Big 12: J.R. Bryant
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are a few last-minute tidbits before tonight's Texas Tech-Oklahoma game.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Something has to give tonight. The Sooners have a nation-best 23 game winning streak. But Texas Tech is 10-0 for the first time since 1938 and will carry a 12-game winning streak that is the longest in the country to start the day.
A Texas Tech victory would give the Red Raiders their first birth in the Big 12 championship game against Missouri on Dec. 6.
An Oklahoma victory would throw the South Division into a three-way tie for the lead. Next week, Oklahoma travels to Oklahoma State, Texas hosts Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night and Baylor will visit Texas Tech. If there's a three-way tie at the end of that day, the Bowl Championship Series standings will be used to determine which team will advance to the championship game.
INJURIES: Oklahoma's banged-up defense will have some replacements. Starting defensive ends Auston English and Alan Davis both are out with sprained knees. That will mean that redshirt freshman Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal will get the starts, with converted linebacker J.R. Bryant and Pryce Macon thrust into key reserve roles. Steady middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds has been out since the Texas game with a torn ACL. Redshirt freshman Austin Box will get the start in his place. Tight end Brody Eldridge (ankle) and wide receiver Manny Johnson (dislocated elbow) both are expected to play.
Texas Tech is in pretty good shape in terms of injuries. The extra week gave Michael Crabtree time to rest and he told reporters earlier this week he's ready to play at 100 percent.
WEATHER CONDITIONS: It's an almost ideal football night at Owen Field, with one exception. A gusting south wind of up to 20 mph could play havoc with teams' passing strategies and the kicking game. But other than that, you couldn't ask for a better night in mid-November. Temperatures will start at kickoff in the mid-40s and should slide into the high-30s by the time the game finishes up.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
When told that Texas Tech's 323-pound-per-man offensive line is the biggest in college football, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy didn't seem overly worried or concerned.
The challenge of checking the mammoth Red Raider offensive front prompted a matter-of-fact response brimming with confidence from McCoy.
|Paul Jasienski/Getty Images|
|Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy isn't afraid of Texas Tech.|
"They've got a big line, so what?" McCoy said. "We've got to go out and play. We're not worried about their size. They are good, but we're not intimidated by that."
Later, McCoy threw out some free-association terms of what he feels that would best describe the Oklahoma defense, including descriptions such as tough, brutal, hard and strong.
Another adjective could have been thrown out as well, although McCoy probably would never do it. How about "unSoonerlike?"
Perhaps their struggles are understandable because of the overall offensive nature in the Big 12. But the Sooners are struggling through their worst statistical season with Bob Stoops in charge.
Earlier this season, the Sooners were blistered for 111 points during a three-game period that included games against Texas, Kansas and Kansas State. That total was the most since 1997.
Those struggles have been obvious when comparing this season's statistics with those of previous seasons in Stoops' tenure. The Sooners are allowing more yards (345.60, 55th nationally) and more points (23.6 points per game, 57th nationally) than any of Stoops' previous nine teams.
It's worth noting that Oklahoma ranked among the top 16 teams in an eight-season stretch in total defense and in the top 19 teams in scoring defense in all seasons but one since Stoops arrived in 1999. Now the Sooners are barely middle-of-the-pack in the national rankings.
"We're embarrassed for ourselves," Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram two weeks ago. "We're not used to having 35 put on us. That's just not us."
Injuries have played a part. The Sooners lost their rudder when middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds went out with a season-ending knee injury in the Texas game. His loss in that game turned the course of the contest and allowed the Longhorns to charge back for a 45-35 victory that remains Oklahoma's only blemish this season.
Pre-season Big 12 defensive player of the year Auston English had his appendix removed before training camp started and struggled to regain his shape earlier in the season. Later, English sustained a sprained knee that will likely keep him out until Oklahoma's bowl game.
Defensive end Alan Davis also is hobbling with a sprained knee and won't play against the Red Raiders. It will mean the Sooners will likely go with a three-man rotation of Jeremy Beal, Frank Alexander and the relatively inexperienced Price Macon to provide outside pressure. Converted linebacker J.R. Bryant could also be used in plays off the edge to harass Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell.
"It's going to be the guys we have," Stoops said. "We don't get to go out and claim people through free agency."
They don't. But the Sooners clearly will be hampered as they try to contain a sizzling Tech offense that leads the nation in passing, is second nationally in total offense and third in points scored.
"Obviously it's not a perfect set of circumstances," defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters about the move of Bryant to the defensive front to add depth. "But it puts another athlete, puts additional speed on the field.
"[Bryant] is going to get out there and line up, we'll see. You like his skill-set. He's learning another position and there is technique involved. You try not to over-coach him and turn him loose."
Despite their uncharacteristic struggles on some areas of defense, the Sooners have been strong in other areas. The Sooners rank first in turnover margin, 21st in turnovers generated, third in sacks and ninth in tackles for losses. It appears that this Sooner team is willing to give up yardage in exchange for a momentum-changing play.
But that recipe might be problematic against a Texas Tech team that leads the nation in fewest sacks allowed per pass attempt and ranks 20th in turnovers produced.
It will mean the Sooners' new philosophy will receive its biggest test of the season from the Red Raiders.
"It's not the traditional defense we've played around here," McCoy said. "But I think we've fixed those problems and we'll be ready."
The Sooners' season may be depending on it.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are a few tidbits from around the Big 12 this week.
The biggest change in recent weeks is that Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is trusting in his scheme and the players who are operating it. Earlier this season, Pelini crafted a gimmick defense when he played Missouri. Now, he's more willing to let his talent play. Of course, the recent surge by the Nebraska front four is helping him feel that way, too. The Cornhuskers have notched nine sacks in their last two games after producing only five in the first five Big 12 conference games.
Two recent losses to Texas A&M has Texas coach Mack Brown searching for ways to better prepare for his traditional rival. One change that will help will be enthusiasm from his young players. Brown has been pleased with the contribution of young players in recent weeks. The list includes safety Christian Scott, center David Snow, defensive tackle Kheeston Randall and defensive ends Sam Acho and Eddie Jones. All had big games in the Longhorns' 35-7 triumph over Kansas last week. And the excitement of playing next week for a possible BCS berth should do the trick, too.
Oklahoma will be scrambling against Texas Tech's massive offensive line without two key pass rushers this week as defensive ends Auston English and Alan Davis both will be out with knee sprains. To build depth at the position, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has moved converted linebacker J.R. Bryant to one backup spot and seldom-used Pryce Macon will serve at the other position behind starters Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal. The Sooners are also bracing to use the nickel formation as their base against Tech's collection of wide receivers. That would mean extensive use for backup safety Quinton Carter, who made his first career start against Kansas last month. And Nic Harris will likely remain at safety with redshirt freshman Austin Box continuing to start at middle linebacker for Ryan Reynolds, out for the season with a knee injury.
Chase Coffman is unquestionably one of the most valuable receivers in the conference, but does the Missouri system play just a little part in his success? Freshman backup Andrew Jones produced seven catches last week against Iowa State as the Cyclones hardly missed Coffman, who was out with a sprained toe.
Iowa State has gotten to the final game without quarterback Austen Arnaud sustaining an injury, with only freshmen Jerome Tiller and Brett Bueker behind him as backups. If Arnaud should become injured against Kansas State, coach Gene Chizik has a plan. Chizik said he would insert freshman wide receiver Darius Darks, a converted high school quarterback and the team's leading receiver last week against Missouri, into the quarterback position. Chizik also said that the Cyclones have worked on an emergency package that includes direct snaps to the tailback. He remains adamant about saving the redshirts for both Tiller and Bueker after not playing either of them this season after the midseason departure of former backup quarterback Phillip Bates.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
It's not unprecedented that Oklahoma could come back from a loss to Texas and still win the Big 12 South title and maybe a factor in the national title chase.
But it's going to be very hard.
The Sooners are left with this predicament after suffering a 45-35 loss to the Longhorns last week, twice blowing double-digit leads against their resilient archrivals who are now in the driver's seat for the South Division title.
If Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has any legitimate shot at earning a three-peat of Big 12 titles, he'll need to fix several nagging concerns quickly as the Sooners head into Saturday's pivotal game in Norman against North Division leader Kansas.
The Sooners' biggest concern is replacing playmaking middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds, who was lost for the season after blowing out his right knee early in the third quarter last Saturday.
After Reynolds' departure, the Longhorns took over running the ball, producing 164 rushing yards in the second half. Texas was limited to minus-3 yards rushing in the first half.
Before Reynolds' injury, the Longhorns produced 4.6 yards per snap. After he left the lineup, Texas gashed the Sooners for 8.3 yards per play and outscored the Sooners 25-7 to claim the comeback victory.
Brandon Crow struggled as Reynolds' replacement in the Texas game against both the run and the pass. It is unlikely he'll get the chance to start against Kansas.
Stoops mentioned starting weakside linebacker Travis Lewis as a possible replacement in the middle, but after the redshirt freshman produced 19 tackles against Texas, it is unlikely that he would move. A more plausible solution would be moving his backup, redshirt freshman Austin Box, or junior-college transfers J.R. Bryant and Mike Balogun.
The hole is the middle is present because 2007 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Curtis Lofton left school a year early to declare for the NFL Draft. And heralded 2007 junior-college prospect Mike Reed left school earlier this year, robbing the position of additional depth.
"These other guys are going to have to step up," Stoops said.
Another huge concern has been the Sooners' struggles covering kicks. The Sooners rank 109th nationally, allowing an average of 25.33 yards per kick. They've been burned for touchdowns by Mardy Gilyard of Cincinnati and Jordan Shipley of Texas and nearly gave up a touchdown to Aaron Brown of TCU.
The memory of Shipley's return still stings because it enabled the Longhorns to stay in the game when it appeared the Sooners were on the verge of a knockout after going ahead 14-3 early in the game.
"We just haven't been able to get it done," Stoops said.
The Sooners also rank ninth or worse in the Big 12 in punt return average and net punting. It's a very rare problem for a Stoops-coached team to have.
The Oklahoma coach was a pioneer among modern coaches of putting starting players on his special teams. Key contributors like Teddy Lehman, Rocky Calmus, Roy Williams and Trent Smith all had their time on those special-teams units.
But the Sooners have gotten away from that in recent years. Stoops hinted earlier this week that that attitude could change after playing only four starters on the kick coverage unit last week against Texas.
"We aren't doing anything differently, it's just people," Stoops said. "We have got to get the right guys in there who can recognize and be where they need to be. Sometimes, we've been where we needed to be and we just didn't make the play."
The Sooners also need to be more balanced offensively after struggling to run the ball against both Texas and TCU in their last three games. Oklahoma produced 48 yards against the Longhorns after netting 25 against TCU.
"We know that it hasn't been as good as it has been since the beginning of the season," Oklahoma tailback Chris Brown said. "We have to take responsibility for what is going on in the running game. It's not just the offensive line. It's the backs and the complete offense. This is a week where we have to establish our running game and get it back like normal."
Tailback DeMarco Murray is clearly not the same back he was last season before dislocating his kneecap in a late-season loss at Texas Tech. Murray has had only one gain of more than 20 yards this season and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry this season after averaging 6.0 yards last season.
"We need to be a better run team because we're not trying to be a finesse team," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. "If the run game is not going, I have to make it work and give us a chance to win."
Those adjustments will be critical for the Sooners to make immediately. Their Big 12 title hopes will be riding on them.
But the Sooners like their place in the national title hunt midway through the season -- even after the loss to Texas.
"There's still a lot of football left," Lewis said. "There's a lot of football still to be played."