At times during the off-season Dusty Dvoracek would be watching television in his apartment and certain images would pop onto the screen that made him recoil in disgust. Like his teammates, Dvoracek wanted to avert his eyes whenever he saw clips of Oklahoma‚Äôs last two games of the 2003 season. ‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt lose at Oklahoma, so it was a sickening feeling to have to watch ESPN rerun those highlights,‚Äù says Dvoracek, a senior defensive tackle. ‚ÄúTrust me--no one here is going to let that happen again this season.‚Äù
Through the first 12 games last year Dvoracek and the Sooners plowed through opponents like a combine through a cornfield, shredding everything in their path as they won every game, by an average margin of 35.2 points, and dominated the polls. But as some observers began comparing Oklahoma with two of the greatest teams of all time--the 1971 Nebraska squad that went wire-to-wire as No. 1 and finished 13‚Äì0 and the ‚Äô44 Army team that won its nine games by an average of 52 points--the Boomer Sooner wagon wrecked. In the Big 12 championship game Kansas State spanked Oklahoma 35‚Äì7. Then in the Sugar Bowl battle for the BCS championship, the Sooners were outcoached, outhustled and outplayed by LSU and lost 21‚Äì14.
What went wrong? ‚ÄúThere are a number of things I could get into to explain everything, but the number one thing is that we just didn‚Äôt tackle very well,‚Äù says Sooners coach Bob Stoops. ‚ÄúAnd for some reason, over those two games we didn‚Äôt play on the edge. The blame should be placed on me.‚Äù
‚ÄúWe just got beat, simple as that,‚Äù says senior quarterback Jason White. ‚ÄúSometimes you just have to say that you weren‚Äôt the better team, and in those two games we weren‚Äôt.‚Äù
‚ÄúWe fell apart,‚Äù says Dvoracek. ‚ÄúThose two games are all I‚Äôve thought about since January. Our pride has been hurt, and that‚Äôs made us hungrier than ever.‚Äù
Though fellow defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who was drafted No. 14 by the Chicago Bears in April, got most of the publicity last season, it was Dvoracek who led the interior linemen in sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (16). The 6'3", 294pound Lake Dallas, Texas, native isn‚Äôt as strong or as nimble as Harris, but he earned All‚ÄìBig 12 honors last year, thanks largely to his wild-eyed intensity. How crazy is Dvoracek? As kids, he and his friends liked to climb to the tops of trees and jump out of them into piles of leaves. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôd slow ourselves by catching onto branches,‚Äù says Dvoracek. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not as nuts as it sounds. Well, maybe it is.‚Äù
Another reason Dvoracek put up big numbers was that opponents constantly double-teamed Harris, who nonetheless won the Lombardi Award as the nation‚Äôs top lineman, and left Dvoracek to manhandle one blocker. Though Dvoracek should be the one drawing that extra attention this season, his coaches think he‚Äôll be OU‚Äôs next dominant lineman. His unit‚Äôs coach, Jackie Shipp, calls Dvoracek ‚Äúunblockable‚Äù and predicts All-America honors for him.
‚ÄúDusty is one of the leaders of our defense,‚Äù says Stoops. ‚ÄúWith him and the other guys we have coming back, we have a chance to be a very, very good defensive team.‚Äù
The same could be said of Oklahoma‚Äôs offense. Last season the Sooners were third in the nation in scoring, averaging 42.9 points. This season it appears they‚Äôll be even better. They have eight starters back, including White, who shortly after winning the Heisman Trophy was awarded a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, having played in only four games total in two seasons due to knee injuries. White was terrific in OU‚Äôs first dozen games last year, throwing 40 touchdown passes and only six interceptions, but he struggled in the two losses. KState and LSU both rattled him early with an assortment of blitzes and punishing, helmet-to-face-mask hits. By the fourth quarter in both games White was suffering from a terminal case of happy feet. He‚Äôd think blitzes were coming when they weren‚Äôt and, consequently, he rushed throws and made poor decisions. White repeatedly replayed those games in his mind during the off-season and vows that he won‚Äôt be flummoxed so easily in 2004.
‚ÄúThe mistakes I made are correctable,‚Äù says White, who sat out the spring game while recovering from minor operations on his left knee, right hand and right foot but is now healthy. ‚ÄúOur offense has so many weapons that we expect to be challenging for the national title.‚Äù
White‚Äôs favorite target will again be senior wide receiver Mark Clayton, who in 2003 had the finest season ever by a Sooners wideout. The 5'11", 187pound speedster set school records with 83 catches for 1,425 yards and 15 touchdowns.
What‚Äôs new to the offense is freshman tailback Adrian Peterson from Palestine (Texas) High. Widely regarded as the top prep running back in the country last year, the 6'2", 210-pound Peterson rushed for almost 3,000 yards in his final high school season, and he could be the big-play back Stoops has been looking for since arriving in Norman in 1999. ‚ÄúAdrian has been here lifting weights over the summer, and everyone is comparing him to Billy Sims and Eric Dickerson,‚Äù says Dvoracek. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôll be exciting to see what he can do on the field.‚Äù
Dvoracek, White, Peterson and the rest of the Sooners should breeze through September and be 4‚Äì0 when they head to the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 9 to try to make it five straight victories over Texas. The next week they travel to Manhattan, Kans., for a rematch with the Wildcats--a revenge game that Oklahoma has circled on its calender. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve got as good a shot as anybody to win the national championship,‚Äù says Stoops. ‚ÄúHopefully last year taught us a few lessons.‚Äù --Lars Anderson
2003 RECORD 12‚Äì2 (8‚Äì0, 1st in Big 12 South)
FINAL AP RANK 3
RETURNING STARTERS 14
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
QB Jason White (Sr.)
40 TD passes broke school record by seven
WR Mark Clayton (Sr.)
OU‚Äôs alltime leading receiver (2,333 yards)
DE Jonathan Jackson (Sr.)
Hurried the QB a team-leading 26 times
DE Dan Cody (Sr.)
Ten sacks, 17 tackles for loss
S Donte Nicholson (Sr.)
Sooners‚Äô leading returning tackler, with 90
Consecutive games in which Oklahoma has scored a TD, a streak that began after Texas A&M‚Äôs 29‚Äì0 shutout of OU on Nov. 7, 1998.
Larry Birdine might portray himself as a softy-- he says he reads Danielle Steele romance novels--but Big 12 offensive linemen aren‚Äôt fooled: The 6'4", 251-pound sophomore is a pass-rushing terror. As part of the Sooners‚Äô three-man rotation at defensive end last year, Birdine saw action in every game and had four sacks and eight tackles for loss. This fall he may get a bigger share of the playing time while backing up seniors Dan Cody and Jonathan Jackson.
Sept. 4 BOWLING GREEN
Oct. 2 TEXAS TECH
9 vs. Texas*
16 at Kansas State
30 at Oklahoma State
Nov. 6 at Texas A&M
20 at Baylor
BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES
While not as celebrated as other receivers last year, Clayton smashed most OU single-season receiving records. ¬†
ROBERT SEALE/SPORTING NEWS/ICON SMI