Andre Woolfolk smiled and the gleaming metal of his braces distracted attention from the bandage on his chin.
It was a fitting image. The cornerback was a key part of an Oklahoma secondary that proved its mettle in the Rose Bowl after taking it on the chin in two November losses.
The same defensive backs burned by Rashaun Woods of Oklahoma State and a collection of Texas A&M; receivers intercepted two passes and contained the vaunted Washington State aerial attack until the Sooners built a comfortable lead.
The defensive backs pitched in on special teams as well. Woolfolk blocked a field-goal attempt and cornerback Antonio Perkins returned a punt 51 yards for a touchdown in Oklahoma's 34-14 victory Wednesday.
"Our respect was taken away from us in those losses," safety Eric Bassey said. "We had to prove to the world and to our fans that we were deserving of this game and this victory."
Washington State quarterback Jason Gesser and his fleet of tall, rangy receivers were throttled in the first half when Oklahoma built a 17-0 lead.
Gesser, who passed for more than 3,000 yards in each of the last two years, completed only three of 11 passes for 81 yards in the half. His first toss went for 29 yards to Devard Darling, but the Sooner line began applying pressure and the secondary became stingy.
"[Gesser] didn't know what coverage we were in," Woolfolk said. "We had three weeks to prepare and we used everything we had."
Woolfolk made two big plays in the second quarter. He intercepted a pass by Gesser intended for Darling at the Oklahoma two-yard line, ending Washington State's best scoring opportunity of the half.
"I knew they liked to run slants in the red zone and that's what he ran," Woolfolk said.
The 6-foot-1 senior blocked a 51-yard field-goal try on the Cougars' next possession, leaping as high off the ground as a volleyball player blocking a shot.
"Actually, basketball is my game," he said. "I dunk a basketball all the time, that's what I love to do."
Next it was Perkins' turn to display athleticism. He took a punt and raced 51 yards for a touchdown with 1:09 left in the half, sending Washington State to the locker room thoroughly discouraged. It was his third punt return for a touchdown this season.
"We were going to try to block that kick and we changed our minds at the last second," Coach Bob Stoops said. "[Perkins] had two long returns called back because of penalties, so we thought we'd set up a return for him."
Gesser looked sharper to begin the third quarter, leading the Cougars from their 10 to midfield. But Darling tipped an overthrown pass to safety Brandon Everage, who returned the interception 15 yards, setting up a field goal.
Everage, an All-Big 12 Conference player who had 93 tackles this season, made another key play late in the quarter, sacking Gesser on a third-down blitz.
"We mixed up our defenses and used a lot of blitzes and zone coverage," Everage said. "We disguised our looks and confused Gesser."
Oklahoma used a nickel package much of the game to combat the Washington State shotgun formation, using cornerback Derrick Strait along with Woolfolk, Perkins, Bassey and Everage.
A quintet embarrassed by Oklahoma State's 357 yards passing and Texas A&M;'s four touchdowns through the air enjoyed being redeemed on a huge national stage. The defensive backs did not need to remind anyone that Oklahoma leads the nation with 24 interceptions.
"People doubted our secondary all [season], especially after we lost a couple," Everage said. "We talked about this a lot the last few weeks. This was our chance to show something against a great passing team from out West. We showed that Oklahoma can defend the pass well. And we won the Rose Bowl."