Sooners take Manhattan by storm, upset No. 3 K-State

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Friday, November 3

Sooners, Heupel vying for top honors

This past weekend we saw home-field advantage prove to not be quite the huge difference-maker it had been throughout the early portion of the 2000 season.

The big shocker saw Glen Mason's Minnesota Golden Gophers go into Columbus and spoil the national championship hopes of Ohio State. In that game, junior wide-out Ron Johnson was at his best, proving that he belongs right up there with the top wide receivers in college football. Others coming through with key road victories included Purdue, Oregon and Washington.

Barry Holleyman
Even Kansas State holder Mike Ronsick wasn't safe from Oklahoma during the Sooners' 41-31 win Saturday.

But in terms of the polls, no game took on greater significance than the matchup between Oklahoma and Kansas State at Manhattan. With both teams in the hunt for the national championship, someone was finishing the day with those hopes shattered. The stakes were high.

That's why my good friends Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit were there with the ESPN College GameDay crew.

As the game unfolded, it became obvious that astute Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops was successful in not allowing the Sooner players to have a celebration carryover from their 63-14 route of Texas the previous week in the Red River rivalry. Entering the fourth quarter, OU held a commanding 38-17 lead, although Sooner fans had to be well aware of what transpired last season -- when they blew big leads against both Texas and Notre Dame.

As it turned out, Bill Snyder's Wildcats were also able to fight their way back, closing the gap to 38-31 with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter. You could argue that the Sooners became a little conservative with the big lead as they attempted to work on the clock. The problem was, K-State was utilizing eight to nine men in the box.

With roughly eight minutes to go, the Sooners drove to the K-State 43-yard line, only to have a halfback option pass intercepted by the Wildcats at their own 11-yard line. That's where the Sooner defense rose up with their biggest series of the game.

Kansas State ended up losing three yards on that three-and-out series. After K-State punted, the Sooners took about five minutes off the clock, with the drive ending with a successful 24-yard field goal by Tim Duncan.

From that point on, the Sooners' defense shut the door and the game ended with Oklahoma holding off Kansas State by a score of 41-31. Keying the victory were the outstanding performances turned in by sophomore SS Roy Williams, junior OLB Rocky Calmus and senior DE Corey Callens.

For Bob Stoops and the Sooners, there is still a long way to go this season, but the coaching staff has to feel great about the fact that the same 22 starters that opened the season are currently still in the starting lineup. On the injury front, outside of LB Rocky Calmus (who has played through a broken thumb), there is no question that Oklahoma thus far has been extremely fortunate.

Heupel, Vick neck-and-neck in Heisman race
In the biggest game of the day, Oklahoma signal-caller Josh Heupel showed the college football world that he is deserving of high honors. At this stage of the season, I feel he should be at or near the top of the Heisman race, basically in a dead heat with Virginia Tech's Michael Vick. Consider his numbers from OU's upset victory. While he finished a remarkable 29-of-37 for 374 yards and two TDs, you notice that his performance level the entire afternoon never wavered.

In the first half of action, Heupel completed 12-of-15 for 169 yards and a TD. During the second half, he was 17-of-22, accounting for 205 yards through the air and one TD. As critical to his success was Heupel's ability to play basically a flawless game, staying away from any costly interceptions that could have swung momentum early to the Wildcats.

Consider this: Over the last three games, he hasn't thrown an interception, even though against Texas -- in cold, rainy weather conditions -- he put the ball in the air 64 times. Thus far, through six games, he's completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and is closing in on 2,000 passing yards. He's tossed 11 TD strikes while being intercepted just four times.

While there is still a long way to go in the evaluation process, I view OU's Josh Heupel as a quarterback prospect who falls somewhere in between former Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel and creative southpaw Cade McNown.

You can see why Heupel and Heisman are fast becoming a nice match. And it goes beyond the stats. Heupel, a captain both years with the Sooners, is a highly respected team leader who put in the time necessary to upgrade his physical skills. This past spring, while nursing a hamstring injury, he didn't run for the clock. But his times for the NFL brass figure to be in the 4.70 range, quite an improvement over previous clockings of 4.90.

I'm told that the improvement in his speed can be traced to a diligent strength-and-conditioning workout routine. In the process, he was able to significantly enhance his ability to burst out of the blocks. That quicker first step has been applied on the football field where Heupel has become even more dangerous with his ability to roll out and have the option of tucking the ball away.

At this point, I'm sure you're asking yourself where Heupel will figure as far as the NFL draft is concerned. While there is still a long way to go in the evaluation process, I view Heupel as a quarterback prospect who falls somewhere in between former Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel and creative southpaw Cade McNown.

While he lacks impressive arm strength, Heupel's success is a direct result of his accuracy and precision throwing the football along with the true grit he demonstrates week in and week out. This kid is a true gamer. Pressure from a defense or a game situation doesn't bother him in the least.

Within OU's offensive structure, he's so good when it comes to anticipating where a receiver is going to be. His accuracy, timing and ability to work through his progressions has contributed heavily to his success in the Big 12. Keep in mind, this is just his second year at OU. Prior to signing on with the Sooners in '99, he spent the '98 campaign at Snow Junior College where he earned JUCO All-American honors.

Heupel actually began his college career at Weber State where he redshirted in '96, then saw action in a few games the following year. While his arm-strength question will have to be answered during a combine/individual workout, the 6-foot-2, 214-pounder has proven to be the type who gets the maximum out of his ability. Whether he can thread the needle and effectively throw the deep out routes at the pro level is up for debate.

At this stage of game, though, as was the case with Wuerffel, you are evaluating Heupel solely on his ability as a collegiate signal caller. Wuerffel was tremendously deserving of the Heisman Trophy. In addition to leading the Gators to a national championship, he handled himself with class at all times, proving to be a huge asset to the Gator program both on and off the field.

But at the pro level, I always believed he was at best a backup or No. 3 signal caller, lacking the arm strength and mobility to operate effectively as a starting quarterback. Folks, it's important to separate how a player performs at the college level to how he will project to the NFL.

So with Heupel, let's not worry about his future draft status. For now, he's a super blue-chip signal caller who can match his productivity and performance level with any college player in the country.

Nebraska looms on Sooners' schedule
After a week off, the Sooners will be in the spotlight once again, hosting the No. 1-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers in Norman.

For Heupel, this will provide yet another stage to either solidify his status as one of the elite performers in college football or fall back just a bit. The same is true that day for Nebraska QB Eric Crouch.

As for Michael Vick, he'll be looking to produce a Heisman effort on Nov. 4 when the Hokies go on the road to face Miami. Whether it be Vick, Heupel, Crouch, Clemson's Woody Dantzler or TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson, they are all scrutinized and evaluated on a game-by-game basis.

Folks, the pressure on the teams vying for a shot at the Orange Bowl and the national championship as well as those players in the hunt for the coveted Heisman Trophy intensifies with each passing week.

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