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K-State planning Fiesta with Big 12 title

12/7/2003

KANSAS CITY -- As far as the BCS computers were concerned, Saturday evening's Big 12 championship game didn't exist. It was the microchip equivalent of a bye week. Oklahoma vs. Kansas State, or the Kansas City Chiefs. . . it didn't matter. Win or lose. . . it didn't matter. The computers had long since crunched their quartiles and decided the Sooner Schooner would soon be parked on the cobblestone streets of New Orleans' French Quarter.

But apparently K-State doesn't own a laptop, thinks BCS guru Jerry Palm is a tropical tree, and enjoys the idea of forcing bowl projectors to reach for a container of White Out. Instead, the Wildcats dispelled the myth of OU invincibility and put an abrupt end to those Best Team Ever story assignments.

This time the Arrowhead Stadium scoreboard read, Kansas State 35, Oklahoma 7. And beyond those numbers is the possibility of BCS bedlam.

Can the Sooners remain No. 1 in the BCS Standings without being ranked first in either of the two "human" polls? Is America staring at a split national championship? And is it really true that the final BCS Standings were determined by what happened in upstate New York earlier in the day, and in Honolulu in the wee hours of Sunday, Eastern time?

Yes.

Conceivably.

Absolutely.

In about four hours' time Oklahoma's worst fears and Kansas State's highest hopes converged in the chill of a December night. The Sooners played like a team insufficiently geeked or, at the very least, like a team that knew it was all but assured of an invitation to the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners didn't phone it in, but they lacked a certain edge.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats lacked nothing. They played with passion and with the memory of similar Big 12 championship circumstances. That would have been in 2000, when OU entered the game undefeated and finished it that way too. Synder's team was the pre-Orange Bowl appetizer that night at this same Arrowhead Stadium.
Not this time. Not with running back Darren Sproles, who's as tall as a Mini Cooper, rushing for 235 yards and adding another 88 receiving yards and a touchdown. Not with quarterback Ell Roberson completing just 10 passes, but making every one of them count (227 yards, 4 TDs). And not with the Wildcat defense leaving a serious bruise mark on OU quarterback Jason White's status as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner.

"I think there's been a lot of wins in the past 15 years that we cherish a great deal," said Snyder. "This one probably is maybe the most significant."

This was supposed to be a legacy game for OU coach Bob Stoops and the Sooners. Distracted? How can you be distracted when someone is waiting to engrave your name on another Big 12 trophy? Never mind that the Sooners have more hardware than Home Depot, Stoops wanted this league title. For himself. For his team. For certain Ticonderoga pencil pushers who insist OU doesn't belong in New Orleans if it can't at least win in Kansas City.

What Stoops got was the Sooners' first loss and their worst performance of the season. White completed 27-of-50 passes for 298 yards, zero TDs and two interceptions. He was pulled from the game with 5:34 left to play. And OU's defense, ranked No. 1 in fewest yards allowed, gave up 519 total yards and more points than it had allowed in the previous three games. In short, it was the worst loss in the five-season Stoops Era.

This wasn't exactly the going-away present OU wanted to give co-defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, but that's what he got as he departs for the University of Arizona. And it certainly wasn't the way the Sooners wanted to end their regular season or begin their preparations for the Sugar Bowl.

"They hit us where we were weak and that is something that we have to work at," said White. "We have one game left and have a lot to learn from this game."

Any questions about this game's intensity level were answered nearly 20 minutes before kickoff. That's when the K-State band marched proudly onto the field, only to find the Sooners still completing their warmup drills. A white-gloved Wildcats band official became so annoyed that he actually pushed an OU player as the Sooners returned to their locker room.

Just another story to tell at band camp.

And when the game did begin it took exactly six plays for tempers to flare. OU tackle Jammal Brown and K-State defensive end Andrew Shull got into a small shoving match at play's end, prompting the field judge to rush up and say, "Knock it off. Don't even start."

Too late. The Sooners scored on that first drive, courtesy of a career-long 42-yard run by tailback Kejuan Jones with 12:11 remaining in the quarter. Jones turned the left corner and simply outran K-State's defenders. Not that the touchdown should have been much of a surprise -- OU has scored on 11 of its 13 first possessions this year.

The Wildcats didn't do a thing during the first quarter, except pick up one first down, accidentally snap a punt to their up-man, and inadvertently ding White's surgically repaired right knee. But on its initial drive of the second quarter K-State began to resemble a team that had won six consecutive games.

It began with Sproles, the nation's leading rusher, spinning out of the would-be tackle of blitzing OU cornerback Derrick Strait and not stopping until he had sprinted 55 yards. Three plays later Roberson found tight end Brian Casey alone at the front of the end zone on a blown OU coverage. Tied score, but not for long.

K-State took the lead on its next possession when Roberson hit wide receiver James Terry on a textbook-perfect hitch-and-go that covered 63 yards. Terry fooled cornerback Antonio Perkins on the pattern and then squirmed out of strong safety Donte Nicholson's arms for the score. It marked only the second time this season that OU has trailed in a game.

The Sooners had to get used to the feeling, what with K-State adding to the lead later in the quarter. Roberson lofted a short pass to Sproles on a middle screen and the 5-foot-7, 170-pound junior did the rest on the 60-yard scoring play.

"Want to vote for a Heisman candidate?" said Snyder. "If you've seen any of our ballgames you'll know what I'm talking about."

Oklahoma had its chances to tighten the score, even tie it. But a White interception in the end zone ended one opportunity and sent the OU quarterback to the sideline, his right arm hanging limply at his side. K-State defensive Thomas Houchin caught White flush on the elbow -- fair and square, by the way -- just after the Sooner star released the pass.

White returned to the game on the next possession, but overthrew a wide open Lance Donley when the Sooners gambled on fourth-and-inches from the K-State 35.

"It felt like any time we were able to breathe life into our team something would suck it back out," said OU wide receiver Mark Clayton.

The Sooners never recovered from the near-misses and the 21 points the Wildcats scored in the decisive second quarter. A Roberson TD pass in the third quarter and a Ted Sims interception return for a score in the fourth quarter were simply K-State exclamation points.

"We thought it would be close, but it wasn't," said Sproles, who was as surprised as anyone at the margin of victory.

The Wildcats won their first Big 12 title, their first BCS-bowl invitation, and their first conference championship since 1934. They didn't gloat. They didn't have to. Bob Stoops stood outside the OU locker room and made sure to congratulate several K-State coaches and players as they walked past.

They deserved it.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.