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Thursday, November 12, 2009
OU dogged by injuries, attrition

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Maybe “Sooner Magic” really is cyclical. And Oklahoma’s struggles this season are explainable as some kind of cruel karmic payback for the run of good fortune that smiled on the program in previous championship seasons.

Bob Stoops has lived through a frustrating season this year marked by injuries, maddeningly inconsistent play and attrition.

Serious questions are dogging the Sooners after their unexpected struggle in 2009. Their 5-4 record is the worst ever recorded by a Stoops-coached team at this juncture of the season.
 
 Tim Heitman/US Presswire
 Bob Stoops’ Sooners have lost four games this season by a combined 12 points.


The Sooners need one more victory over their final three games to become bowl eligible. Their best chance should be Saturday against Texas A&M, which the Sooners have beaten nine times in 10 tries under Stoops. Included in that streak are five previous victories at Owen Field by an average margin of 35.4 points per game.

After that it might get dicey with games at Texas Tech and a difficult home finish against Oklahoma State. That tough schedule could send the Sooners skidding to bowls in places like San Antonio and El Paso -- locales that would be a huge disappointment for a team that came into the season with legitimate hopes of stretching its unprecedented streak of three consecutive Big 12 titles.

The Sooners expected to be challenging for a BCS bowl or perhaps even playing for the national championship rather than sampling Tex-Mex.

But a disastrous run of injuries has made this the most difficult of Stoops’ 11 seasons at Oklahoma. The Sooners have lost nine starters for a total of 31 games, making their injuries more pronounced than any team in the conference.

Compare this season’s struggles to Stoops’ championship team of 2000 when he lost no starters to injury during that entire season. Even when quarterback Josh Heupel struggled with a sore arm and linebacker Rocky Calmus had a broken arm, they played through the injuries and helped the Sooners to their most recent of seven national championships.

The injury to Sam Bradford, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, has been the most devastating. It’s rushed redshirt freshman quarterback Landry Jones into the starting lineup well before he was thought to be ready.

Jones has shown flashes of strong play, like when he threw a school-record six touchdown passes against Tulsa earlier this season. But he struggled last week against a strong Nebraska defense when he threw a school-record five interceptions as the Sooners failed to score a touchdown for the first time in Stoops’ 142-game coaching tenure.

“I didn't really talk to anyone after the game. I was really upset about it," Jones told the Tulsa World earlier this week. "I can't remember a game as bad as Saturday."

Stoops said that Jones wasn’t entirely to blame on all of the interceptions.

“Our receiver quit," Stoops told reporters earlier this week. "Doesn't finish the route. He needs to fight for an incompletion there, or an interference call and not bail on it. ... So sometimes it appears it's always [Jones] but it isn't always him. And then sometimes, a couple others that sailed down the middle on him, that he has to learn from. That's part of the process."

Those comments and others in recent weeks made several members of the Oklahoma media corps wonder if Stoops was throwing his players under the bus and blaming them for problems on the team.

“Here’s the problem,” Stoops said. "Don’t ask us questions then. If you want to ask me what went wrong, I’m supposed to say everything's our fault? Then I can’t answer questions if you want me to answer truthfully. There are some things players gotta handle, too. It’s always going to be both of us.

"So don’t ask the question if you don’t want the right answer. And don’t go criticizing if we give you the right answer and it is on them.”

Compare that attitude with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, whose struggling team dropped into the North Division cellar after losing four of its first five conference games after making back-to-back championship game appearances.

Pinkel took full responsibility for his team’s recent meltdown, saying that any blame about his team starts with him.

The problem for Oklahoma’s team didn’t come on the practice field, but instead on the recruiting trail. The Sooners are paying this season for earlier struggles in attracting the wrong players.

A study commissioned by the Tulsa World indicated that no team in the Big 12 South has lost as many recent offensive  line recruits as the Sooners. Since the class of 2005, the Sooners have prematurely lost 10 of their 25 linemen. That 40 percent figure dwarfs any other team in the division.

And when a disastrous run of injuries occurs like this season, it leaves the Sooners paying for their lack of depth. They will go into Saturday’s game against A&M with seven healthy offensive linemen. That attrition has helped pave the way for a frustrating season that has featured four losses by a combined 12 points.

“They’ve had a lot to juggle through the year,” Stoops said. "Certain parts of the year, they’ve managed it well. Other times we haven’t.

"Some of the discipline issues ... our players need to make improvements. Ultimately, we’ve got to get them to do it right. In the end, it’s always the two of you [coaches and players]. End of story. It’ll be that way till they quit playing football.”