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December 3, 2006
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. ? The task Paul Thompson faced appeared daunting.
He was down to his final chance, the odds were firmly stacked against him and his team's success was dependent on how he would respond.
A third-and-10 situation 99 yards away from the goal line in the third quarter against a rugged Nebraska defense on Saturday night seemed to a reflection of Thompson's season. The senior seemingly has faced at least 99 questions concerning his ability to play quarterback.
The senior from Leander, Texas, had completed just 42 passes in his three previous seasons. Thompson's play was so uninspiring at quarterback he was moved to receiver following his junior season - so his athletic ability could be better utilized.
Then last summer, news surfaced that OU quarterback Rhett Bomar had received payment for work not performed at an Oklahoma City car dealership. The situation surfaced just as the Sooners were to begin August camp, and Bomar was dismissed from the team.
Suddenly, Thompson was back at quarterback for his final collegiate football season. With no proven track record at quarterback, Thompson was asked to guide a team whose championship aspirations seemed dependent his performance.
Oh, how he performed.
On third-and-10 from his 1-yard line Saturday, Thompson threw a perfect pass to freshman tight end Jermaine Gresham for 35 yards.
Then, he hit sophomore Juaquin Iglesias for 22. He followed that with completions to sophomore Malcom Kelly for 9 yards, freshman Adron Tennell for 15 yards and Kelly again for 11. Finally, he connects with Kelly on a 3-yard touchdown pass that clinched a 21-7 victory and the Big 12 Conference championship.
"It was the drive of the year, without question," Coach Bob Stoops said. "It was huge. Paul threw some great balls on that whole series. We executed and punched it in."
How ironic that some Sooners fans were ready to pack it in when Thompson returned to quarterback in August.
"People were talking about, 'I'm getting rid of my season tickets,' " Thompson recalled. "It was kind of a down feeling amongst the people on the outside.
"But within the program, within this organization, we knew what we had. We knew we would be successful this year. We never felt that we were one step behind, even with all the injuries we've had, the people we've lost."
From the beginning Thompson was solid, but unspectacular. However, he had All-American tailback Adrian Peterson behind him. Peterson's presence, it seemed, could mask any of Thompson's deficiencies.
But then Peterson broke his collarbone midway through the season, and Thompson kept playing well. He managed games, he avoided mistakes and he was more steady than spectacular, but occasionally made big plays.
Just as he did against Nebraska.
In the first half Thompson completed a little more than 50 percent of his passes against the Huskers, but one covered 66 yards to Kelly for a touchdown.
In the third quarter his first pass was incomplete and he was sacked on his second attempt. Another series ended when he scrambled for eight yards on third-and-12.
Two drives. Two punts.
Trailing 14-7, Nebraska downed a punt at the 1-yard line and the Cornhuskers were anticipating excellent field position if they could force Oklahoma to kick.
Thompson's first pass sailed incomplete. Freshman Chris Brown barely avoided a safety on the next play. One more stop and the Cornhuskers would get another shot to tie the game.
Instead, Thompson shot them down.
"I thought our defense was playing well in the second half there," Nebraska coach Bill Callahan said. "We let them out of the hole. They hit us with a play-action pass for a huge gain. I think they completed the next three in a row. That took the wind out of our sail right there. We had them backed up, but we just couldn't make a play."
More accurately, the Cornhuskers couldn't prevent Thompson from making several.
With the Sooners' usually sound running game limited to an average of just 1.5 yards per rush, Thompson compensated by passing for 265 yards and two touchdowns.
"He's the best," Stoops said. "He's what you want. If you can go out and recruit guys like him every single day, you would. His character, his toughness, his attitude, his leadership ? The best way to say it is he's been a great influence on all those young guys in the huddle."
Thompson wasn't the best quarterback in the Big 12. But he was good enough to quarterback the best team in the Big 12.
"People have doubted us all year," said Thompson, who easily could have gloated and inserted 'me' for 'us' in his statement. "And week in and week out, we're in the locker room dancing and having fun. We're not worried about what anyone else has to say."
Why should he? Facing doubters isn't nearly as daunting as leading his team 99 yards for a championship-clinching touchdown.