October 13, 2009
Even five games in, there's no point in trying to compare Oklahoma's offense to last year's record-smashing bombers statistically, and it probably wouldn't be fair even if Sam Bradford had been at full speed for every snap; the '08 Sooners' numbers aren't really the kind you can reasonably expect to replicate, and the '09 Sooners, despite lopsided games with Idaho State, Tulsa and Baylor, certainly haven't -- scoring is down by 16 points per game, and total offense by almost exactly 100 yards one less yard per snap. The 33 points OU scored in losses to BYU and Miami combined were fewer than its single worst regular-season output last year, which is a pretty good summary of how its national championship hopes were in the dust before the start of Big 12 play.
Still, with total production that would have seemed like a warm-up lap for the '08 offense, the Sooners are two points away from going into the Cotton Bowl for Saturday's season-defining date with Texas at 5-0, still ranked among the top four teams in the country, with every goal still in front of them. Surely Bradford would have been worth a point in the second half against BYU and at Miami; in that sense, his shoulder injury probably cost Oklahoma the undefeated season to date. But the question for Saturday is whether Bradford's presence alone improves the offense enough to make it likely to beat Texas, and that's a pretty substantial leap from where they are a this point.
I was a little surprised to see Texas only favored by 3.5 to open the week; a line like that would have seemed more appropriate at the beginning of the year, when the Longhorns were slightly favored in a virtual toss-up for the division. But where UT has generally looked like the top-five, national championship contender everyone expected in the summer, Oklahoma hasn't been close to those projections in its two games against non-tomato cans.
It's not just Bradford's absence, or any lingering doubts that he's not 100 percent -- the offense has been decimated by the injuries to tight end Jermaine Gresham and top receiver Ryan Broyles in the passing game, and revolving door of ailments on the offensive line that forced a backup tight end to start at center against BYU and has most recently claimed guard Brian Simmons, on top of the severe attrition from last year's offense, which graduated four veteran, award-laden offensive linemen and three of Bradford's top five receivers. After Broyles left the Miami game, the Sooner offense was left with two players on the field at any given time, tackle Trent Williams and either DeMarco Murray or Chris Brown at running back, who played a significant role in 2008.
Bradford's return bumped that number up to three last week against Baylor, and the offense was fine (586 total yards, albeit on a ridiculously high 99 snaps) despite its struggles to find the end zone. But the final point total (33) was still less than OU put up in any regular season game last year, and the passing game is in such dire need of a playmaking threat in the passing game against a defense of Texas' caliber that OU may be prepared to rush Broyles back from his collarbone injury ahead of schedule if it possibly can. The still-green line gave up numerous hits on Bradford even before the shot that knocked him out against BYU, and yielded three sacks at Miami. The running game, which had seven 200-yard efforts last year, has had one in the first five games, against Idaho State, and was held below four yards per carry by both the Cougars and 'Canes.
In no respect, then, does Oklahoma's offense look very much like the one we expected to see -- i.e. a rough approximation of last year's balanced, nightmare attack -- in the preseason, and the only immediate hope of returning to that ballpark against Texas is an immediate return to form by Bradford despite the youth and uncertainty all around him. The Sooner defense to date (ranking in the top 10 in rushing, total and scoring defense as well as in sacks) doesn't seem like the kind to allow 45 points to the Longhorns again, but Texas' defense has been just as improved to date, in all the same areas. If OU has any chance of keeping pace with the top scoring offense in the country, it will have to come from a place this edition of the Sooners has not yet visited.