Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Big 12 [Print without images]

Thursday, October 9, 2008
Bradford steady amid UT-OU hoopla

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Most freshmen would have been caught up by the magnitude of the game, much less the immense importance the entire state of Oklahoma puts on the contest. After all, they used to dismiss school on the following Monday when the Sooners beat Texas.

But Sam Bradford didn't sway, mainly because he had been building for such a moment all of his life.
 
 Getty Images
 Sam Bradford is second nationally in passing efficiency and tied for third in touchdown passes.

"Growing up in Oklahoma, it's very clear at a young age which side you're on and what it means to be a Sooner," Bradford said.

Bradford swallowed that emotion and directed the Sooners to a gutsy 28-21 victory over the Longhorns last season, directing a fourth-quarter game-winning drive in which he converted three straight third downs, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Kelly. And he's back again this season, leading the No. 1 Sooners against their biggest rivals Saturday in the Cotton Bowl.

Since he was a little shaver, Bradford had been coming to Texas-OU games with his dad, Kent, a former Oklahoma offensive lineman during the 1970s. That association forged an appreciation for the game and its magnitude.

"I thought it would be a dream to play in a game like this," he said. "To go out and actually do it, I really can't even begin to explain the excitement and fulfillment of doing it. It was kind of surreal."

A bigger, stronger Bradford is back for more this season. And he's a more forceful leader directing one of the nation's most explosive offenses.

"I feel like I'm in a lot more control and more calm this year," said Bradford, who led the nation in pass efficiency last season. "I don't get rattled as much as I did last year. I feel like that's something that I have improved on since last year."

His early start has been amazing. After only 19 games, he's already second on Oklahoma's career touchdown pass list with 54. The Sooners have averaged 39.2 points during those games, eclipsing 50 points on eight occasions. And he broke his career passing record in three-straight games earlier this season before settling for "only" 372 yards against Baylor last week.

"I feel like my arm is a little stronger and I can get a little more zip on the ball," Bradford said. "I'm also more emotionally steady. I'm willing to hang in the pocket and take hits a little more. I might have gone out of the pocket in the past, but now I'm willing to hang in there and do what I need to do."

Bradford is second nationally in passing efficiency, tied for third in touchdown passes and third in yards per passing attempt. Most early Heisman polls have him among the top contenders. A win Saturday would likely boost him into heavy contention.

Despite the fast start, Bradford says he's not concerned with the Heisman talk already bubbling around him.

"You really can't worry about it. You worry about going out and playing within the system and playing your own game and just helping the team win," Bradford said. "I don't think you worry about any individual awards. It's all about the team."

Bradford has also emerged as a more polished and forceful leader this season. It was his decision to ask the Oklahoma coaches to leave for several minutes for an impromptu team meeting before the Washington game earlier this year to reinforce the importance of team goals.

"You can just tell he's more comfortable and a better leader," Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams said. "Little things like his command in the huddle, how he called that meeting for us. Guys respect him and want to go out and play for him."

That development hasn't surprised Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who thought that Bradford could be a top quarterback from his earliest association with him.

"We always expected him to do well," Stoops said. "We had him in our camps and saw him up close and we loved how he threw the ball. But to the degree he's done things so far, I don't know if I could have projected that. His poised demeanor and athletic ability to do what he's done so far is pretty amazing."

Texas defensive tackle Lamarr Houston compares Bradford to another consistent winner.

"He's smart and intelligent and reminds me of Tom Brady," Houston said. "He's mobile, but he's smart and makes good decision. He knows where to put the ball and he has great chemistry with his teammates. He knows that offense inside and out."

Against Texas, he likely will face more pressure -- both physical and mental -- than in any previous game this season. The Longhorns lead the nation with an average of 3.8 sacks per game. They produced three sacks, 11 hits on the quarterback and 14 pressures against Colorado last week.

That challenge doesn't overwhelm Bradford as much as stoke him for his opportunity to play amid the excitement at Fair Park again -- even if he has to go to school two days later, unlike most previous Texas conquerors. 

"There's probably more emotion and you get more amped than most times. But you do your best to just get into your rhythm and do what you usually do," Bradford said. "You just take this game like any other one."