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Sour ending to a sweet season

1/5/2004

NEW ORLEANS -- The Gino Torretta-zation of Jason White moved into Phase II Sunday night.

Sadly, this is how stardom sometimes works. You become a star, people praise you for what you've overcome and then five minutes later want to bury you for some of those same reasons. Perception doesn't always equal reality, but give it time. Revisionist history can fix that. For sure, though, LSU's defense did its part to drag White down.

Oklahoma's gutty quarterback, who won the Heisman Trophy in the face of a media outcry saying he wasn't even the best player on his team, got pounded by the Tigers' defense in what proved to be a nightmarish performance in the BCS championship game at the Nokia Sugar Bowl. White hit on just 13 of 37 pass attempts for 102 yards and was intercepted twice.

He also was sacked five times, often looking helpless, stranded in the pocket while his receivers couldn't shake free from the Tigers' defensive backs. More important, when the Sooners made a late surge, White wilted, missing on each of his last eight throws.

The game was reminiscent of Oklahoma's dreadful showing in the Big 12 title game against Kansas State. Pre-K-State, many were touting the Sooners as one of the all-time great teams. Then, after that 35-7 drubbing, some wondered whether OU was exposed, especially White. The Wildcats' attacking game plan showed that he struggled throwing on the run when flushed from the pocket.

LSU didn't need much blitzing, though, and was able to get heat on White relying mostly on its front four. "They are a great defense," White said of the Tigers. "They didn't blitz as much as we planned on. They out-executed us and we didn't execute through most of the night. You've got to give them their credit."

Just how much did White's and Oklahoma's late-season swoon take away from the record season the Sooners had, in which they won not only a Heisman but also the Lombardi Trophy (to DT Tommie Harris), the Butkus Award (to LB Teddy Lehman), the Thorpe Award (to CB Derrick Strait) and the Coach of the Year award (to Bob Stoops)?

"It dampers it quite a bit," White said. "You win 12 games, and that's extremely hard to do nowadays, and then you don't have anything to show for it. It's disappointing."

And none of the Sooners will be stung harder by this loss than White.

The fifth-year junior had a storybook season, overcoming two major knee injuries to pile up gaudy stats for an offense that was, in Sooner-speak, hanging half-a-hundred on everyone it faced. But as White's star soared, an undercurrent that tends to dog Heisman hopefuls followed: the rhetoric that spews out from the "How can this guy be the nation's best player if he isn't an NFL prospect?" argument.

Exhibit A for this argument always is Torretta, the affable ex-Miami quarterback who piloted a loaded offense all the way to a national title game, picking up a Heisman along the way. Then, his team fizzled in its bowl game and lost the title and a blueprint was created.

Teammates say it would be unfair for White to get too much of the blame. Just as it would be for LSU to get too much of the credit. "We shot ourselves in the foot the whole game," Sooner center Vince Carter said.

Even though Stoops called the Tigers the best defense he has faced since taking over at Oklahoma, Carter wasn't ready to go that far. Best front four he's ever faced? "Nah," Carter said. "I don't think so. Don't get me wrong, they were good. They stopped us, but no more than we stopped ourselves."

Regardless of that assessment, it was hard not to be impressed with how LSU bewildered the Oklahoma offense, limiting the Sooners to just one big play -- a 33-yard pass to Travis Wilson. Mark Clayton, Oklahoma's star wideout, said the Tigers didn't mimic what K-State did to them. "LSU played a lot more man," Clayton said. "They mixed some zone in. It was what we expected."

What many wouldn't have expected was Oklahoma committing 11 penalties or dropping more than a half-dozen passes or allowing White to get knocked down 13 times. "I don't know how to explain it," Clayton said. "We just were killing ourselves. We were always putting ourselves behind the eight-ball. We didn't execute."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book, "Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment," comes out in fall 2004. He can be reached at bruce.feldman@espn3.com.