Commentary

Missed opportunities gives Sooners sinking feeling

Originally Published: January 9, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- There wasn't a hook-and-lateral and Statue of Liberty play from a Cinderella team to break Oklahoma's heart in the final minutes.

The Sooners didn't lose to an underdog that seemed to be reeling from losing its coach, only to show up in the Arizona desert with an excitable interim coach and a mighty big chip on its shoulder.

The Sooners weren't embarrassed again by a much better team on college football's biggest stage, either.

But the fact that No. 1 Oklahoma played No. 2 Florida blow-for-blow for three quarters in Thursday night's FedEx BCS National Championship Game at Dolphin Stadium didn't make its 24-14 loss any easier to swallow.

Since winning the 2000 national championship in coach Bob Stoops' second season, the Sooners have seemingly found every way to lose a BCS bowl game. They've lost five in a row since beating Washington State 34-14 in the 2003 Rose Bowl.

Amazingly, Oklahoma found another way to lose against the Gators, who won their second national championship in three seasons.

The Sooners probably beat themselves.

"We had every opportunity to win," senior safety Nic Harris said. "That's the hardest part. Opportunities were there for us to win, and we didn't take advantage of them."

The loss to the Gators will be more difficult to stomach than most. After squandering two scoring chances from inside Florida's 10-yard line late in the first half, Oklahoma paid for its missed opportunities in the second half.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesBob Stoops has come up empty on his last three trips to the national championship game.
After the Sooners tied the score at 14-14 on quarterback Sam Bradford's 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham with 12:13 to play, the Gators scored 10 consecutive points to pull ahead for good.

Oklahoma's fast-paced offense never seemed to find its rhythm, and its defense finally buckled under the weight of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow's broad shoulders.

"Obviously, it's very disappointing to end the season on a loss, especially in a game that we felt like we had a chance to win," Bradford said. "In the first half, we squandered some opportunities to score points; that really hurt. But in the second half, when we needed to make plays, we just couldn't do it."

The Sooners came to South Florida as college football's hottest team. They had scored 60 points or more in five consecutive games and set an NCAA FBS record for points scored in a season, averaging 54 per contest.

Bradford was college football's most efficient passer and won the Heisman Trophy as the sport's best player. Oklahoma had a 1,000-yard rusher, 1,000-yard receiver and one of the country's biggest and most ferocious offensive lines.

But from the start of Thursday night's game, it was clear Oklahoma hadn't faced a defense as menacing as Florida's this season. Gators linebacker Brandon Spikes walloped running back Chris Brown on his first carry. Two plays later, free safety Major Wright belted receiver Manuel Johnson as he tried to catch a long pass down the left sideline.

In the first half, we squandered some opportunities to score points; that really hurt. But in the second half, when we needed to make plays, we just couldn't do it.

--Sam Bradford

It was pretty clear the Sooners were going to have to work extra hard for their points against Florida. The Gators were faster than any defense Oklahoma played in the Big 12.

"They didn't have anything on defense we didn't see before," guard Duke Robinson said. "It was just about us not executing. All it came down to was us not biting down and getting it in [the end zone]. It didn't come down to speed. Our goal was never to score 60 or 50. Our goal was just to win the game."

The Sooners didn't win the game because they couldn't put 20 points on the scoreboard.

Not that Oklahoma didn't have its chances. After Tebow was intercepted for the second time in the first half, the Sooners had third-and-goal at the Florida 1. Brown was stopped for no gain on third down, and then Torrey Davis burst through the line to throw Brown for a 2-yard loss on fourth down.

"We were really close on third down and they just won the line of scrimmage on us two times," offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. "Maybe I should have given our guys a better call [on fourth down] to give them a better chance to execute. That was a big momentum swing for them."

The Gators punted with about 2½ minutes to play in the first half, and the Sooners took over at their 20. Bradford completed seven consecutive passes to move Oklahoma inside Florida's 20. He threw an 11-yard pass to Gresham on third down, which was good for a first down at the 6 with only 10 seconds left to play in the half.

After a timeout, Bradford committed the only sin he couldn't afford to make -- he threw an interception.

"We were going to throw it into the end zone or throw it away," Wilson said. "We were going to kick [a field goal] on the next play."

Instead, Bradford tried to squeeze a pass to Johnson at the goal line, and cornerback Joe Haden jarred the ball into the air. Wright intercepted the pass after it was deflected three times.

Florida's offense took a knee and the score was tied 7-7 at the half.

The Sooners went to their locker room knowing they might have been ahead.

"Obviously, I wasn't trying to throw an interception," said Bradford, who completed 26 of 41 passes for 256 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. "We called [the play] and it actually wasn't the coverage we were expecting to run that play. I tried to force one in there, but I probably should have just thrown it in the back of the end zone and taken three points."

[+] EnlargeJimmy Stevens
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyOklahoma missed an opportunity to cut into Florida's lead when the Gators blocked Jimmy Stevens' 49-yard field-goal attempt.
After falling behind 14-7 in the third quarter, Oklahoma squandered another scoring opportunity when Jimmy Stevens' 49-yard field goal was blocked.

"It was big," Sooners receiver Juaquin Iglesias said. "When you've got a chance to score points, you've got to score. We're supposed to get touchdowns; that's what we did all year."

Instead, Oklahoma was left wondering how Sooner Magic once again fizzled in the postseason.

"It's not luck," Harris said. "I'm not going to blame it on luck. It's just not the time. It's not the time for us to win [a national title] again. I wish I had the answer. If I had the answer, we would have won the game."

Stoops will spend the offseason searching for answers, too.

In Stoops' first five seasons coaching the Sooners, his teams were 7-2 against rival Texas and in BCS bowl games. Stoops' success in Oklahoma's biggest games earned him the moniker "Big Game Bob."

But since an embarrassing 55-19 loss to No. 1 Southern California in the 2005 Orange Bowl, Oklahoma is only 1-7 in such games. And of those seven losses, only one has been decided by fewer than 10 points.

"Everyone will have their opinions on it, and that's fine," Stoops said. "In the end, I'll be glad to try it again next year. If that's the biggest burden I have to bear in my life, I'll be a pretty lucky guy. We'll do our best to be trying again next year, and we'll keep going after them, if it's all the same to everybody else."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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