An OK Day in Pasadena

Times Staff Writer

It was only a fluke, a quirk of the convoluted BCS machinery, that put Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

The Sooners came in place of the customary Big Ten representative. They had never made the trip to Pasadena before and, as far as they knew, might never be back.

So, as linebacker Teddy Lehman said, "We wanted to enjoy ourselves while we had the chance."

That enjoyment came at the expense of Washington State -- and a big chunk of the viewing audience -- as Oklahoma rolled to a 34-14 victory that was more lopsided than the score suggests.

The eighth-ranked Sooners won with a fast, blitzing defense that sacked Cougar quarterback Jason Gesser six times and hurried him into two interceptions.

They won with efficient play from their own quarterback, Nate Hybl, and a ground game that started slowly but kept pounding until running back Quentin Griffin had 144 yards and a touchdown.

Such was their dominance over the seventh-ranked Cougars that Coach Bob Stoops mused afterward, "I'm disappointed we didn't shut them out."

Washington State players resembled deer caught in the headlights.

"We just couldn't put anything together," Cougar offensive lineman Derrick Roche said. "We were missing assignments, missing blocks, just going out there and having no idea what just happened."

As if the mismatch weren't bad enough, it was played in a stadium marked by the unusual sight of empty seats, blocks of them, the announced attendance of 86,848 smaller than any Rose Bowl crowd since 1944.

Tournament of Roses executives, accustomed to sellouts, hinted at a low turnout by Washington State fans. Oklahoma, on the other hand, sold more than its allotment of tickets.

And while the Sooners quickly gave their contingent something to cheer about, driving for a 45-yard field goal on the game's opening possession, Washington State struggled to get started.

Sometimes the Cougars were stopped by a defense predicated on blitzing and forcing the action. Sometimes they shot themselves in the foot with a penalty or turnover. Sometimes their mistakes were subtle.

Consider a second-quarter play when Gesser threw 32 yards to Jerome Riley. As Riley sprinted upfield, his teammate Devard Darling flattened Lehman with a blindside block, then made a show of celebrating.

"That got me mad," Lehman said. "Real mad."

Probably not a good idea.

The Sooner defenders already felt unappreciated, taking heat all week for surrendering long touchdowns in losses to Texas A&M; and Oklahoma State this season. They had a chip on their shoulders as big as the San Gabriel Mountains.

"We wanted to make some plays," cornerback Andre Woolfolk said.

On the snap after Lehman was blindsided, Woolfolk intercepted a Gesser pass near the goal line. A few minutes later, he tipped a field-goal attempt just enough to make it flutter short.

Washington State was left searching for answers.

"We'd get on the sideline and say 'Is anything going to go right?' " said Gesser, who completed 17 of 34 passes for 239 yards, below his average for percentage and yards. "That was how things went today."

Meanwhile, Oklahoma's offense was adapting. The Sooners, having won the Big 12 championship by emphasizing Griffin, now faced a defense front-loaded against the run.

"So," Hybl said, "we threw it."

The understated quarterback spent the week in the shadow of his more-heralded counterpart but pointed out that he has been pretty good at important things such as third-down conversions.

His Rose Bowl performance was no different.

Though his statistics were not fabulous -- 19 of 29 for 240 yards and two touchdowns -- Hybl was named the most valuable player because he came through in clutch situations.

In one instance, he scrambled for 10 yards and a first down. In another, throwing from the end zone, he completed a 57-yard pass to Will Peoples.

It was a third-down play that gave Oklahoma its first touchdown, Hybl lofting a 12-yard pass to Antwone Savage in the end zone.

Less than two minutes remained in the half, but the Sooners had time for another touchdown, a 51-yard punt return by Antonio Perkins.

The score was 17-0 and the game, for all intents and purposes, was over.

A big part of Washington State's problem was time of possession, Oklahoma holding the ball 15 minutes more. Those penalties hurt too, the Cougars accumulating nine for 52 yards.

"You can't do that against a good defense," Gesser said. "You've got to be flawless."

There was also the issue of Coach Mike Price, who accepted the job at Alabama in mid-December and, in a controversial decision, stuck around for this game. Critics called it a distraction.

"I'm sure I'll get my fair share of the blame," Price said.

His star defensive lineman, Rien Long, quickly stuck up for him: "People think it would be nice to have that as a cop-out. Fact is, we made too many mistakes."

One of those miscues snuffed out Washington State's last chance to close the gap.

The Cougars took the second-half kickoff deep in their territory and drove across midfield. But a Gesser pass deflected off Darling's outstretched hand and into the arms of free safety Brandon Everage.

Oklahoma converted the turnover, driving for a 30-yard field goal to make the score 20-0.

Not until the fourth quarter did the Cougars find a semblance of rhythm, Gesser clicking on a 37-yard touchdown pass to Riley and Sammy Moore returning a kickoff 89 yards for another score.

Stoops lost his shutout, but the outcome was never in doubt. Griffin found gaps in the Cougar defense, scampering for a 20-yard touchdown.

"By the end of the game," Hybl said, "I think we just wore them out."

It all added up to a memorable afternoon for the Sooners who, like tourists on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, made the most of their visit to Southern California.

"I was really having fun," Hybl said. "It was a perfect day."

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