Oklahoma 7, USC 23

September 24, 1988 | at Los Angeles | Attendance 86,124

Barry Switzer and third-ranked Oklahoma would face their first test of the season in Los Angeles, where #5 Southern California (2-0) was waiting under second year head coach Larry Smith. The Trojans had been 8-4 in his first year, but won when it counted, going 7-1 in the Pac-10 conference, beating UCLA, and earning a Rose Bowl berth. Now in their centennial football season, and with an expected return to the old days, the Trojans were expected to battle the Bruins, ranked #2, again for top honors.

The USC offense was under the capable direction of third-tear starting senior quarterback Rodney Peete, the lone team captain and a Heisman Trophy candidate. A respected passer who was also versatile enough to scamper for long runs, he was coming off a season in which he was fourth in the nation in passing efficiency, completing 197 of 332 passes for 2,709 yards and 21 touchdowns, all USC single-season records. In his career, he had thrown for over 5,600 yards and 36 touchdowns in his career.

But there was more to Southern Cal than just Peete. Helping him on offense was tailback Steven Webster, the conference's rushing champ a year ago with 1,109 yards, rugged fullback Leroy Holt, all-conference tight end Paul Green, and leading receiver and senior split end Erik Affholter. On defense there is what could be a dominating front line led by junior tackle Tim Ryan, a secondary that returned three starters led by junior safeties Mark Carrier and Cleveland Colter, who had combined for ten interceptions in ‘87, and quick sophomore linebackers Scott Ross and Junior Seau.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma (2-0), coming off a three-year run with a 33-3 record and who lost a school-record 13 seniors to the NFL draft, came into the game having varied their style a little from the one dimensional wishbone. Stung by their passing futility in the national championship loss to Miami, they incorporated the I-formation, a platform that provides for better passing and exploitation for much-needed inside running to help lighten the burden carried by their quarterback.

Senior Jamelle Holieway, looking to bounce back from a knee injury and returning to his hometown owning a 29-1 career record as a starter, was a versatile player who entering his final year had rushed for more than 2,500 yards and 27 touchdowns, and had thrown for over 1,600 yards and 16 scores. Behind him was a a group of backs that collectively was among the quickest during Switzer's regime, but in front of Holieway was a rebuilt offensive line that had four new starters.

On defense, a record-setting unit that had symbolized the Sooners three-year run, the last of the stars that had repulsed everyone except Miami was practically gone. A unit that collectively lacked experience, only tackle Curtice Williams, nose guard Dante Williams, linebacker Richard Dillon, and cornerback Lonnie Finch returned as starters, causing more than a little concern for Switzer.

Early in the game, as the Trojans were faced with a third down-and-ling situation, it was Peete who scrambled for a 22-yard gain and the first down. Later, halfback Aaron Emanuel scored from five yards out, and USC had the lead.

Then came three Oklahoma turnovers, all from Holieway playing in front of his hometown family and friends. A USC pass interception resulted in a ten-play drive that ended with a 33-yard field goal by Quin Rodriquez. Holieway's fumble on a sack set up a six-yard touchdown run by Emanuel that made it 17-0. And another Holieway fumble led to a 23-yard Rodriquez field goal, which put the Trojans up 20-0 early in the second quarter, stunning Oklahoma.

The Sooners had only 75 yards in the first half, and in seven possessions, its average starting field position was its own 14. Holieway had thrown just four times, completing only one pass, and also throwing an interception.

On their first possession of the second half, Oklahoma finally scored. Holieway moved the Sooners 80 yards on four plays, thanks largely to two big pass completions. Fullback Leon Perry capped the drive by plunging across from two yards out.

But Oklahoma could not fill the hole they had dug for themselves, as the Trojans' defense continued to stop the wishbone. Forced to abandon their strategy of choice, sophomore backup Charles Thompson came in at quarterback and threw three fourth quarter interceptions. Southern California had dominated the Sooners, 23-7, behind a defense that had caused six turnovers.

The anticipated match up between quarterbacks Peete and Holieway never materialized. Peete was sensational in leading the Trojans' offense to 366 yards. He had 40 yards rushing, and completed 16 of 34 passes for 198 yards. Meanwhile, Holieway fizzled in front of familiar faces, as the Sooners could muster only 89 yards rushing, and Holieway had none.

"The key was a great defensive effort in the first half," said Smith afterwards. "Oklahoma never had a chance to get its offense in rhythm or sequence." He continued, " We wanted to play field position football today. We wanted our offense to score, naturally. But if they didn't, we wanted them to eat time off the clock and back them up."

"It was tough to try and be a drop back passing team in the second half," said Switzer. "I feel sorry for Jamelle, for not having a good game and turning the ball over. It was just one of those things."

The pride of the Big Eight conference had just been crushed, and it started with then #2 Nebraska getting blown away in the opening 30 minutes in Pasadena two weeks ago by then #5 UCLA during a 44-28 upset over the Huskers. The loss dropped Oklahoma to #10 in the next AP poll, one spot behind Nebraska, while Miami remained #1, followed by UCLA and USC, each with a 3-0 record.

Source: Jeff Linkowski

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