Like animals boarding the Ark, like bimbos in a beer commercial, 2004 Heisman Trophy candidates come in pairs. What's the deal with that? Why do so many of the top aspirants for this year's most outstanding player award have a teammate who's also in the running? Six of the season's strongest Heisman candidates are from three of the nation's top four programs--USC, Oklahoma and Cal--raising the question: How can an offense generate enough snaps and yards, such a superabundance of statistics, to fuel dueling Heisman candidacies? � The answer: Offensive football is not a zero-sum game. The featured back does not prosper at the expense of the quarterback, and vice versa--not, that is, if the guy calling the plays is any good. Over the course of a season, a balanced offense works the way a supply-side economy is supposed to: The more yards Jason White or Matt Leinart or Aaron Rodgers throws for, the more lanes are opened for his star running back. One hand washes the other, and before you know it, it's Dec. 11 and time for both guys to fly to New York City. For an example, take a look at Oklahoma this year.
If a rising tide lifts all boats, Jason White's ran aground late last season. This after he had torn it up for 12 games, throwing an outrageous 40 touchdown passes against only six interceptions. But even as he was running away with last year's Heisman race--indeed, because of it--the Sooners' offense developed a fundamental flaw: Seduced by all those easy yards through the air, Oklahoma forgot how to run the ball. The Sooners paid for it with defeats in the Big 12 title game, then in the BCS championship game.
White has heard the grim numbers for going on a year: In the losses to Kansas State and LSU he threw no touchdowns and four interceptions, two of which went for backbreaking TDs. Just as bad, the Sooners, who'd averaged 159.0 rushing yards to that point, managed just 67.5 in those two games. Fans and media turned on White. "I'd be walking in a mall, and someone would make a comment," White says. "'Give back the Heisman,' that sort of thing. You hear something like that when you're with your family, it's embarrassing." On the other hand, he says, the abuse "gave me a reason to come back" as a sixth-year senior this fall.
Another reason was that help was on the way. In October 2003 Adrian Peterson, the pride of Palestine, Texas, and the nation's top schoolboy player that fall, was a guest of the Longhorns at their annual Red River Shootout against Oklahoma. Peterson was already leaning toward signing with the Sooners before he witnessed their 65-13 flaying of Texas that afternoon. Driving home, he got a call from a Longhorns assistant coach. "Coach, y'all got beat," said Peterson. "Y'all got beat baaaad."
It oversimplifies the case to say that once Peterson committed to Oklahoma, the Sooners' ground game was back in business. There was more to it than that. This year the offensive line returned intact, and White, whose 2001 and '02 seasons ended with ruptured ACLs (the left one in '01, the right in '02), was finally playing without pain.
In the second half of last season White's knees hurt so badly when he pushed off from under center that he was forced into the shotgun on most plays, putting a serious crimp in the offense. This year he's back under center: Bootlegs and play-action passes have returned to Oklahoma's arsenal. With White far sprightlier in the pocket, defenses have more to worry about.
Much, much more, for they must also account for the new guy wearing number 28. The day he arrived from Texas last June, Peterson was warmly welcomed by strength and conditioning coach Jerry Schmidt, who with a smile informed the 19-year-old that he wished to time him in the 40. Now? said Peterson. Yes, now, came the reply.
"He'd just stepped out of the car," says Schmidt. "I like to do that to guys, challenge 'em, see what they can do." Peterson, he recalls, was wearing "these heavy-ass, funky old hightops." The kid ran a 4.41 and a 4.42, clodhoppers and all, and has yet to stop making jaws drop.
Just as Austin Powers misplaced his mojo, the Sooners' offense had lost a measure of its masculinity. The arrival of Peterson dovetailed with coach Bob Stoops's primary goal: reestablishing the run, which Oklahoma had shunted to the background when Stoops brought his wide-open passing attack to Norman in 1999.
Mission accomplished. Oklahoma rushed for a total of 1,270 yards in its first five games (254 yards per outing) of 2004. In the first half of the third game, against Oregon, starting tailback Kejuan Jones, a junior, wrenched an ankle and went to the sideline. That ding allowed Oklahoma to dispense with the charade that its feature back was anyone other than Peterson. After averaging 136.5 yards rushing in his first four games, Peterson went wild against his former suitors, churning for 225 yards in the Sooners' 12-0 shutout of Texas on Oct. 9.