Friday, December 13, 2002
Heupel bamboozles Blackshirts
By Marc Connolly
NORMAN, Okla. -- Josh Heupel perfectly executed an option-left play with a textbook toss to Quentin Griffin for a nine-yard gain in the fourth quarter. Yep, the option -- the foundation of Nebraska's playbook. It was the ultimate display of in-your-face gamesmanship towards the NU defense.
That's how bad things went for the proud Blackshirts in Oklahoma's powerful 31-14 victory over the top-ranked Cornhuskers in the much-publicized Game of the Century played out at Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
It wasn't breakdowns, a lack of overall athletic prowess or poor scheming that resulted in a communal hang-your-head walk to the locker room. No, this was simply a continuing episode of what Heupel is capable of accomplishing against defenses, regardless of how sophisticated or athletically superior they are. As Kansas State did two weeks ago in Manhattan, Nebraska threw everything imaginable at the senior QB, but to no avail.
"We had a full variety (of schemes)," said a practically awestruck Craig Bohl, the Huskers' defensive coordinator. "We brought the full house. We brought the zone blitz. We brought the fire blitz. And we played some man. Heupel was very good as far as getting the ball off."
Good enough to torch a vaunted defense that has caused more nightmares in the Big XII, Big Eight and Southwest conferences than any drought or tornado. The Heisman Trophy front-runner threw for 300 yards and a touchdown on 20-of-34 passing against a unit that had allowed under 200 yards through the air per game coming in. Historically, it was shocking, as well, since the top previous passing performance by a Sooner QB against Nebraska had been 187 yards (Danny Bradley, 1983).
But this is a different Oklahoma program with a mindset completely opposite of Barry Switzer's wishbone regime. It's safe to say that the Cornhuskers have never seen a signal-caller like Heupel in the history of this celebrated 79-year rivalry. The Huskers had reason to fear his quick release and audibling skills after the beating he put on then-No. 2 Kansas State, but this confident group decided that no college quarterback in the land would be able to withstand the pressure they applied for four quarters.
"We have a lot of confidence in our defense, especially our blitz package," said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who had three tackles and one of three sacks against Heupel. "The last couple weeks those few teams weren't able to pick it up. We decided to come with a lot of heat and mix things up in the first half."
Things seemed to be working early on as Heupel threw six incomplete passes in his first two series and was sacked by linebacker Randy Stella on the team's third play from scrimmage. Staked to a 14-0 lead behind the dazzling dual-threat display of QB Eric Crouch (one running TD, one passing), it reeked of a usual ho-hum Nebraska woodshed whipping. That's when Heupel stepped up his game to Marino-mode -- a mode where no amount of rushers in his face rattled him or affected his touch.
"Heupel handles pressure well," said Nebraska head coach Frank Solich. "We came at him with a lot of different blitz packages and a lot of different looks. He handled them well."
Faced with seven, sometimes eight, Nebraska defenders coming at him full-throttle, he calmly changed the play-calling at the line throughout the game and trusted his big uglies.
"After the first couple of drives, I realized whom they were picking up and I had more time than I thought," said Heupel, who has thrown for 2,194 yards and 12 TDs this season.
Frustration set in on the Blackshirts.
"It seemed like he had a different check every time," said Vanden Bosch. "It really wears on a defense when you're just a step slow from getting a hit and he gets a first down."
"He just kept retreating," said Bohl, in his first year in charge of the D since taking over for Charlie McBride. "It's very, very difficult to throw with that kind of pressure coming at you and then put the ball on the money. There are great quarterbacks that are not able to make that, and he made it."
A great example of Nebraska's "beat our single-coverage-if-you-dare" philosophy came early in the second quarter when the Sooners were down 14-7 and driving. On a crucial third-and-14 from the Husker 34, Nebraska sent the house and left its D-backs to fend for themselves in man-to-man. Rover Joe Walker came firing at Heupel from his blindside, which caused many Sooner fans to cringe.
"Joe Walker was scot free on a blitz," said Bohl. "He's one of the fastest defenders, but he threw the ball up."
Despite the near-collision wreck (Walker swiftly jumped to Heupel's left after his release to avoid a penalty), the floating tear-drop fell into the hands of Curtis Fagan, who had stormed past Erwin Swiney, in perfect stride for the tying touchdown. It was their 14th unanswered point, in what would be 31 in total.
Though Bohl's defense made some adjustments and went to a more vanilla version of defensive football in the second half, they still couldn't get to Heupel. Not being able to sit back in a cover-2 due to an increasing deficit throughout the half, the golden-haired lefty was able to flourish behind his bend-but-don't-break O-Line.
"If we had gotten the kind of heat we wanted, he would have thrown a lot more interceptions and he would have been on his back a lot more," said Vanden Bosch. "We were a step late a lot of times. A lot of times, the offensive line and Heupel just did a good job adjusting. He put the ball on the money and got the job done."
Bohl was pleased with his defense's ability to battle, and kept trying to invent ways to rattle a robot-like Heupel. But in the end he knows what needs to be worked out if Nebraska is to run the table and force a rematch on Dec. 2 in the Big XII Championship Game.
"Our execution, our ability to make plays wasn't where it needed to be. We can and will play much better."
Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online.
|OU's Damian Mackey breaks through Nebraska's defense.|