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White, Peterson too good to ignore

1/6/2005

Choosing between USC's Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush or Oklahoma's Jason White/Adrian Peterson as your offensive centerpiece is like deciding whether to build your vacation home in Aspen or Maui. Take either one, then laugh at your absurd good fortune.

But if forced to choose -- and the boss says I have to pick one -- I'll forego the joys of Troy in favor of the Boomer Sooners. Give me the sixth-year senior nobody believes is a cinch NFL player and the first-year teenager everybody believes could turn pro tomorrow. Give me the geezer with the reconstructed knees and the kid with the titanium physique. Give me the modestly celebrated quarterback recruit from Tuttle, Okla., and the all-world tailback phenom from Palestine, Texas.

They've got little in common beyond cream and crimson, yet they're the perfect combination to make the Oklahoma offense go. And here's the biggest reason why they're better than the SC duo:

Jason White and Adrian Peterson don't need each other to be great. They can each do their own thing, in their own highly effective way, and Oklahoma thrives.

Peterson does the running -- and does it like no freshman back since Hershel Walker, at least. White does the throwing, to an array of underappreciated receivers. If Peterson has been contained (see: Kansas State, Texas A&M), White can make the plays to win games.

Of the 4,762 yards of total offense the two produced this season, only six yards came on passes from White to Peterson. If one gets hurt or has a bad day, the Oklahoma offense can still rely on the other half to come through.

At USC, Reggie Bush needs Matt Leinart in order to shine, and Matt Leinart needs Reggie Bush. One-fourth of Leinart's 28 touchdown passes were to Bush, and 15 percent of his completions. If one struggles, both struggle -- witness the Cal game, when Bush had just 29 yards from scrimmage and Leinart had a season-low 164 passing yards. Not coincidentally, the Trojans needed a heroic defensive stand to win the game.

Bush needs the ball in open space to showcase his greatest gifts -- speed and elusiveness -- and most often gets it there by catching Leinart's passes. Leinart needs another game-breaking receiver to take the focus off freshman Dwayne Jarrett, and Bush provides that threat.

Reason No. 2 for taking Peterson/White as the backfield of choice: In Peterson, you get two USC backs for the price of one.

"He's sort of a combination of Reggie Bush and LenDale White," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, whose team lost to Oklahoma 31-7 in September. "He doesn't have Reggie Bush's speed and may not have LenDale White's power, but he's got a combination of both of them."

Translation: You don't need to call in a substitute to make the tough yards up the middle. Peterson will run over a safety or linebacker on third-and-two, but he can also go 80 yards on first-and-10. He's part Eric Dickerson, part Terrell Davis, and all good.

Against most teams, Bush can run adequately between the tackles. Against the best defenses, he's of little use up the middle. Against Cal Bush ran for just 23 yards, and against Virginia Tech he had just 27 on the ground. This just in: Oklahoma's defense is one of the best. The tough yards must be earned by White, which limits what Norm Chow's offense can do.

Bush had just 179 touches from scrimmage this season, because he didn't have the size to be an every-down back. Peterson got the rock 317 times.

The other advantage to Peterson is his truly scary upside. He's only played 12 college games, and was still coming off the bench when he lit up Oregon for 183 yards.

"I was glad he didn't play the whole game," Bellotti said with a chuckle. "He does not play like a freshman. He has better movement and vision than I would have thought for a freshman.

"Just from a maturity standpoint, I don't remember that many freshmen I've seen up close and in person where you say, 'Wow.' And we were on the sideline saying, 'Wow.'"

Said former Sooners quarterback hero Josh Heupel, now a graduate assistant on Bob Stoops' staff: "I've never been around one (freshman) who had the impact on a football team that he's had. ... He's lived up to and surpassed expectations people had for him."

Peterson and the enhanced running game has unquestionably made White's life easier this season. But the guy did manage to win the Heisman Trophy without A.D. in 2003, and he managed to finish third in the voting this year.

"Jason White was so accurate against us," Bellotti said. "Every third down they needed it, he made the throw. ... I think they were 9-of-11 on third downs, and a lot of it was his accuracy.

"He did everything they asked him to do. They didn't ask him to do much, but he did it. I think over the course of the season, when asked to do more, he did."

And when asked to lay back and let Peterson take center stage, White had no problems with it. He didn't come back for a sixth season to take a run at matching Archie Griffin's two Heismans; he came back to take a run at matching Heupel's championship ring.

"Jason is the consummate team player," Heupel said. "All he cares about, and the main reason he came back after winning the Heisman Trophy, is winning a national championship."

And that can rub off on the youngsters.

"He's definitely put in the time to be successful on this level," Heupel said. "That helps young kids like Adrian, to see one of the best football players in the country doing everything he did to prepare."

The two of them have done everything necessary for an undefeated Oklahoma season. No matter how good the boys from Troy have been, this is the best quarterback-running back tandem in the country.

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