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'Sooner Magic' appears to have dried up this season

11/9/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Wasn’t it only last year that we were all tripping over adjectives to try to describe the potent Oklahoma offense?

The Sooners rang up a record 716 points as they turned the Big 12 into a boat race over the second half of the 2008 season. Sam Bradford threw for 50 touchdowns en route to the Heisman Trophy. Running backs DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown both topped 1,000 rushing yards. And a squadron of receivers made the Sooners’ offense one of the most dangeous in college football history with five straight games of 60 points or more late last season.

What a difference a year makes.

The Sooners have scored 20 points or less in all four of their losses this season, including a 10-3 loss at Nebraska on Saturday.

This is the same team that came into the season with a No. 3 national ranking and serious hopes of redeeming themselves after five consecutive losses in the BCS games. They also were thought to have a good shot at defending their Big 12 championship and claiming an unprecedented fourth-straight title.

All of those plans were doomed as soon as Bradford reinjured his right shoulder early in the Texas game.

The Sooners’ bad luck bottomed out Saturday night when they lost to Nebraska -- a watershed moment in Bob Stoops’ illustrious coaching career. It was the fewest number of points that the Sooners have scored in the Stoops era.

“When we get into a tough game like this we don’t have any composure,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson told the Tulsa World. “We don't have any leadership. And that starts with me."

Key turnovers, penalties and a sputtering kicking game made their mark in Saturday’s loss to Nebraska.

The Oklahoman wondered today if this was the worst Oklahoma team in this decade. And their struggles in the Nebraska loss might reinforce that.

The Sooners were flagged for 64 yards against the Cornhuskers, with 50 yards coming on penalties against the offensive line. The two most critical penalties came on two post-play personal fouls by Jarvis Jones and Trent Williams.

“The penalty factors gets down to discipline,” Stoops said Monday. “It’s frustrating. We have some inexperience and injuries. But 10 games in, you’ve got to be able to play by the rules and not have dumb penalties.”

Landry Jones, who broke the school record with six touchdown passes against Tulsa on Sept. 19, threw a school-record five interceptions against Nebraska. And kicker Tress Way misfired on three field goal attempts.

Jones’ fourth-quarter struggles have been magnified against the best teams that Oklahoma has faced. Every drive in the fourth quarter against either Nebraska or Texas has resulted in either an interception or a failed fourth-down play. The Sooners produced once field goal each in the fourth quarter of their losses to Miami and BYU and were shut out in the quarter against Texas and Nebraska.

“We've got to look at our players and our ability to respond in a proper way, and if guys aren't, then how do we handle that?" Wilson said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that you get rid of players, but we cannot allow for the same mistakes to continue happening over and over."

The result was that the Sooners were knocked out of the top 25 for the first time since the 2005 season. Today, Stoops finds his team at 5-4 – his worst record ever after nine games.

They still have three regular-season games with home games against Texas A&M on Saturday and Oklahoma State on Nov. 28. The Sooners have one of the biggest homefield advantages in college football at Owen Field where they have won a nation-best 28 straight games and Stoops’ record is 64-2 in his coaching tenure.

The Sooners also will travel to Texas Tech, where they haven’t won since 2003. It will be a tall order to expect to win a shootout against the Red Raiders in those surroundings.

Win them all the Sooners could be heading to the Cotton Bowl, which would be a nice goal to play against a strong Southeastern Conference foe with a shot to build some momentum heading into the 2010 season.

But lose a couple of them and the Sooners could be skidding to the Alamo or Sun Bowl. It would be their lowest mark on the bowl feeding chain since losing to Mississippi in the Independence Bowl in Stoops’ first season in 1999.

It reinforces why the next three games will be so critical in the direction of the Oklahoma program for the rest of the season and beyond.