Oklahoma 12, California 13

September 19, 1998 | at Norman | Attendance 74,235

California traveled to meet Oklahoma for only the fourth time, the first in Norman since '76, and it was a rematch from the Bears' 40-36 win a year earlier in Berkeley. But in Sooner Country, third-year coach John Blake was a man on the hot seat.

After posting 3-8 and 4-8 records in his first two seasons, after spending two seasons struggling to stay out of the Big 12 conference cellar, it was an understatement that spoiled Sooners fans, accustomed to Oklahoma football being synonymous with winning championships, were losing their patience with Blake. But he was confident '98 would be the year things turned around, despite members of the media and Big 12 coaches picking the Sooners to finish fifth in the south division, and he had once again made several wholesale changes to help make sure of that. Some may the say the adjustments are the start of a solid foundation, while others may argue that they create chaos, but one thing was for sure in Norman, that Blake probably needed at least a .500 record to possibly avoid the axe.

Oklahoma returned eight players to their offensive unit with starting experience, and with 94% of their rushing offense back, they looked to return to its former college football glory in '98 with the help of an old friend. The Sooners, who made the wishbone offense their trademark during the school's glory years in the '70's and '80's, plan a return to option football under new offensive coordinator Joe Dickinson. One reason was that last season Oklahoma had three touchdown passes total, and threw for less than 83 yards in five different games. But the biggest reason was the emergence of junior and former strong safety Brandon Daniels at quarterback, a gifted athlete who took over in the seventh game of the '97 season, displacing two-year starter Justin Fuente, who then decided to transfer to Division 1-AA Murray State.

But just because the Sooners have changed their offensive philosophy from last year doesn't mean All-Big 12 junior running back DeMond Parker wasn't a major part of the game plan. In a season cut to nine games due to a pulled stomach muscle, he led Oklahoma with 1,143 yards rushing, the first Sooner running back since Billy Sims in 1978-79 to record consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. In addition, fullbacks Jermaine Fazande and Seth Littrell, who combined for 692 yards and eight touchdowns, were back.

Oklahoma also made a change on the defensive side of the ball, bringing in Rex Ryan to upgrade what was one of the worst in fans' recent memory. Returning nine players, they were employing an aggressive and attacking "46" style defense that had been made famous by Buddy Ryan and the Chicago Bears in the mid-1980's. The unit was anchored by tackle Kelly Gregg leading a solid front four, safety Gana Joseph heading up a wealth of experience in the defensive backfield, while linebacker was the team's most inexperienced position.

The changes had worked thus far. Despite Daniels injuring his left shoulder in the opener against North Texas, sophomore walk-on Patrick Fletcher had stepped in, scored two touchdowns and had also thrown for a pair, and guided Oklahoma to a 2-0 record after an unlikely 10-9 victory over TCU in which they trailed 9-0 before getting a touchdown, recovering an onsides kick, and subsequent field goal in the final 2:20. But Daniels was the quarterback best suited for the offense, and he would get the start against California, and the feeling around Norman was that the rebuilding process might finally be over for a program that has not experienced a winning season since '93.

But the offense would be tested against a Cal defense that held up admirably against defending national champion Nebraska, holding them to just 14 points for more than three quarters, and throwing a scare into the Huskers before losing 24-3. Under second-year coach Tom Holmoe, the Bears' defense, which ranked near the bottom of the Pac-10 in scoring and total defense in '97, had quickly become the strength of the team, allowing only 327 yards per game and 17 points per game.

Defensively, Oklahoma would face a primarily pass-oriented offense for the third consecutive week. Cal's vaunted passing attack behind senior quarterback Justin Vedder had registered more than 200 yards in each of its first two games, and the Bears featured one of the Pac-10's leading receivers in senior wideout Dameane Douglas. But the Cal running game had been stagnant to say the least, and the Bears had rushed for only 17 net yards on the year, meaning that Oklahoma's main concern would be consistent pass rush.

After the opening kickoff, Cal moved the ball from its own 20 to the Oklahoma 27-yard-line, but the drive stalled when a first down pass inside the Sooner 20 was negated by an offensive interference penalty. Cal came up empty when senior kicker Tim Wolleck shanked a 44-yard field goal attempt.

Oklahoma then struck quickly on its first offensive drive. After an 18-yard run by fullback Seth Littrell, the Sooners converted a third down-and-13 situation when Daniels rolled to his right and then threw the ball back across the field on a beautifully executed screen pass to tight end Matt Anderson, and with a wall of blockers set up in front of him, the play went for a 58-yard touchdown, capping a four-play, 73-yard drive. It was the third consecutive game Cal's staunch defense gave up a long offensive drive on the opponent's opening drive. After a false start, the extra point was missed and the score remained 6-0 with 8:00 showing on the clock.

Cal got a break on Oklahoma's next possession when Andre Carter pounced on an Oklahoma fumble, recovering the ball at the Cal 36-yard-line. The Bears, though, were unable to capitalize on the turnover.

Later, Cal got a huge break late in the first quarter when Sekou Sanyika tackled Daniels behind the line of scrimmage, forcing a fumble on the play. Carter picked up the ball at the Oklahoma ten-yard line and returned it to the five. A two-yard gain by Joshua White set up a Vedder touchdown pass to Dameane Douglas from three yards out. Wolleck's conversion made it 7-6 in favor of the visitor's with 1:22 left in the period.

On their next drive, Oklahoma drove as deep as Cal's 11-yard line, but a holding penalty pushed the Sooners back, and a 38-yard field goal by freshman kicker Jeff Ferguson sailed wide left.

But the home team was right back in business after Cal's offense was stopped in three plays. Oklahoma junior Jarrail Jackson then returned Nick Harris' punt 54 yards to put the ball at the Cal 12-yard line. The Bears' defense rose up and stopped the Sooners, with three plays netting only two yards. Ferguson again came on to attempt a 28-yard field goal, but Kevin Swillis broke through and blocked it, and Cal maintained its one-point lead.

After taking over on its own 23-yard-line, Cal used Vedder's 13- and 20-yard completions to Douglas, followed by a 27-yard run by sophomore tailback Marcus Fields to push all the way down to the Oklahoma 18-yard-line. When the drive stalled, Wolleck calmly knocked through a 35-yard field goal with 4:26 left in the half to give the Bears a 10-6 lead into the locker room.

Oklahoma got a big break on its first possession of the second half. After going nowhere on three plays, the Sooners benefited from a roughing the punter penalty that gave them new life. A long run on a third down-and four situation by Parker put the ball at the Cal 16-yard-line. The Bears' defense stiffened and forced a 37-yard field goal that Matt Reeves converted to pull within one, 10-9, with 10:03 left in the third quarter.

Cal's defense forced a turnover when a Daniels pass was deflected and linebacker Matt Beck picked the ball off and returned the ball into Sooners territory. But a penalty for an illegal push in the back on the runback meant the drive would start back at the Cal 39-yard-line. Vedder drove the offense as far as the Oklahoma 35-yard-line, but penalties again pushed the Bears back, and they had to punt the ball away, pinning the Sooners back at the five-yard line.

To start the fourth quarter, the Sooners put together their most impressive drive of the night, using 12 plays to march 83 yards, all the way down to the Cal 12-yard line. Reeves came on to nail a 30-yard field goal, and the Sooners had regained a 12-10 lead with 10:09 left in the game.

Beginning at its own 30, Cal responded on its next play from scrimmage as Fields scampered 24 yards to the Oklahoma 46-yard-line. Two plays later, he broke loose for another long-gainer, this one chewing up another 24 yards down to the Sooners 19. Cal got another first down, but the Oklahoma defense stiffened when backed up against its own goal, and the drive stalled. But Wolleck kicked through a 27-yard field goal with 5:56 left in the game to cap a ten-play, 60-yard drive and give the Bears a 13-12 lead.

Oklahoma was unable to move the ball, and Cal's defense forced a punt with three and a half minutes left. The Bears, keyed by a 22-yard bootleg by Vedder, were able to run the clock down to 1:00 before having to punt, and Harris' boot pinned the Sooners back on their 12-yard line. With Jarrod Reese in at quarterback, Oklahoma moved the ball out to their 42-yard line. However, Reese was sacked for a 19-yard loss and a desperation pass on the game's final play fell incomplete, and California escaped with a 13-12 win.

The Sooners did out-gain the Bears in total yards, 332-296, and Parker rushed for 114 yards on 17 carries, but it was not enough to compensate for an inadequate aerial attack as Daniels and Reese combined to complete just three-of-ten passes for 77 yards. And it was the Cal defense that had come up big on the night, forcing three turnovers and stopping several key Oklahoma drives throughout the game.

California won despite gaining just 286 total yards. They found their previously non-existent running game, and behind Fields' career-high 140 yards on 21 carries, they picked up 178 on the ground. As for the passing game, Vedder completed ten of 16 passes for 118 yards, and the one touchdown.

But Blake and the Sooners were one point, or an extra point or field goal, away from a perfect 3-0 start. Instead, they were 2-1, and they had two weeks to prepare for their Big 12 opener opposite #15 Colorado.

Considering the opponent, the effort against California was probably the best of the year thus far for the Sooners, but it wouldn't be good enough to give them a winning record. But in the final analysis of the first three games, it was an Oklahoma offense that wasn't nearly as good as expected, a defense that was better than was anticipated, and a kicking game that had been very inconsistent. Three games do not a season make, and a team certainly doesn't panic after three games, but unless some adjustments were made, it could be a long season in Norman.

Source: Jeff Linkowski

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