Dec. 31, 2004
SportsLine.com wire reports

MIAMI -- Oklahoma's secondary was so shaky that coaches turned to a freshman they planned to redshirt. Even now, Southern California's offensive line is a "work in progress," coordinator Norm Chow says.

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Whether the No. 1 Sooners or the No. 2 Trojans win the Orange Bowl and the Bowl Championship Series national title could come down to which team's weakest link holds up best Tuesday.

Entering the season, there were questions about how Oklahoma's defense would fare after the departure of All-American cornerback Derrick Strait. Then the Sooners lost cornerback Antonio Perkins to a knee injury, depriving the secondary of its leader and best cover man.

With Perkins sidelined, opponents found success going deep on the Sooners. In consecutive games against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, OU allowed several long pass plays that nearly cost them a perfect season.

Trailing 28-21 at halftime against Texas A&M, and having little success shutting down Aggies quarterback Reggie McNeal, the Sooners' defensive coaches decided it was time to try something different.

With upperclassmen Jowahn Poteat, Eric Bassey and Chijioke Oneyenegecha struggling, freshman cornerback Marcus Walker was put in the game.

"We just gave up some crazy plays and ... I turned to him and said, 'You're in,"' Sooners co-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini said. "We had confidence in him."

The Sooners tightened up against the Aggies in the second half, allowing just one more TD on a fake field goal.

Perkins returned to the lineup the next week against Nebraska, and Walker played at the other corner.

"The secondary was a weak link then," said Perkins, known more as a dangerous punt returner than a shutdown corner. "Most of the plays were missed assignments. We were out of line. We weren't in the right position to make plays. Now I came back and I'm more verbal. We talk a lot and communicate with each other to be in the right position to make a play."

In the final three games of the season, Oklahoma allowed a total of 253 yards through the air. But that was against Nebraska, Baylor and Colorado -- none of which boasts a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

Stopping Matt Leinart and USC's passing game, which is adept at creating mismatches and confusion, won't be quite so easy.

"The decision-making of Matt Leinart, it's second-to-none; his accuracy, his poise, the way he distributes the football, just his overall decision-making is exceptional," OU co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.

USC knew it had some of the country's best playmakers in Heisman winner Leinart and tailbacks Reggie Bush and LenDale White. But the players the Trojans entrusted with protecting those stars were mostly unknowns.

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Both tackles had never played a college game before this season, and the inside guys were far from seasoned veterans.

Then they stumbled out of the gate.

Virginia Tech pressured Leinart in the opener, and USC didn't find much running room in a 24-13 victory.

"It was a real tough start for us," said left tackle Sam Baker, a redshirt freshman. "A lot of us didn't have a lot of experience and we were kind of looking to everybody else, and as the season went on, I think we meshed together well with great leadership from all the skill players: Matt and Reggie and LenDale. They can make an offensive line look good."

As the line began to gel, it took another hit. Left guard John Drake, the line's most experienced player, went down with a sprained ankle.

Like the Sooners, USC turned to a freshman to plug the hole. Jeff Byers, a center in high school, started the Trojans' last four games at guard. Drake is expected to play against Oklahoma, though.

"It is still a work in progress, believe me, because they're so young," Chow said, referring to his line.

The Trojans have allowed 24 sacks. Oklahoma's defense has 38 sacks, led by end Dan Cody's nine.

So the BCS title could come down to whether Baker and Co. can give Leinart the time to test Perkins, Walker and the rest of the Sooners' secondary.