Monday, January 5, 2004

NEW ORLEANS — The Sooners stunk.

Proving that the BCS formula cost college football its rightful championship climax, No. 2 LSU survived a fourth-quarter comeback bid by No. 3 Oklahoma in last nights 70th Sugar Bowl, smothering the Sooners 21-14.

Oklahoma, which slipped into the game via BCS computer shenanigans despite a 35-7 loss to Kansas State in its last pre-bowl game, was offensively atrocious against the Tigers (13-1). And by the time LSU linebacker Lionel Turner sacked Oklahomas Jason White on the games final meaningful play, the entire football world was left longing for the USC vs. LSU game the human polls would have given us in a BCS-free world.

Any lingering doubts about whether the system cheated the fans out of the best possible game were resolved on the second play of the second half, as LSU defensive end Marcus Spears intercepted one of the many floaters from Oklahoma quarterback Jason White and rumbled 20 yards to the end zone to put the Tigers ahead 21-7.

Frankly, it could have been far worse. LSUs vaunted defense was every bit as dominating as advertised. Freshman tailback and Sugar Bowl MVP Justin Vincent looked like a future Heisman candidate, rolling up 117 rushing yards and a touchdown while exhibiting a serious combination of strength and speed. And LSU wideout/return specialist Skyler Green was pure gas, notching the games first score on a 24-yard, first-quarter reverse and exciting on punt returns all night.

“We really only gave up one scoring drive all night, and it was on a short field,” said LSU coach Nick Saban after delivering the school a piece of its first national title in 45 years. “It wasnt pretty, but we did what we had to do.

No, this game was far from an aesthetic gem. In fact, this Sugar Bowl stinker was more a case of the Sooners offense being awful than the Tigers being awesome.

As was the case in their Big 12 title-game loss to Kansas State, Oklahomas struggles started with their star senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy recipient White. After watching White throw four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and no touchdown passes in his last two starts, it would be difficult for anyone to think of him as an award winner.

Oklahomas final two possessions provided a perfect microcosm for the whole night. Trailing 21-14 with just over seven minutes remaining, Oklahoma took possession at just short of midfield and drove haltingly into LSU territory. But after earning a first down at the LSU 12 with 3:10 remaining courtesy of a dubious pass interference call, the Sooners stalled.

White missed on four straight passes, his final toss skipping off the hands of LSU corner Corey Webster and falling just through the grasp of Oklahoma All-American wideout Mark Clayton.

After a quick LSU possession, the Sooners (12-2) got one more chance, taking over just short of midfield with 2:09 remaining. But just as before, White misfired time and again, missing two open receivers with his first three tosses before being sacked by Turner to put an exclamation point on his disastrous night.

All told, White missed on his last eight passes of the game, chucked a pair of interceptions, and finished the game 13-for-37 passing for just 102 yards. His spotty play was a major reason Oklahomas offense, which came into the game leading the nation in scoring (45.2), managed fewer first-half yards (44) than LSUs Vincent recorded on the games first play a 64-yard sprint through the middle of the Oklahoma defense that set the tone for the entire game.

LSUs defensive front deserves much of the credit for Whites weak performance. The Tigers, who entered the game ranked first in scoring defense (10.8), sacked White five times and harassed him mercilessly all night, defensive tackles Chad Lavalais and Marquis Hill practically earning squatters rights in the Oklahoma backfield.

But like White, who threw into double coverage often and held the ball far too long on several sacks, the Oklahoma offense often looked incompetent. Whites receivers dropped four passes in the first half alone. Three of the botches belonged to All-American Clayton, who obviously left his hands back in Norman.

Fact is, Oklahomas only scores were courtesy of its defense and special teams. Midway through the second quarter junior Brandon Shelby blocked an LSU punt to give the Sooners offense a first-and-goal at the Tigers 2; it still took the Sooners three plays and a defensive penalty to crack the goal line from there.

Then in the final quarter, an interception of LSU quarterback Matt Mauck by Oklahoma junior corner Antonio Perkins nearly resurrected the moribund Sooners. Perkins returned the ball to the LSU 35, setting up the Sooners with a short field and allowing them to cut the score to 21-14 early in the fourth quarter.

Last nights BCS behemoth capped a controversial bowl season which saw a USC team ranked No.1 in both polls snubbed by the formula which determined the Sugar Bowl matchup. And while most of the 62 coaches who comprise one of those polls are likely to follow BCS protocol and cast their lot with LSU, the Trojans (12-1) held their spot in the AP Poll released early this morning to earn a share of their first national title since 1979.

So until college football gets a playoff knockout, well have to live with the occasional split decision.

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