Oklahoma 25, Mississippi 27

December 31, 1999 | at Shreveport | Attendance 49,873

First-year coach Bob Stoops and Oklahoma, making their first bowl appearance since 1994, squared off against Mississippi for the first time ever, and it would take place in the Independence Bowl on the final night of the millennium. It would be the 33rd bowl game for the Sooners, who came in with a 20-11-1 record in the post season.

Tens of thousands of Oklahoma fans made the journey to Shreveport. LA to ring in the New Year. They came because they love the direction Stoops was taking the program, and there weren't a lot of people who expected the Sooners to post seven victories this season. But while the Independence Bowl is nice for this year, it won't be a trip that spoiled fans will brag about in two or three campaigns, for they will be thinker bigger and better.

"Seven wins was nice, but we could have done better," Stoops said. "There were some games we got the lead in and just didn't close the door. We can't let that happen. We have great expectations at Oklahoma. We do not want to settle for mediocrity. We want to compete for championships like they have in the past."

The Oklahoma (7-4) offense had averaged 36.8 points per game, but architect Mike Leach had since moved on to become the head coach at Texas Tech, and former offensive line coach Mark Mangino was promoted for the Independence Bowl, but a slow down was not expected. On the field, it was under the direction of junior college transfer quarterback Josh Heupel, a junior who came in having completed 62% of his passes and threw for 3,448 yards and 30 touchdowns, all school records. Diminutive freshman tailback Quentin Griffin, the 5-6 Aldine (TX) native who was expected to be red shirted but instead was called upon late in the season and played well in the last four games, had rushed for 285 yards, a healthy 6.4-yard per carry average, and three touchdowns.

On defense, Oklahoma allowed just over 18 points per game, and they featured a strong linebacker core of Rocky Calmus, the Big 12 defensive player of the year, and Torrence Marshall. But overall, they would need to play more consistently, for they gave up an average of 344 yards per game during the regular season and were unable to hold leads against Notre Dame, Texas and Texas Tech.

For Ole Miss (7-4), they were playing in the game for the second straight year, owned a 16-11 record in bowl games, and came in having won three straight in the post-season. They were under first-year head coach David Cutliffe, who had taken over for the Independence Bowl a year ago. Directing their offense, which averaged about 27 points per game, was junior quarterback Romaro Miller, who had thrown for 1,999 yards and 14 touchdowns. But their strength was in a running game that featured probably the best pair of backs in the nation. Sophomore Joe Gunn led the team with 951 rushing yards, and had scored five touchdowns on the ground, and seven total. Meanwhile, junior Deuce McAllister had contributed 809 yards and led the team with 15 touchdowns, with a dozen via the ground. Linebacker Armegis Spearman led their defense, which permitted 18.5 points per game.

In front of 49,873 spectators in Shreveport, LA, after stopping Ole Miss on the game's first possession, Oklahoma their first series at its 45 with 12:30 left in the opening period. They drove down to Rebel 18 thanks to three big plays. But they could not take advantage, as sophomore kicker Tim Duncan missed a 35-yard field goal wide to the left with 10:50 showing in the quarter.

Ole Miss would make them pay. Taking over, Miller was especially sharp in the early stages of the game. First, he hit sophomore receiver Maurice Flournoy on a 45-yard completion, and on the next play, McAllister got behind a linebacker and hauled in a pass from Miller for a 25-yard touchdown. It took only four plays to march 80 yards, and after junior kicker Les Binkley's extra point, the Rebels were up 7-0 with 9:05 in the period.

Oklahoma tried to mount a drive once more. On the fourth play of the series, senior Jarrail Jackson, after catching a short pass from Heupel, was hit by Ole Miss senior cornerback Tim Strickland and fumbled, where where teammate Amzie Williams made the recovery for the Rebels at the Oklahoma 40 with 7:22 showing. But the Sooner defense rose to the occasion on the third play when Miller's pass was intercepted by sophomore defensive end Cory Heinecke, who returned it 51 yards before being dragged down by McAllister at the Ole Miss 20. Once again, Oklahoma could not move, and they were forced to settle Duncan's 34-yard field goal, and cut the lead to 7-3 at the 5:22 mark of the first period.

Oklahoma stopped the next Rebel drive when defensive back William Bartee picked off Miller and returned the ball seven yards to the Ole Miss 29 with 4:29 left in the quarter, but the momentum swing did not last long. Three plays later, Heupel fumbled the center exchange, and Ole Miss defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy recovered the loose ball at the its 24 with 2:56 left in the first quarter.

On the Sooners' next drive they drove as deep as the Ole Miss 38 that bridged into the second quarter. Faced with a fourth down, they tried a gadget play. Back-up quarterback Patrick Fletcher, lined up as the middle man in the punt formation, took the snap and lateraled the ball to senior Brandon Daniels, who then tried to hit Antwone Savage inside the Rebel 15-yard line on a halfback pass, however, the Rebels' Cory Petersen batted the ball down to end the threat.

The clock showed 14:02 in the half when Ole Miss took over. They responded by using 12 plays and nearly six minutes to march 62 yards down the field. Miller completed all five of his passes and kept the drive alive with a five-yard scramble on a key third down-and-five play, as Ole Miss moved to the Oklahoma nine. They capped their drive when Miller tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Adam Bettis. Binkley again tacked on the extra point, and the Rebels were up 14-3 with 8:13 remaining in the half.

Oklahoma put together a nice drive to answer, advancing to the Ole Miss 15, but form but Rebel senior cornerback Tim Strickland intercepted Heupel's pass intended for Damian Mackey in the end zone to end the threat with 4:18 showing. Then came McAllister again, as he went up the middle and bounced off a defender at the line, cut back and outran a handful of Sooners to the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown, the longest scrimmage play in Independence Bowl history and the longest surrendered by Oklahoma in a bowl game. After Binkley's kick again, the Rebels were threatening to blow out the Sooners, 21-3, with just over four minutes left in the half.

With 3:55 left in the half, Oklahoma started at its nine after a penalty on the kickoff. They used the remainder of the half to drive all the way down the field to the Rebel ten, and set up for a field goal attempt. However, they went for a fake and holder Fletcher picked up the snap from center and tried to make a pass, but he was sacked by defenders Ronnie Heard and Syniker Taylor for a 17-yard loss on the last play of the half, and the two teams headed into the locker room.

Getting only one field goal in six drives into Mississippi territory in the first half, the Sooners had two turnovers and messed up a pair of fake kicks. Ole Miss had taken full advantage, in addition to using big plays on both sides of the ball to build a big first half lead. Miller had completed 12 of 17 passes for 158 yards, and although he had two intercepted, he also threw a pair of touchdowns.

Fortunately for Oklahoma, Heupel got untracked in the second half. He directed them on a nine-play, 73-yard march to open the second half, which was capped by a three-yard touchdown pass to Jackson, and Duncan's extra point cut the Mississippi lead to 21-10 with 11:26 left in the period. Later, Oklahoma marched 80 yards in six plays as Heupel hit Daniels on a 41-yard touchdown pass, cutting the deficit to 21-16, and on the two drives, Heupel had completed ten of 12 passes for 109 yards. The Sooners went for a two-point conversion, and when Heupel hit Chris Hammons for the score, Oklahoma trailed by only three points with 3:58 left in the third quarter.

The Rebels responded by using 13 plays to move 70 yards to the Sooner 12, but the defense held firm, and a 29-yard field goal by Binkley capped a 14-play drive for Ole Miss and gave the Rebels a 24-18 lead with 11:18 remaining in the game. Heupel appeared to commit a costly turnover when he fumbled at the Rebels 20 on Oklahoma's next drive, but Ole Miss didn't take advantage, and the Sooners got another shot.

Oklahoma drove 79 yards down the field, including a 24-yard run and short reception by Griffin and a 22-yard completion to Daniels on a slant pattern that moved the ball to the Rebel 17. From there, Heupel's third touchdown pass of the game, a 17-yarder to Griffin, who had been used effectively during the six-play march, tied the game. On the all-important extra point, Duncan was true and the Sooners had a 25-24 lead with 2:17 remaining.

Down by as many as 18 points in the first half, it looked as if the resilient Sooners had fought back for the victory. And it also looked as if it was happening again to the Rebels, who closed out the regular season with three-point losses to Georgia and Mississippi State after surrendering late leads.

McAllister collected the ensuing kickoff at the one, broke a tackle, and returned it 42 yards, giving the Rebels the ball on its own 43 with 2:03 to play. Then he carried for eight yards and nine more on the first two plays from scrimmage. Later, with the Rebels facing a third down-and-two, the Oklahoma defense broke their huddle, realized some confusion and called for a timeout, but it was not in time, and they were flagged for having too many men in the huddle, despite calling a timeout. The five-yard penalty gave Ole Miss a first down at the 27. Three plays later, on third down from the Sooner 22 with three seconds left, Binkley came on to attempt a 39-yard field goal to win the game. It was well within his range, an accurate second team all-SEC performer who had converted all 36 of his extra point attempts, 13 of 15 field goal attempts, and had hit from as far as 49 yards earlier in the regular season. The confident kicker booted the ball cleanly, and it sailed through the uprights as the game's clock expired, and with less than an hour remaining before the millennium ended.

It gave the Rebels a victory over the Sooners in a wild game, 27-25, and it capped a duel between Ole Miss' McAllister, who owned the first half, and Oklahoma's Heupel, who overcame a sloppy first 30 minutes with a terrific second half. Unlike their previous two games, Ole Miss finally got one to go its way in the fourth quarter, and the result was a second consecutive Independence Bowl victory. The Rebels also gave the state of Mississippi a 3-0 record in bowls, as Mississippi State beat Clemson 17-7 in the Peach Bowl and Southern Mississippi beat Colorado State 23-17 in the Liberty Bowl.

"We all had it going through our mind, what we had been through with Miss State and Georgia," Cutcliffe said after his team improved to 8-4. "But while they were driving, we talked about what we were going to do, how we were going to approach it. We felt we could get it done."

McAllister had a huge game, rushing for 121 yards on 17 carries, and picked up 55 yards on three receptions, scoring a pair of touchdowns, one each way. Miller completed 18 of 28 passes for 202 yards and a pair of first half scoring passes for the Rebels.

Despite each team having the ball almost the same amount of time, Oklahoma had just over a minute advantage in time of possession, the Sooners out-gained the Rebels by 120 yards, 481-361. Heupel completed 39 of 53 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns, with but one interception, setting Independence Bowl records for most attempts, completions, and yards, and tying the record for most scoring tosses, and they were Oklahoma bowl records as well. Griffin had 86 yards rushing on 12 carries and added another 65 yards receiving on eight catches, while Jackson had 10 receptions for 76 yards and Daniels had six for 109.

But the Sooners had self-destructed at inopportune times. "You think of all the points we let go in the red zone and it's hard to win," Stoops said afterwards referring to two lost fumbles and an end zone interception. Still, the young Oklahoma team finished the season with a 7-5 record, a vast improvement over a year ago, and their first winning record in six years, or three coaches ago. The future looked bright in Norman.

Source: Jeff Linkowski

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