Friday, December 13, 2002
Heupel proves to be a winner
By Marc Connolly
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- No matter what rank Oklahoma vaults to, Sooner fans will undoubtedly believe they deserve as much praise as Mother Theresa for their team's 41-31 statement victory over No. 3 Kansas State on Saturday afternoon.
Maybe the country songs will be too out of hand: "My baby went and left me, but my Sooners are undefeated" or "I can't match beers for Sooners touchdowns, but I can keep loving you."
Maybe the Heisman Heup(el) will be a tad much for their stud lefty QB.
Maybe the constant "Why aren't we No. 1?" message board postings will be very premature considering there's another pretty good team out here in the heartland and another in the East with a strange nickname with an electrifying QB.
But if they start calling their beloved squad "Offensive U." or the "Oklahoma Rams," how much can one dispute it?
Two games. Two Top Ten powers. One hundred and four points. And more importantly, two upset victories.
Although there were some tense moments down the stretch, name a football team in the nation that's playing any better than the resurgent Oklahoma Sooners after they hushed 53,011 fans at KSU Stadium and a national audience of naysayers as 10-point underdogs.
"Things couldn't be better for us right now," says running back Seth Littrell, who scored his first touchdown of the season on a 2-yard plunge in the first quarter. "What an experience. We're a machine right now, I guess."
When you're 6-0 in mid-October -- especially this season -- that qualifies you as a no-questions-asked, honest-to-goodness, legitimate college football juggernaut.
The Sooners have all the requisite parts. There's the three-headed coaching mastermind of the Brothers Stoops and offensive coordinator Mark Mangino. There's that bend-but-don't-break D that stopped K-State on its last three drives in the fourth quarter. There's that never-ending slew of receivers and backs to make big plays -- six players caught at least three passes. There's also the human lucky charm that is Barry Switzer roaming around the players box as though he was still calling the shots for the Crimson and Cream.
But the only way the Sooners even have a smidgen of reason to believe they are the ones who shall survive the venerable Big XII and head to the Orange Bowl in January is because of their leader, Josh Heupel. The senior quarterback jumped into the thick of the 2000 Heisman race with his headstrong performance against a blitz-happy K-State D.
"This is just an every Saturday thing for Josh," says sophomore wide receiver Antwone Savage, after setting career highs with seven catches for 116 yards and a TD. "He's our leader."
And as his 374 yards and two touchdowns on 29-for-37 passing shows, he came through time and time again for the upstart -- yes, upstart -- group from Norman.
It wasn't as if he was going against a defense that was off its game. K-State came at him from all avenues. If they could have dug a tunnel under center or flow in on a Boeing 747, they would have. Despite having four coaches on the Sooner sideline with experience on K-State's coaching staff, it gave them no help on offense whatsoever, as some people had speculated during the week.
"They weren't even playing the same defense as when I was here," said Mangino. "They have a new version. It's nothing like the one the Stoops brothers or Brett Venables run. It's a whole different thing."
Heupel -- the calmest person in the joint before, during and after the game -- didn't get bothered by the constant corner blitzes or having a linebacker share his kitchen after most of his passes.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Heupel, who also rushed for his fifth TD of the season. "Can they get to you before I get rid of it. Fortunately, I got rid of it most of the time."
It stifled and frustrated a proud Kansas State defense.
"We knew they had the capabilities and that's something we prepared for. We tried to stop them from doing that, but they came out and exploded on us," said K-State linebacker Ben Leber, who registered three tackles, two for a loss.
Amidst constant pressure, Heupel resembled Dan Marino when he solved the '85 Bears defense by releasing the pigskin while taking his three or four-step drop. His coaches say that's because of his ability to read defenses so early in the progression of the play. He either audibled to his running back, Quentin Griffin, as he did six times for 46 yards, or simply knew ahead of time where the openings would be based on the scenario.
"Some of our information came from our coaches about who would be open when, and they were. He saw it and he got the ball there," said Mangino. "He knew the people who would be coming -- what safeties, what linebackers -- and he did an excellent job.
"Josh Heupel is as good as any player in the country."
Says Bob Stoops, "He's as confident and calm of a quarterback as I've ever seen. He finds a way to make a play when everything is in doubt.
"He's a leader and he's a winner."
Heupel is the exact opposite of a rah-rah type of leader. Instead, he sets the tone for the entire team, not just the offense, through his poise. According to players, he's as calm when a safety is rushing through an open patch with reckless abandon as he is when he's eating lunch.
"I have never ever seen Josh lose his composure," says safety Roy Williams. "Never."
That sort of self-confidence has now flooded the veins of the Oklahoma players, too, now that they've seen what they can accomplish. The preseason mags placed the Sooners in the middle-of-the-pack. Funny how two weeks of glory can change everything.
"Before we came into the game, we had confidence, but I know it's higher right now after the win and all the points we've put on the board," says wide receiver Josh Norman, who had six catches for 93 yards.
Adds Williams, whose interception in the second quarter helped Oklahoma turn a 24-14 lead into a 31-14 margin at halftime, "If we play like this, we can contend with anyone in the country. We don't let up."
The Sooners can play with anyone in the country. They've proved it. So, what happened? How did everyone miss the boat on this juggernaut?
"There was a lot of underestimation, that's all," says Norman. "It has always been there, we just had to put our minds to and believe we could."
"Everyone gets surprised at what we're doing," says Stoops, whose team's victory marked the first time OU has won back-to-back games against teams ranked in the Top 10 since 1986. "We don't."
Now up steps Enemy No. 1, top-ranked Nebraska -- the team that Oklahomans are taught to hate from birth much like half of the country is about New Yorkers. It's at friendly Memorial Stadium, a place that hasn't had a Nebraska-Oklahoma game that mattered in way-too-many years. At this point, especially with a week off to prepare for Eric Crouch and Co., no one is worried.
"We're gonna play hard and come at you every game," says Norman. "So whoever is next better get ready for a battle."
What the young man is seeing is really what Switzer said earlier upon leaving Wagner Field.
Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online.
|Oklahoma wide receiver Josh Norman had a career day against the Wildcats.|