October 20, 2009
Players, coaches and teams with the most at stake on Saturday.
When the clock ticked down to 00:00 on Saturday's installment of the Red River Shootout and the cannon on the Texas side of the Cotton Bowl went off to signal a Longhorn victory, the shot might as well have been fired right through the Oklahoma Sooners' hearts. There they were, fresh off a valiantly fought three-point loss to the third-ranked team in the nation without their Heisman-winning quarterback, yet it felt like time to administer last rites to the season: The Sooners dropped to 3-3 (and, 24 hours later, out of the coaches' poll) with a marquee win to date over Baylor, and they managed to lose Sam Bradford before he was ever really back, maybe for good this time, courtesy of a dramatic first-quarter hit that re-aggravated the shoulder injury that had sidelined him for the first month of the season.
That 3-3 record is a little misleading -- the Sooners are only 1-1 in Big XII play, so technically they're still in the race for the conference crown. But the injuries to Bradford and star tight end Jermaine Gresham -- not to mention the inexperience and ongoing uncertainly among the offensive line and receivers -- are real enough. So is the remaining schedule: OU's remaining six opponents are a combined 26-12, and it's anyone's guess when or even whether Bradford will return on that track. (Even some Sooner fans with whom I waited in line for fried pork chips at the Texas State Fair said that Bradford's best option now was to sit out the rest of the season and prepare for next year's draft). For now, the Sooners' hopes at 24th-ranked Kansas Saturday ride on freshman QB Landry Jones and "Big Game Bob" Stoops, who are tasked with avoiding a fourth loss and holding the sky in place for another week.
Is there precedent for the kind of second-half surge OU would need to claw its way back to respectability? In fact, there is: The '05 Sooners actually entered the Kansas game at 2-3 and in worse shape than this year's team. After losing a stunner to TCU in the opener (in which, incidentally, the linchpin of their offense, Adrian Peterson, briefly left the game due to an ankle injury), the Sooners were blown up by UCLA and Texas by an aggregate score of 86-36; following the Red River game, Oklahoma didn't have a single vote in either major poll. But OU rode Peterson and a much-improved defense to a 6-1 record down the stretch, including a Holiday Bowl upset over sixth-ranked Oregon and a soft landing at No. 22 in the final AP poll. The '06 Sooners, also dealing with nagging injuries to their offensive star (Peterson), rebounded from early losses to Oregon and Texas to win eight in a row, including the Big 12 title.
These Sooners have an old-school Stoops defense going for them, at least. They're eighth in the nation in yards allowed and third in scoring, allowing fewer than 10 points per game. In Dallas, they held what had been the nation's highest-scoring offense to just 16 points, harrassing Colt McCoy into his worst passing day in nearly two years and containing the Longhorns' rushing attack to the tune of 3.6 yards per carry. Adrian Peterson, however, is nowhere to be found, a fact that was painfully obvious to the crowd at the Cotton Bowl, who watched the Sooners stumble to –16 yards rushing. It's starting to look like the inexperience on OU's offensive line -- which had to replace four multi-year starters coming into the season -- has become a bigger obstacle than anyone anticipated: In their three losses, the Sooners have allowed six sacks, many more hits and averaged only 85 yards on the ground.
Of course, all three of those losses came away from Norman, to ranked teams, and by a total of five points, so it's not like OU has been easy prey under any circumstances. But eventually the Sooners are going to have to start winning those games, particularly with Kansas, Nebraska, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State still ahead of them -- all with winning records, and all but Nebraska (which was just knocked out and replaced by Texas Tech) residing in the current polls. Otherwise, they still may be fighting for bowl eligibility come late November, and rival fans will bandy about the "Big Game Bob" nickname even more sarcastically than they already do.
We'll know a lot more after this weekend's game in Lawrence, where the oddsmakers, at least, still have enough faith in the Crimson and Cream to make Oklahoma an eight-point road favorite. Presumably, if Colorado can knock off the Jayhwaks, Oklahoma should be able to make quick work of it, even shorthanded. If the Sooners fall flat, though, a season that began with more-than-legitimate hopes for another shot at the national title takes an extremely, and perhaps irrevocably, dark turn.