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December 30, 2009
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Oklahoma ended the 2008 season playing for the national championship, and it went into this season hoping for another shot at the title.
But numerous injuries, including one to Heisman-winning quarterback Sam Bradford in the opener, derailed those plans. The 7-5 Sooners find themselves playing in a pre-New Year's Day game for the first time in four seasons and just the second time this decade.
The Sooners meet Stanford (8-4) in Thursday's Sun Bowl.
From 2000-04 and 2006-08, the Sooners were in BCS games. Stanford, meanwhile, is making its first postseason appearance since the 2001 season and just its seventh in the past two decades.
While Oklahoma may not be happy with where it ended up, that's not the case for the Cardinal.
"It's a great opportunity for Stanford football," coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters recently. "We're A. playing in a bowl game; B. playing against Oklahoma; C. [playing in] the only game on at that time.
"There will be people watching that have never seen Stanford play before. ? We're in uncharted waters there."
Still, all is not pleasant for Harbaugh.
"I wouldn't say I like the matchup," he said. "You get a little sick to your stomach with this matchup. It gives you a little nausea watching them on tape."
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Oklahoma rush offense vs. Stanford rush defense: Oklahoma has struggled for consistency in the running game. The Sooners average 140.9 rushing yards per game, but that average dropped to 56.6 in their five losses. Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray each rushed for 1,000 yards in 2008, but they found the going much tougher this season, combining for 1,381 yards. The Sooners' line wasn't near as good as it was last season, and OU is down to its fourth-string center for this game. Good news for OU is that Stanford is no great shakes on defense. The Cardinal give up 144.5 rushing yards per game, but they were shredded to the tune of 201.0 yards per game in their four losses. If OU has success on the ground early, it almost certainly means it will have success all game.
Oklahoma pass offense vs. Stanford pass defense: For a guy who was expected to get just mop-up duty this season, redshirt freshman Landry Jones played well in relief of injured starter Sam Bradford. Jones threw for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also threw 13 interceptions and doesn't always make the right decision -- or a quick-enough decision. Ryan Broyles is his favorite receiver, and Broyles' speed makes him a productive deep threat. Murray is the second-leading receiver, which make Broyles' production (75 receptions, 12 TDs) all the more impressive; there is no established No. 2 receiver. Stanford's pass defense is shaky. The Cardinal have allowed 20 TD passes and have just seven interceptions. Stanford has an OK pass rush, and the Cardinal need to find a way to apply consistent pressure on Jones.
Stanford rush offense vs. Oklahoma rush defense: Toby Gerhart had a phenomenal season, rushing for 1,736 yards (144.3 per game) and a nation's-leading 26 touchdowns. There's no mystery to the rushing attack: Stanford lines up and runs right at opponents. The offensive line is big and physical, and has carved out running room all season. In back-to-back wins over Oregon and USC, Gerhart ran for 401 yards and six touchdowns. Stanford must run well if it is going to win, and this will be the best rush defense Stanford has seen all season. OU allows 88.6 rushing yards per game. The Sooners have an active and aggressive front seven. The flipside is that OU faced just two teams ranked in the top 25 in rush offense -- No. 24 Oklahoma State and No. 25 Texas A&M. Still, OU held those teams to a combined 121 rushing yards.
Stanford pass offense vs. Oklahoma pass defense: Redshirt freshman QB Andrew Luck has a broken finger on his right (throwing) hand and isn't expected to play, which is a huge blow to Stanford's hopes. Tavita Pritchard, a former two-year starter who has thrown just three passes this season, will get the start. Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu are a solid 1-2 punch at wide receiver, and the Cardinal have some talented tight ends. Pass protection has been outstanding for Stanford this season, which is good news when facing an OU front four that features E Jeremy Beal and T Gerald McCoy. OU's secondary is solid, but Stanford's tight ends could pose a problem.
Oklahoma special teams vs. Stanford special teams: The Sooners used three kickers this season, and none stood out. Patrick O'Hara was the guy down the stretch. O'Hara is 5-for-7 on field-goal attempts, but just 1-for-3 from beyond 30 yards. P Tress Way, who was 1-for-6 on field-goal attempts, has a booming leg and is averaging 45.5 yards per kick. He gets good hang time. Broyles is a big-time punt returner, and kick returner Mossis Madu is adequate. The coverage teams are solid, especially the punt-coverage unit. Owusu has been one of the best kick returners in the nation this season; he averages 32.5 yards per return and has taken three back for touchdowns. K Nate Whitaker has a strong leg but struggles a bit with accuracy from long distances; he is 14-of-20 this season, including 6-for-11 from beyond 40 yards. P David Green is OK. Richard Sherman is a solid punt returner, and the coverage units have been good.
Oklahoma coaching staff vs. Stanford coaching staff: Bowl games are old hat for this OU coaching staff, though they're used to playing in BCS games. The offense had trouble maintaining consistency, but coordinator Kevin Wilson still is one of the best in the business. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has done a solid job with his unit. Stanford's Jim Harbaugh has changed the culture of the program, and he has the Cardinal in a bowl in his third season at the school. This is a physical, hard-nosed team.
X-factors: First, can either Broyles or Owusu break a big return against solid coverage units? Luck's injury hurts Stanford; can Pritchard come close to matching his production? Finally, you wonder about Oklahoma's mindset. Are the Sooners going to be "up" for a pre-Jan. 1 bowl? OU has lost its past three and five of its past six bowl games.
Oklahoma will win if: Stopping Gerhart is the highest priority. If he is kept in check, OU is going to win.
Stanford will win if: It's all on Gerhart. While Oklahoma's offense is no juggernaut, it is going to have success against Stanford's mediocre defense. Without Luck, more of the offensive load falls on Gerhart. If he runs effectively (say, 125-plus yards), OU's defensive backs are going to have to focus more than they want on the run - which could open some passing lanes.