Commentary

Sooners not interested in playing the Fiesta foil role again

Originally Published: January 2, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On the last day of 2007, the Oklahoma Sooners walked back into the place where they spent the first day of 2007.

University of Phoenix Stadium.

Scene of the crime.

Actually, scene of the sublime would be more accurate. There was nothing criminal about what Boise State did in winning the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- just nothing terribly enjoyable, either, if you're a Sooner.

[+] EnlargeFred Strong
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe Sooners walked off the field as stunned losers in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

The Sooners' involvement in one of the most extraordinary games in the history of the sport landed them a spot in football lore. The loser's spot, by a single point, after a desperate flurry of gadgetry and gambling earned the Broncos a 43-42 overtime victory.

Oklahoma wide receiver Malcolm Kelly described the feeling with fractured grammar but unerring wisdom: "Don't nobody care about playing in one of the greatest games ever when you lose."

For the rest of their lives, Oklahoma players and coaches will see themselves being outwitted and out-executed in highlights of the hook-and-lateral, the halfback pass, the Statue of Liberty.

"How can you not [see the highlights]?" said free safety Nic Harris. "They played 'em all year."

They'll know how Craig Ehlo feels when he watches TV and sees Michael Jordan make that jump shot. How John Pelphrey feels when he watches Grant Hill wind up and throw that pass to Christian Laettner. How the Miami defensive backs feel when they see Doug Flutie's bomb drop like a stone into the hands of Gerard Phelan. How Everson Walls feels when he watches Joe Montana's high pass being snared by Dwight Clark.

Foils. For all time.

It's a role nobody dreams of playing in the backyard.

"It's still in our memories," strong safety D.J. Wolfe said. "It seems like it was yesterday."

It had to seem that way walking back into the cavernous dome Monday, for the first time in 364 days. The surprising chilliness of the place came back, as did the unique smell of indoor grass.

Hard to believe ghosts of Ian Johnson and Jared Zabransky and Gerard Rabb didn't flit through the minds of more than a few Sooners, too, even if they didn't want to admit it.

"Doesn't bother me much walking back in here again," said coach Bob Stoops, who isn't going to give the media an eyedrop of true emotion on that subject. "We played a heck of a game last year."

That is the small comfort Oklahoma can take in looking back: It staged a steely comeback against Boise, scoring 25 consecutive points to take a seven-point lead into the final seconds. The problem is, that only set the stage for the Broncos to work their miracle.

The 50-yard hook-and-lateral touchdown with seven seconds left in regulation? Perfect execution. The fourth-down halfback pass for Boise's overtime touchdown? Perfect execution. The behind-the-back Statue of Liberty handoff from Zabransky to Johnson? Perfect execution.

Sometimes, even a really good defense isn't good enough to stop an offense that does everything right.

"We were in pretty decent position on a lot of 'em; they just executed pretty well," said Sooners defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Then he rubbed a hand across his head.

"I say that, I don't know. You look at the percentages, those are hard plays to execute really well."

Ian Johnson
AP Photo/Matt YorkBoise State's Ian Johnson scored the game-winner on a two-point conversion in OT.

It wasn't like Oklahoma was unprepared. Venables saw Boise run the Statue of Liberty play while poring over film from the regular season -- liked the behind-the-back thing so much that he showed it to the Sooners' offensive staff. He even showed it to legendary former OU coach Barry Switzer. And, of course, he showed it to his defensive players.

They just couldn't stop the perfect execution of the perfect call at the perfect moment.

"I don't sit there laying in bed at night thinking about it," Venables said. "I'm thinking about the veer option."

That would be the offense of this year's Fiesta Bowl opponent, West Virginia. The Mountaineers might also have a quarterback who wears No. 5 and might also be underdogs from a lesser league, but the Boise similarities end right there.

West Virginia is not a BCS bowl newbie, having shocked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago. It has been part of the national championship discussion deep into each of the past two seasons. It has more skill-position speed than anyone the Sooners have faced all season.

But this also is a better Oklahoma team than the one posterized by Boise. This is a top-10 team nationally in scoring offense (43.4 ppg) and scoring defense (18.2). If there is a significant weakness -- beyond the absence of three defensive starters for a variety of reasons -- you need a microscope to find it.

So don't expect these Sooners to give up 43 points Wednesday night. Not going to happen.

"We play harder," Venables said of this defense, compared to last season's defense. "We're more physical. No question we're more physical in the front seven."

That front seven now gets the chance to lay licks on Patrick White, Steve Slaton, Noel Devine and the rest of the Mountaineers. They're fast but not big, and it will be a test to see how they handle the cumulative effect of repeated pounding from a defense that's nearly as swift as they are.

"They try to make you tackle in space," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We have to have extreme technique."

Someone asked Lofton about the challenge of stopping a quarterback who can break off a 40-yard run at any time. He sounded confident that the Sooners could handle it.

"Us playing Oklahoma football, we'll take 38 yards from that 40 yards, make it a two-yard run," Lofton said.

Someone else asked Lofton if he'll be wary of trick plays, after what happened a year ago.

"I'm gonna keep my eye out for them," he said.

Good idea. Just in case. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes, and that's one historical moment Oklahoma never wants to see again.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.