Friday, December 13, 2002
Notebook: Crouch out of Heisman race
By Marc Connolly
NORMAN, Okla. -- As Nebraska's 13-game winning streak came to an abrupt end on Saturday, so did the Heisman Trophy campaign of its leader.
That's not to say the 75,989 in Memorial Stadium and a national audience saw a dismal performance out of Eric Crouch on Saturday. In fact, he looked brilliant at times, like in the first quarter when he quieted the Sooner crowd with a dazzling 37-yard TD run and went 5-for-5 in the air, including a 39-yard strike to Tracey Wistrom. But those were the only two times he could get the Huskers into the Promised Land, in a game that both sides knew would be won via a shootout.
"If you can stop our offense from executing, then you can beat us and that's what they did today," said an upbeat Crouch after the game. "It just came down to execution. Without the interceptions and the fumbles, who knows what happens."
In actuality, it was only one interception, but how huge it was.
Down 24-14 in the early moments of the third quarter, the Nebraska faithful had to feel a momentum swing since its Blackshirt D had finally forced Josh Heupel and Co. to go three-and-out on the half's opening drive. After getting blasted by Torrance Marshall on two straight sacks, Crouch dropped back to pass on a third-and-27 with his eyes firmly set downfield for the home run. Though OU had double coverage throughout -- as it should in such situations -- Crouch forced the issue and short-armed a pass right into the hands of Sooner cornerback Derrick Strait. The redshirt freshman promptly streaked 32 yards into the end zone to make it a daunting 31-14 deficit for Frank Solich's squad.
Though Crouch desperately tried to rally the veteran offense, utilizing both the option and three-wide sets, Oklahoma had an answer for everything.
"We knew they had great speed and a great knack for the ball," said Crouch, who rushed for 103 yards and a TD to go with 133 aerial yards on 12-for-27 passing. "We knew we had to make people miss. We were going to be one-on-one in a lot of situations. It happened a few times and it didn't a few times. I feel like we can do a much better job of it."
Crouch reached the century mark on the ground due to a few long jaunts down the field, including his TD run early on, but he couldn't break through the cement wall that OU put up against the option, particularly in the second half. Much of his inability to find a seam had to do with the play of linebackers Marshall (12 tackles, three-for-loss, and two sacks) and Rocky Calmus (16 tackles), who rushed the line time and time again.
"They're natural, they're instinctive," said Crouch on the Sooner standouts. "They are able to get off blocks and move well in any direction. That was a big factor."
Said Marshall on their containment of Crouch, "We weren't keying on him. Everybody had a responsibility and we knew that going into the game if everyone took care of that, we should be successful in our defense. We were able to do that except for early in the game."
When you live and die with the option, success on first and second down is paramount, and is something NU is used to. When the Sooners cracked down on Crouch and strung out the play for minimal gains, it put a damper on Crouch and his ability to do what he does best.
"OU really stopped the running game and we found ourselves in a lot of long-yardage situations and we do not like that in our offense," said Solich after his team's first loss in 14 games. "We had second-and-long and third-and-long all day."
Though his Heisman Trophy campaign is probably the last thing on the junior's mind as he boards the charter back to Lincoln, his chances are slim to none now. With a loss on his mark, he can be lumped in with FSU's Chris Weinke, Purdue's Drew Brees and Clemson's Woody Dantzler. The race seemingly exists between Virginia Tech superstar Michel Vick, Brees (regardless of Purdue's record) and, of course, Josh Heupel.
Speaking of Heisman ...
|Eric Crouch was under pressure all day.|
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops once again went on and on to the national media about his superstar quarterback. This time, he wasn't afraid to mention Josh Heupel's name along with the small, bronzed dude.
"I don't think there's any question that something is wrong if he isn't up there," said Stoops. "The whole country saw this game and how he led us to victory in a big way. He's exceptional. He's a winner and he's everything you want in a quarterback."
He won't take a "but it's the system" excuse from Heisman voters who ignore his lofty numbers in OU's spread offense.
"It isn't the system. He's the system. He deserves to be one of the top one or two players. If we can play well to the end, I don't know what else you have to do."
One of the most startling stats in Heupel's arsenal is that prior to Troy Watchorn's third quarter interception, the senior quarterback had thrown 145 straight passes without being picked off. He completed 100 of those.
Heisman voters take notice.
One would think that moniker should belong to Oklahoma after Saturday's performance. Butkus Award candidate Rocky Calmus not only plugged Torrance Marshall, saying the middle linebacker is "just as good," he also gave postgame mention to the forgotten man of the Sooner defense, Roger Steffen.
"Roger gets really overlooked," said Calmus about OU's senior strongside linebacker, who had six tackles against Nebraska. "He came as a walk-on and did his part this time. He is one of the really good linebackers and I don't think he gets the credit he deserves. With the position he plays in this defense, he doesn't get much glory. He is a big key and he makes big plays."
Said Marshall about his fellow 'backers and the rest of the Sooners' D, "Everybody on this defense is a leader. Everyone keeps each other up. We care for one another and if one person is looking down, somebody comes up and gets them motivated."
Honoring a rival
Quite the class act by the Oklahoma athletic department to honor longtime nemesis and former Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne with a picture plaque at midfield before the game. His presenter -- none other than Sooner legend Barry Switzer, who stood on the sideline opposite Osborne for several Nebraska-OU thrillers.
Et Cetera ...
The Nebraska victory marked the first time in six tries that Oklahoma has played a top-ranked team in Norman and won. The last time the Sooners beat the No. 1 team in the land was in 1987 in a 17-7 triumph over the Cornhuskers in Lincoln ... Nebraska's 14 points in the first quarter were the most by an opponent against a Bob Stoops-coached OU team ... Heupel's 346 yards of total offense were the most ever by an OU player versus Nebraska. Quarterback Jack Mildren held the previous mark when he accounted for 267 yards in the 1971 game that has been dubbed the "Game of the Century" ... Oklahoma extended its home-winning streak to 12 games.
Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online.