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Original Issue

Later, Sooners!

Texas A&M ran off with Oklahoma's title hopes

When Oklahoma, No. 1 in the nation according to poll voters and BCS statisticians alike, was outplayed by a 5--4 Texas A&M team and lost 30--26 on Saturday, no one was more stunned than the Sooners. Run-game coordinator Kevin Wilson talked afterward about Oklahoma's stellar practices leading up to the weekend. Co--defensive coordinator Brent Venables noted that his colleagues' film preparation was as comprehensive as ever. And players said that before the game they were "juiced" and "completely ready to play."

Was it the bad juju of College Station, where two years ago the Sooners' title run was nearly ended by another inspired A&M team? Was it that the Aggies, whose struggles this season had sparked buzz about coach R.C. Slocum's job security, had hit upon a formula that had eluded them for the first two thirds of the season? Outside the visitors' locker room, not 40 yards from where Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was crediting Slocum's boys with being better than billed, Sooners tight end Trent Smith cut through the polite talk. "A&M played well, blah blah blah," said Smith, whose third-quarter fumble led to the field goal that pushed the Aggies ahead 30--23. "We just didn't make the big plays."

Oklahoma's vaunted defense will receive most of the blame. The Sooners' star-packed secondary, which had 14 of the team's nation-high 16 interceptions before the weekend, was burned repeatedly on play-action passes by true freshman quarterback Reggie McNeal, who had attempted just 39 college throws before his four-touchdown performance on Saturday. "We're an aggressive defense," said Venables. "They knew it and took advantage of it. The problem was that we didn't adjust."

More problematic was the inability of the Sooners' offense to pick up the slack. Senior quarterback Nate Hybl (20 of 34 for 249 yards) and senior tailback Quentin Griffin (141 yards on 23 carries) were solid, yet neither came through with big plays when Oklahoma needed them. Twice in the first half the Sooners settled for a field goal when the offense failed to convert on third down from inside the A&M eight-yard line. On its final three possessions of the game Oklahoma kicked a 32-yard field goal, was stuffed for a one-yard loss on fourth down and threw an interception into double coverage with 1:15 remaining.

Aside from praying that Ohio State or Miami faces its own A&M before season's end, all the Sooners (8--1, 4--1 in the Big 12) can do now is rally to avoid the kind of late-season slide that followed their first loss last year, to Nebraska. Another defeat would put an end not only to their national title hopes but likely cost them a spot in the Big 12 championship game. With that in mind, Sooners coaches say they'll be less concerned with tweaking the playbook than with restoring morale. "The key to our season is next week," says offensive coordinator Chuck Long, "when we see how these kids respond." --Kelley King

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL FRESH PRINTS First-year QB McNeal left his mark on the Sooners'defense, with four TD passes and 89 rushing yards.