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Sooners set to meet Stanford in New Year’s Eve battle at El Paso
Maybe this is the year.
Oklahoma hasn’t won a Bowl Championship Series game since 2002. The Sooners’ only bowl victory of any kind during the last seven years came in 2005 at the Holiday Bowl.
So maybe playing in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 is just what OU needs to cure its bowl ills.
“We’ve been kind of struggling here at bowl victories lately, the past couple years,” said running back DeMarco Murray. “So just getting that bowl victory is gonna be big for us, key for us next year for all the young guys that are gonna be here and the rankings and stuff like that.”
Only one problem: Stanford.
The Cardinal (8-4) was good enough to make a late run at the Pac-10 Conference title (they tied for second) and have arguably college football’s best running back in Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart. Stanford is making its first bowl appearance in eight years — predating even OU’s BCS drought —- and will be hungry for postseason glory.
“We’re tickled to play a team with such great tradition as Oklahoma,” said Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh.
Indeed, this could become one of those bowl moments where a program from outside the college football elite finds an opportunity to strike down one of the game’s powerbrokers. Emotions could be running high for the Cardinal.
“I look to it as a major challenge,” said OU coach Bob Stoops.
Bowl droughts don’t concern this 7-5 Oklahoma team as much as adding another victory to a season gone awry and getting the offseason started with a positive push.
“We just want to go down there and get a win and be able to play the best we can,” said redshirt-freshman quarterback Landry Jones. “We want to go down there and get a good solid win against a good solid opponent.”
Under Harbaugh— the former Michigan quarterback who played in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers — Stanford has gained renown for its offense.
Gerhart, a senior, leads the nation in total rushes (311), rushing yards (1,736) and touchdowns (26), and the Cardinal ranks 11th nationally as a team by rushing for 224.3 yards per game.
Therein lies the game’s best matchup. OU’s defense ranks seventh nationally against the run, allowing only 88.6 yards per game.
“Just incredibly impressed with Toby,” said Stoops. “His toughness, everything about him — his power, his patience to see the holes.”
Said Harbaugh, “Toby really epitomizes everything that the Heisman Trophy stands for. He put our team on his back this year. Toby is a shining star for our football team.”
Of course, Stanford’s rushing success is not Gerhart’s alone. The Cardinal has one of the nation’s best offensive lines, starting with senior right tackle Chris Marinelli (first-team All-Pac-10, 38 career starts) and junior center Chase Beeler (second-team All-Pac-10, 19 starts).
Beeler, OU fans will recall, was a Sooner in 2006 after an All-State career at Jenks, Okla. Beeler played in seven games (with one start) as a true freshman before deciding to pursue other academic interests in Palo Alto.
“I’m sure he’s doing great out there. I’m sure he’s doing well because his team’s doing well,” Stoops said. “I’m happy for Chase. I’m sure it’s been a very rewarding experience for him.”
According to Harbaugh, Beeler has found memories of his short time at OU.
“He has nothing but good things to say about Oklahoma and the coaches and the Sooner program. We’re just glad he decided to transfer to Stanford. He’s been a good player for us,” added the Cardinal coach.
Left guard Andrew Phillips has 23 career starts, and the other two spots have been ably manned by redshirt freshmen. David DeCastro has started every game this year at right guard, and left tackle David Martin has 10 starts. In addition to Stanford’s rushing success, the O-line has allowed just six sacks this season, second-best in the nation.
Keeping pass rushers on their heels — keyed as much by Gerhart casting fear in defenses — has allowed redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck to blossom. Luck was a high school All-American in Houston and some NFL Draft analysts have suggested the son of former Houston Oilers quarterback Oliver Luck is the best pro prospect in the college game today.
In his first season as the starter, Luck ranks 26th nationally in passer efficiency, completing 56 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He averaged 214.6 yards per game through the air.
Unfortunately for Luck, he might not play. He broke the index finger on his throwing hand in the fourth quarter of the Cardinal’s season-ending victory over Notre Dame and had surgery on Dec. 1. He hasn’t been ruled out of the Sun Bowl, but Harbaugh said he expected backup Tavita Pritchard to start.
That’s not as bad for Stanford as it sounds.
Pritchard, who threw just three passes this season, is a senior who made 19 career starts before Luck won the job last spring. Pritchard has thrown more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (15) in his career, but he was the guy who engineered Stanford’s monumental upset of No. 2-ranked USC, a 41-point favorite, in 2007. Just that week, Pritchard stepped into the starting lineup for T.J. Ostrander, who had suffered a seizure. Pritchard threw the fourth-and-goal pass in the final minute to beat the Trojans 24-23.
“Tavita has the complete respect and admiration of this team,” offered Harbaugh. “I think they’ll rally around him like they always have.”
Pritchard — or Luck — will have plenty of options. Senior tight end Jim Dray (10 catches, 132 yards, 3 TDs) was second-team All-Pac-10. Junior wide receiver Ryan Whalen led the Cardinal with 54 catches for 861 yards and scored four touchdowns. Sophomore Chris Owuso (36 catches, 665 yards, 5 TDs) is Stanford’s big-play threat.
Owusu contributed just as much on special teams, where he was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 while racking up 1,106 yards and three touchdowns (and a 32.6-yard average) on kickoff returns. Senior punt returner Richard Sherman also had a TD runback while averaging 10.4 yards.
If Oklahoma can straighten out its offensive inconsistencies away from home, the Sooners might find success against Stanford’s defense.
“I know their offense can score a lot of , but I don’t know too much about their defense,” said OU senior left guard Brian Simmons. “Our coaches have said their linebackers are very impressive, along with their defensive front.”
The Cardinal ranks 85th nationally in total defense, allowing 396.5 yards per game, and 65th in scoring defense, allowing 26.2 points per game. While Stanford stands 61st nationally against the run, it’s only 105th against the pass, an average of 252 yards per game. Only 16 teams have allowed a higher percentage of pass completions than Stanford’s 63.4, and only 11 teams collected fewer interceptions than Stanford’s seven.
Still, the Cardinal has talent on defense. Though no Stanford defenders made first- or second-team All-Pac-10, junior defensive tackle Sione Fua, strong safety Delano Howell, defensive end Thomas Keiser and middle linebacker Clinton Snyder gained honorable mention accolades.
Howell leads the team with 76 tackles, and Keiser has a team-best 14.5 tackles for loss, including nine quarterback sacks.
“It’s a pretty good matchup,” added Murray. “Stanford’s a pretty good team. Their defense is real good. So is their offense. So I think it’s gonna be a pretty good game.”
From a historical standpoint, the Sooners will be making their third Sun Bowl appearance, having won each of its previous two (40-14 over Houston in 1981 and 41010 over Texas Tech in 1993).
OU has faced off with Stanford on four other occasions — all of which unfolded between 1978 and 1984 — with the Sooners winning three times.
Meeting No. 5 should have plenty of twists and turns this New Year’s Eve.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the 2009 Bowl Preview Issue of Sooner Spectatator, now available. To subscribe or to get more information, go to our on-line store at ... http://www.soonerspectator.com/catalog/index.php?main_page=products_all&zenid=h969hb54t62iaqqo67kd3ro6n7