Oklahoma couldn't finish the job
MIAMI -- Finish. That was the Oklahoma motto all year.
Last year's postseason plotz in both the Big 12 championship game and Sugar Bowl pushed the Sooners all offseason, and it pushed them through all 12 victories in 2004. They put the F-word on T-shirts. They chanted it during conditioning. They burned it into memory.
Yet here the Sooners were, diminished at the finish again. Face-down and flattened at the wire, one more time.
Actually, this time was worse. Much worse. Unimaginably worse. This was USC 55, Oklahoma 19, a game billed as a classic that instead became a John Blake flashback for the Okies.
This was a debacle of epic proportions, a collapse so complete and so stunning that it will be a long time before anyone gets over it in Norman. This game so completely knocked the swagger out of the Sooners that they now know what it's like to be Baylor.
It was the worst loss of coach Bob Stoops' gilded six-year run at Oklahoma, and the Sooners' worst bowl loss ever. In fact, USC scored more on OU than the Sooners' last four bowl opponents combined.
"You can't get in these big games and make mistakes like we did," coach Bob Stoops said. "You've got to rise to the moment and play your best in these situations, and we didn't do that."
No. They played their worst.
How bad was it? This bad: Oklahoma's proud fan base, which descended on South Florida in far greater numbers than USC's, had all but abandoned Pro Player Stadium by the middle of the third quarter. Given the amount of money they laid out for this trip, and given the anticipation they had for this game, that capitulation speaks volumes.
Worst of all for the Sooners, it was the upperclassmen who killed them.
With the score tied at 7 in the first quarter, Mark Bradley was the cow who kicked over the lantern. The senior wide receiver made an inexplicable play on a punt return.
Bradley knocked aside USC coverage man John Walker to get at a bouncing punt inside the Oklahoma 5. He picked up the ball without benefit of blockers and found himself surrounded by red jerseys. Quicker than you can say Chris Webber, Bradley was quickly stripped of the ball, and USC recovered at the Oklahoma six-yard line. Next play, LenDale White pounded in for a touchdown.
"I have no idea why Mark would have done that," Stoops said. "I was as shocked as everybody in the stadium. How do you explain that? I don't know. That goes back to Pop Warner football. Mark should have made a better decision. I'm not going to sit here and go any further in front of the whole media, but it's as bad a play as there is."
Said Bradley: "That was just a bonehead mistake I made."
Next possession, sixth-year senior Jason White continued his tour of Postseason Hell. White, whose Heisman Trophy season of 2003 was tarnished by lousy performances in losses to Kansas State and LSU, went for the unholy trinity Tuesday night. On a second-and-six from the USC 38, White heaved a pass off his back foot into a Trojans team meeting at the 11. Free safety Jason Leach was the closest of five USC players who surrounded receiver Mark Clayton and picked it off. Six plays later, the Trojans had scored again and led 21-7.
"It was a horrible decision on my part," White said. "I should have just threw the ball away, and I didn't."
But White and Bradley weren't done yet. On OU's next possession, Bradley slipped coming off the line of scrimmage, and White threw a pass high and behind him for another easy interception. Cornerback Eric Wright caught this one at the Oklahoma 42 and returned it to the 10. Three plays later USC scored again.
The last of four first-half turnovers came when junior running back Kejuan Jones mishandled a handoff and fumbled, leading to a USC field goal and a 38-10 lead. Just like that, Oklahoma had given up its most points ever in a bowl game, and it wasn't even halftime.
It would be one thing if USC's fast and rugged and special teams had forced those turnovers. That was not the case. Oklahoma flat gave away the ball in a second-quarter meltdown similar to the Denver Broncos' against the Washington Redskins in a Super Bowl rout.
That seemed to reveal a surprising fragility within an undefeated team. Oklahoma had not faced an appreciable deficit all season and lacked the composure to deal with it.
Freshman hero Adrian Peterson looked slower than he had all year against the swift USC defense. Oklahoma's vaunted offensive line took a beating from a Trojans defense that didn't even need blitzes to put on the pressure. And the Sooners' pass rush and secondary were no match for USC's sophisticated aerial game.
"We just got whipped," Stoops said.
And along the way, White proved that he is not a man for all seasons.
Regular season? Smashing. White threw 70 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions the last two regular seasons.
Postseason? Smashed. White played four postseason games the last two years and produced five touchdowns and nine picks.
"It's a roller coaster," White said of his career. "Sometimes you're high, sometimes you're low. Right now it's a low point, but I'll be all right. I just have to fight through, and the sun will come up tomorrow."
The sun will come up tomorrow, and Oklahoma will pick itself up, scrape off USC's cleat marks and commence preparing for 2005. With Peterson back and plenty of other talent, the future is always encouraging at OU.
"We'll have some more great nights," athletic director Joe Castiglione said with a smile. "We'll sponsor football again next year."
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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