning of the AD era at OU. Peterson is the horse Oklahoma intends to ride into December, and beyond.
The Sooners ran him on seven of their first 12 plays. They ran him when Tech loaded the box against the run. They ran him in passing situations. They didn't care. The strategy reflected what Long had told his fellow assistants before the season: "I don't give a damn what [our opponents] are doing and how many people they're putting in the box--we're gonna run it, and just because they stuff it once or twice, we're gonna keep running it." An offense whose best play had been White to wide receiver Mark Clayton looked, all of a sudden, like Nebraska's during the Bob Devaney days.
The change is likely to result in White's putting up more modest numbers than he did in '03, his Heisman season. (His three touchdowns against the Red Raiders, for instance, came on just 24 passes.) It should also help him enjoy better health. Remember White at the end of 2003? So swollen and sore were his surgically reconstructed knees that he couldn't push out from under center. Forced to play White from the shotgun, Oklahoma became overly reliant on the pass. The withering of its ground game killed off the threat of play action. Having lost their offensive balance, the Sooners dropped their last two games, to Kansas State and LSU. Stoops and his staff swore in the off-season: Never again.
Never again would they suffer the indignity of presiding over an offense unable to play smashmouth when it had to. Oklahoma rededicated itself to the run. It helped that the Sooners had all five starting offensive linemen back for the second straight year. And those hogs are more ornery than they were in '03. "It's a mind-set," says right guard Davin Joseph, a 6'4", 312-pound junior. "It's having a certain attitude on third and short."
Another key has been White's return to health. A tailback is more effective taking a handoff from a quarterback who receives the ball from under center. Why? Because the back gets a running start before the ball is in his hands. He is running, as the talking heads like to say, downhill. To get back under center, White needed his knees to heal. They have. With his last surgery two years in his past, White is pain free and playing without the knee braces that he essentially lived in last season. A year ago he was unable to take the lunge-step necessary to make a handoff on a stretch play--a staple of any offense. Not only can he run that play this year, but he also can fake the handoff and take it outside himself.
When you're planning to reemphasize your ground game, it's always nice to have a bead on a once-in-a-generation talent at tailback. Darrell Wyatt coaches wide receivers for the Sooners. His recruiting territory is East Texas. In the fall of 2002 he sent back word of a freakishly talented schoolboy from Palestine, an old railroad town 100 miles southeast of Dallas.
Bonita moved from Dallas to Palestine shortly after the death of Brian, who was hit by a car while riding his bike. "I was a wreck for a long while," says Bonita, who split with Nelson Peterson in 1991 and married Frankie Jackson, a minister, five years later. "That was a hard time for Adrian. [He and Brian] were so close, it was like part of him that we were burying."
When his father was packed off to the Federal Correctional Institute in Texarkana, Adrian "rebelled for a while," says his mother. "Sometimes he was just mad at the world." He hit a rough patch in ninth grade at Westwood High, his mother's alma mater. Adrian tore a ligament in his right knee early in the football season and began drifting academically. His parents thought it best that he transfer across town to Palestine High. As a sophomore he practiced with the football team, but because of his grades he was ineligible to play in games. The Wildcats' coaches still had no inkling of what they had. Jeff Harrell, who coached football and track, caught glimpses that spring. Peterson went out for track and proved a natural sprinter. (In 1983 Bonita won the triple jump, long jump and 100 and 200 meters at the Texas 3A track meet; since then, June 11 has been Bonita Brown Day at Westwood High.) It was as if, between fall and spring, Adrian had crossed the threshold to manhood. He ran 10.6 in the 100 meters and reached the finals of the state 4A meet.
Peterson's first touch in the first football practice of his junior year has become mythical in Wildcats lore. "When he hit the line of scrimmage," says Harrell, "all the coaches just looked at each other as if to say, Did you just see what I just saw?"
Before long, rival coaches were saying the same thing. In the second game of the season Peterson ran for 340 yards against Huntsville. He finished the year with 2,051 yards on 246 carries. As a senior he rushed for 2,960 yards on 252 attempts. He stood 6'2", weighed 210 pounds and was built like Mr. Clean. He ran the 40 in 4.4. He could bowl a defender over on one play and beat him to the corner on the next. Rivals.com rated him the top player in the nation.