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Heisman Material
No sophomore jinx for Sam Bradford

Sam Bradford walked off the field at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kan., terribly dissatisfied.

Sure, Bradford’s Sooners went on the road in Big 12 Conference play and coasted to a 58-35 victory. OK, Bradford threw three more touchdown passes, raising his season total at the time to a nation-leading 29. And true enough that Bradford threw for another 255 yards on his way to an inevitable school record for single-season passing yards.

But Bradford played the second half in a funk, completing just one of his nine pass attempts. Including a two-minute drive at the end of the first half, Bradford connected on just one of his last 12 throws. He finished the day 13 of 32, a career-low 40.6 percent.

“The second half stuck with me afterwards,” admitted Bradford. “I think everyone in the locker room was a little disappointed with the way we performed in the second half. Obviously, to get a win in the Big 12 on the road is a good thing. But we know that if we want to win down the road, we can’t play the way we did in the second half.”

In fairness to Bradford, he was hit on three of those incompletions, had a defender hanging off his ankle on another, had three balls dropped and another was a Hail Mary. Only three were Bradford’s fault.

Yet that, in a nutshell, defines the true growth for Oklahoma’s startlingly good sophomore quarterback.

Good enough isn’t anywhere near good enough.
“There’s still a lot of little things I’m not doing that I should be doing right now,” Bradford said. “Even in the run game, there’s a lot of things I’m not doing, not selling fakes, not making the right assignments. Just a lot of little things that everyone on the outside probably doesn’t see.”

So the next week, Bradford went 19 of 27 for 311 yards with five touchdowns against Nebraska. But that wasn’t good enough, either. He forced a throw into coverage that was intercepted in the end zone. He overthrew Jermaine Gresham for a sure touchdown. He didn’t see Ryan Broyles on another likely TD.

So the next week, in the snake pit of Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, Bradford has one of his best games, going 22 of 33 for 320 yards with four touchdowns. This time, he doesn’t even come close to throwing a pick, and he seldom misses anyone that’s open.

That’s Sam Bradford.

Quarterback may be the hardest job in all of football, with all the studying of tendencies and knowing of signals and relaying of intentions before the ball is ever snapped, then calmly waiting while 300-pound warriors race around you trying to take your head off and the best athletes on the field are trying to steal your throws.

And Bradford does it better than most anyone in the college game. As the 2008 season winds down, Bradford finds himself atop many of the Heisman Trophy projections. Through 10 games, he had zeroed in on the single-season school records for touchdown passes (Jason White’s 40), passing yards (Josh Heupel’s 3,850), 300-yard games (Heupel’s eight), completion percentage (his own .695), efficiency rating (his own 176.53).

Against Kansas, he set OU’s single-game yardage record with 468. He’s also tied the school record — in virtually every other game — with five TD passes.

Does Bradford ever marvel at his own success?
“No, not really,” he shrugged. “That kind of goes back to something I’ve learned since I’ve been here: in order for a quarterback to play good, you’ve got to have 10 other guys out there playing well. To me, playing in this offense is so much fun, because you’ve got so many playmakers that it does make my job easy. I mean, there’s so many guys all over the field. I might make a 5-yard pass down the field and a guy makes five guys miss and all of a sudden it’s a 50- or 60-yard gain. And the offensive line, especially, giving me all the time in the world makes my job so much easier.

“So I feel like my success is really this offense’s success. It’s all 11 of us playing together.”

Aside from a 45-35 loss to Texas, wherein he was 5 of 9 for 60 yards — and no points — on OU’s last three possessions, Bradford hadn’t been tested much going into the Sooners’ last two showdowns with Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

Even at the Cotton Bowl, Bradford went 28 of 39 for 387 yards with five touchdowns. That game started like so many of the others, with Bradford starting out red-hot, completing 14 of 16 for 210 yards for three touchdowns as the Sooners raced to a 21-10 lead.

But UT’s offense became unstoppable against a limited Oklahoma defense, and with the Longhorns defense focused on stopping the run, the Sooner offense became one-dimensional. As the pressure built — Bradford was sacked three times, twice in the second half — Bradford didn’t deliver like he did as a redshirt freshman, when he directed a 94-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive to win it.

Instead, Bradford was intercepted twice in the Sooners’ last seven possessions.

Again, to be fair to Bradford, one Longhorn pick came at the end of the first half and was a third-down throwaway, and one was a Hail Mary in the end zone on the last play of the game with the outcome already decided.

So Bradford came back the next week and set the single-game yardage record, going 36 of 53 with three touchdowns and zero interceptions against the Jayhawks.

The fact that Bradford bounces back so well from adversity is a testament to an uncanny inner calm.

OU coach Bob Stoops was nearly blown away by Bradford’s performance at Texas A&M.

“Sam couldn’t play better,” he said. “The guy’s playing magnificently. Tremendous player. His accuracy, his poise, running the whole show out there — you couldn’t ask for anything else. The guy’s as flawless as they come. Again, no turnovers, and very few problems at the line of scrimmage. Everything was just as smooth as it can be.”

Someday, particularly if he wins a Heisman or another national championship, Sooner fans will talk of Bradford as the best quarterback in the history of the program — better even than Heupel, who was a Heisman runner-up and undefeated national champion in 2000, and White, who was a Heisman winner in 2003 after two knee surgeries.

Stoops is convinced Bradford’s sophomore season has been Heisman worthy, if only voters could see it.

“I don’t know how you could not,” explained Stoops. “The guy has been so productive. And he did it a year ago as a freshman. You look at his numbers compared to everybody else who was in that category, his were every bit as good or better than some. This year, they are as well. He just continues to be so consistent and so efficient and making the big plays, and making tough plays. Those other guys are awfully good as well. I think as much as anything, he should be considered with all those guys. And then it gets down to there’s so many more games, who continues to play well.”

Coming out of Putnam City North High School, Bradford was not considered a major commodity. Mike Leach wanted him at Texas Tech. Michigan came to Oklahoma City with an offer. Soon after, former OU quarterbacks coach Chuck Long came calling.

Still, Bradford wasn’t more than a three-star recruit. His senior year, limited by teammates’ injuries and a lack of a running game, culminated in but a 5-5 record and above-average statistics (19 touchdowns, 15 interceptions).

When Rhett Bomar was kicked off the team before the 2006 season, Bradford was a redshirt understudy to Paul Thompson. The following spring, Bradford, Joey Halzle and Keith Nichol were embroiled in a three-man tug-o-war for the starting job. Bradford won, Halzle became the backup, Nichol transferred — and the rest is Sooner history.

Stoops said he was always impressed by how Bradford ran the scout team in ’06, and was even more impressed when Bradford got his chance with the starters during Fiesta Bowl practices that winter. Stoops just needed to see Bradford play to know that what he’d seen in practice was indeed real.

“That’s the only time you could truly tell, when you started seeing him in some of our early games, just what a good football he throws, how accurate he is,” Stoops said. “And again, the poise of a young guy, a redshirt-freshman in there for the first time, it’s just amazing. He’s as calm, at least he comes across that way, and confident as any guy you’d want to be around.

“To me, I always think this really helps a player: I think in the long run, it really goes (back to) how humble he is and respectful. He understands the guys around him are really a big part of it, and it isn’t about him. That helps a guy in a pressure situation.”

(Editor's Note: This feature story appears in the Nov. 28 issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more great features like this one and get the best OU football and basketball coverage out there - subscribe today! Go on-line or call toll free 1-877-841-8877)