- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

NEW ORLEANS — Oklahoma might not deserve to be a part of tonight’s Sugar Bowl title game. But the third-ranked Sooners are primed to prove that No.2 LSU doesn’t deserve to share the same field.

The world is full of folks with short memories. Sure, the Sooners (12-1) were miserable in their last outing against Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game. And most would agree that the 35-7 loss to the Wildcats should have sentenced the Sooners to the BCS undercard. Agreed, the formula failed us. But now that the Sooners are in New Orleans, it’s time to move on and recognize their loss to Kansas State for what it was — an outrageous anomaly.

“That wasn’t the Oklahoma Sooners,” said All-America linebacker Teddy Lehman of the Kansas State debacle. “We accept full responsibility for that loss. But we don’t have to accept the perception that that was our defining performance. You’re about to see our defining performance.”

Lehman is right for one simple reason — Oklahoma had nothing at stake, other than conference pride, in the Big 12 finale. As much as coach Bob Stoops tried to convince his team otherwise, every Sooner entered the stadium Dec.6 knowing that Oklahoma was headed to the Sugar Bowl regardless of what happened against the Wildcats. The numbers already had been conclusively crunched by every calculator-toting tyro in the land. The Sooners were Sugar Bowl-bound before kickoff, and they played like it.

“You’ll never hear me say that’s why we lost,” said Stoops earlier this week. “But it’s probably fair to say it didn’t help.”

The Sooners simply weren’t themselves against Kansas State, no matter whether you credit an inspired Wildcats performance or blame a smug set of Sooners.

Heisman Trophy winner Jason White, statistically the most efficient passer in the college game, threw two interceptions and no touchdowns against the Wildcats. Though Oklahoma moved the ball consistently against Kansas State, rolling up a respectable 398 yards of total offense, it unraveled in the red zone. The team that had scored on 58 of 60 trips into the red zone during a perfect run through the regular season, was 0-for-2 against the Wildcats. The Sooners turned the ball over on downs twice. And kicker Trey DiCarlo, a Lou Groza Award finalist who had missed one kick all season (19-for-20), blew field goals from 28 and 44 yards.

Defensively, the Sooners’ effort was equally shocking as the nation’s top-rated unit, which entered the game yielding 233 yards a game, gave up 519 to Kansas State.

The aftermath was predictable: The media embraced BCS-spurned USC and savaged the Sooners. Oklahoma’s reputation has endured a month of debits, and tonight LSU (12-1) likely will get the tab.

“You guys have made us an underdog the last three or four weeks,” said Stoops in his final pregame news conference yesterday. “Our players have a chip on their shoulder and feel like they have something to prove. It’s like LSU is the only team in the country to win 12 games, and we’re not worthy to be anywhere. It doesn’t sit real well.”

Translation: The Sooners are ready to break on LSU like a crimson and cream tsunami. The team that was flat against K-State will be frothing at the mouth tonight.

Now if this was a fair fight to begin with, a berserk bunch from Oklahoma might not be a problem for LSU.

But if the Tigers can claim to equal the Sooners in terms of overall team talent, they can’t come close to comparing with Oklahoma when it comes to experience. Just take a closer look at the two defenses, the units which are almost certain to define this game. Statistically, Oklahoma has the nation’s top-ranked defense, yielding 255.6 yards a game. And LSU ranks second, giving up 259.5 yards.

In terms of defensive fronts, the two teams are similarly loaded with outrageous resumes. Oklahoma’s front line is anchored by defensive tackle Tommie Harris, the nation’s Lombardi Award winner as the top interior lineman. And LSU’s line features consensus All-American Chad Lavalais. The trio around both studs consists of superb all-conference types who have logged several seasons in the trenches.

Unfortunately for LSU, that’s where the similarities end.

Unlike Oklahoma, which features the Butkus and Thorpe Award winners in linebacker Teddy Lehman and cornerback Derrick Strait, LSU’s back seven is both undecorated and relatively inexperienced.

The Sooners, who start 11 upperclassmen on defense, feature a back seven that can boast a gaudy 180 starts. LSU’s group, which includes freshman cornerback LaRon Landry and career backups Jack Hunt (strong safety) and Eric Alexander (linebacker), counters with barely half as much experience (92 starts). You have to remember that three members of Oklahoma’s secondary played in Oklahoma’s title game victory over Florida State in the 2001 Orange Bowl back when LSU was busy finishing 8-5.

The lopsided nature of LSU’s defense hasn’t cost it much this season, thanks to a schedule that featured the run-happy SEC West and a laughable non-conference slate of Louisiana-Monroe, Western Illinois, Louisiana Tech and Arizona. The Tigers only faced two major conference pass-first teams all season, losing at home to Florida (19-7) and scraping past Ole Miss (17-14).

Tonight Oklahoma will introduce them to Mr. Heisman and the nation’s ninth-ranked passing offense (307.4 yards). If Oklahoma’s outstanding offensive line can keep LSU’s front four from imploding the pocket, and they allowed only 23 sacks on 443 passing attempts this season, Jason White and Co. should do some damage to the Tigers’ average back seven.

Combine that edge in experience with a healthy dose of Oklahoma angst, and the Sooners are likely to become an emphatic second-chance champion.

“They have a nice defense, but if we execute our stuff we can score on anybody,” said All-American wideout Mark Clayton on Friday. “You’re about to see the real Oklahoma. That’s a promise.”

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