Peterson can win Heisman if Sooners can pass
Star RB needs help because he will be focus of opposing defenses
By Michael Ventre
Imagine being trapped inside an office building, trying every door frantically in a nightmarish effort to seek escape only to find they’re all locked and chained, and that will approximate the feeling Adrian Peterson must have had in January’s Orange Bowl when the Oklahoma running back tried to find safe passage through the USC defense. He finished with 82 junk yards in a 55-19 blowout.
Instead of cursing his lousy luck, he should be grinning while seeking a way to give something back to society after such a fortuitous life event.
Although the perception left with the nation after that BCS title game involved the Trojans feasting on stuffed Sooner, it might be the best thing that could have happened to Peterson, because it will prepare him for the treatment he’s likely to get during the 2005 season.
With Heisman Trophy winner Jason White gone, Oklahoma’s passing game is regrouping. Paul Thompson, who served as a backup to Nate Hybl and White, won the starting quarterback job over Rhett Bomar and may make a seamless transition. Or he may look like Joey Harrington did against the Rams on Monday night. We won’t know until snaps are taken in real games.
But it’s safe to assume that Peterson no longer has the Jason White safety net to play off of, because Thompson will still need to find his way. Peterson is the returning star, the Heisman runner-up, the amazing frosh whose grace, speed and physicality translated into 1,925 rushing yards.
He’s the focus of the Oklahoma offense now. As such, he’ll also be the target of opposing defenses. The attention he received from the Trojans was just a harbinger.
Can he handle being ganged up on? Will he rise to the challenge?
The bet here is yes, because Peterson’s freshman season was no fluke, and the continued excellence of the Oklahoma program under Bob Stoops isn’t, either.
Peterson was one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation before the 2004 season. Texas wanted the Palestine, Texas, native to stay home. USC went after him hard, as did other major programs. He wasn’t a pipsqueak with roadrunner speed. He wasn’t a burly workhorse. He was a supreme athlete with a physique out of Greek mythology, the moves and acceleration of a Porsche, and the survival instincts of an international spy. Last season, he proved it wasn’t all hype.
But last year, he had the coming-out party every football debutante dreams of. Besides the aerial attack headed by White and receivers Mark Clayton, Travis Wilson and Mark Bradley, there was also the formidable offensive line led by Jammal Brown, Wes Sims and Vince Carter, who will have to be replaced this season.
Still, Peterson didn’t spend the entire 2004 campaign running through vast canyons of space created because defenses were too preoccupied with stopping the pass. He was tough enough to shake off tacklers and create extra yardage after the initial hit.
USC did a masterful job in the Orange Bowl of making sure he had no place to run. And his frustration was evident in his after-play body language. But that was one game.
As opposed to Cedric Benson, his counterpart at Texas who was at his worst against the best, Peterson rolled up 225 yards against the Longhorns and then three weeks later amassed a season-high 249 yards in a tight contest against rival Oklahoma State.
To assess whether Peterson can either match his production of last year or even exceed it, first peruse the Sooners’ schedule. Aside from Texas on Oct. 8, the fifth game of the year, there isn’t a defense on Oklahoma’s horizon that Peterson couldn’t gallop through with impunity. (And that’s just being overgenerous to Texas, because again, Peterson dropped 225 yards on Mack Brown’s charges last season, and this year the Longhorns no longer have super linebacker Derrick Johnson or co-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson).
Assuming Thompson and the passing game, can at least create a credible diversion, Peterson could trample on TCU, Tulsa, UCLA and Kansas State and have 1,000 yards by the time the Sooners play the Longhorns.
If that happens, he’ll be a hard man to beat for the Heisman. Gaudy numbers from a previous Heisman finalist playing for an elite program tend to garner the lion’s share of press clippings and “College Game Day” highlights. By virtue of his 2004 season, Peterson is already a front-runner for 2005. Last year’s winner, Matt Leinart, and teammate Reggie Bush of USC promise to provide serious competition. They could also split the voters, and allow Peterson to stand alone in the eyes of the electorate.
Of course, it could all go the other way. Thompson could struggle at quarterback, and end up alternating throughout the year with Bomar as the passing attack never gets off the ground. That would make it easier for opposing defenses to attempt to do to Peterson what the Trojans did in the national title game.
But Oklahoma’s passing prowess with White was slightly overblown. The Sooners were capable, even proficient, but hardly wondrous. They didn’t have the explosiveness and the sophistication of USC or Cal. And they operated against like-minded Big 12 opponents who throw the ball because they feel they need balance, not because of a mad scientist’s passion for the infinite possibilities of the forward pass.
Thompson merely has to be White light, not Peyton Manning.
Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson just has to be himself. That should be enough for record yardage and widespread acclaim.
Michael Ventre writes regularly for NBCSports.com and is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.