Injuries have smothered OU's BCS title-game hopes

October, 5, 2009
10/05/09
2:18
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


It was a time of unbridled happiness and joy for Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops -- a moment he described as the “best recruiting day” he could have ever imagined earlier this year.

 
  AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
  Oklahoma's Bob Stoops is going to have to coach through injuries if he’s going to save the Sooners' season.
The return of standout players like quarterback Sam Bradford, tight end Jermaine Gresham, tackle Trent Williams and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for another college season was hailed as one of the top moments of Stoops’ coaching career. Those four key players would serve as the cornerstones of the Sooners’ charge to another Big 12 title and perhaps provide a chance at that elusive BCS title that has been the program’s albatross in recent years.

But as injuries have wracked the Oklahoma program, that group of standout players that Stoops expected to have at his disposal have never all been available at the same time. Gresham suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season started and Bradford sprained a shoulder joint in the first game. It’s been a cruel reminder for Stoops on how football fortunes can change quickly.

And it got worse this past weekend in the Sooners’ 21-20 loss to Miami. Top playmaking receiver Ryan Broyles, the nation’s leader in touchdown receptions, went out with a fractured shoulder that could keep him sidelined until early November. His departure robs the 2-2 Sooners of their top deep threat and one of their few receivers who can stretch the field vertically.

That departure was evident on Oklahoma’s final drive against Miami. With no real deep threats to test a Miami defense that was missing a couple of key players in the secondary, the Sooners weren’t nearly as potent. On a pivotal drive late in the fourth quarter where the Sooners could have reclaimed the lead, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson went conservative. Oklahoma ran on six straight plays before throwing a safe swing pass to DeMarco Murray for no yards on third down.

The Sooners then settled for a field goal and then never got the ball back as the Hurricanes closed out the one-point victory against a tiring Oklahoma defense.

It was a far cry from the Sooners’ offensive juggernaut of 2008. That group rolled up 60 or more points during a five-game stretch late last season to boost Oklahoma to an unprecedented third-straight Big 12 title.

It’s expected that Bradford will return to the lineup sooner than later -- perhaps even this week against Baylor. But the symptoms that have befallen the Sooners in the Miami game won’t be magically removed as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner returns.

The young offensive line has been a disappointment in pass protection and susceptibility to penalties. Those mistakes have kept the Sooners struggling in troublesome down-and-distance situations in their losses to BYU and Miami.

The loss of Broyles underscores the Sooners lack of depth at wide receiver. Top recruits Dejuan Miller and Jameel Owens haven’t fulfilled their promise. Adron “Pooh” Tennell has been a bust with three catches this season. Cameron Kenney produced six receptions against Miami, but now will be relied on as the Sooners’ primary offensive receiving threat. And tight end has all but disappeared out of Wilson’s offensive arsenal after Gresham’s injury.

The problems at wide receiver could be traced to last season, when highly-regarded recruit Josh Jarboe never joined the team after his scholarship was rescinded when he made a controversial rap video. His talent would fit this receiving corps nicely, even as channeling his behavior would have been challenging for Stoops and his staff.

Even with all of these problems building on top of another, the Sooners’ real season starts in Saturday's conference opener.

The Sooners won’t be playing for the BCS championship, but they can still make it to a BCS bowl game with a strong rebound. Their huge game against Texas approaches next week. They will be a heavy underdog in that game, but weird upsets always have a way of happening in the history of that bitter rivalry.

Stoops has always been his most effective over the years when he’s had to coach with a shortened roster. Remember his 2006 team claimed the Big 12 title after Rhett Bomar was kicked off the team before fall practice started and Adrian Peterson was hurt for most of the second half of the season?

That team overcame all of those problems and even a loss to Texas and still rebounded to win the fourth of Stoops’ Big 12 titles. He’s never said so, but I’ve always thought that had to be the most satisfying of his titles that he’s won considering all of the obstacles en route to the championship.

He’ll have another chance this season to duplicate that success with a similarly depleted roster. And if Bradford returns healthy, Stoops will have one big advantage that he’s lacked before.

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