Big 12: Josh Heupel

TCU’s future starting quarterback might have spent his spring in College Station, Texas.

It’s possible Texas' next starter hasn’t even moved to Austin yet.

And half the teams in the Big 12 still haven't officially named a starter for the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeJ.W. Walsh
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtJ.W. Walsh showed comfort and patience this spring, emerging as the clear favorite to become Oklahoma State's starting quarterback.
But while quarterback continues to be the Big 12’s biggest moving part, the spring brought at least some clarity to the position across the league.

After losing the job last season, J.W. Walsh retook a commanding lead in Oklahoma State’s third quarterback derby in as many years.

Grant Rohach built off his strong finish last season to head into the summer as the clear frontrunner at Iowa State.

And even though Clint Trickett sat out the spring recovering from a shoulder injury, none of West Virginia’s other spring contenders could unseat him from the top of the depth chart.

Elsewhere, Kansas surprisingly named sophomore Montell Cozart as its starter days after he outshined incumbent Jake Heaps and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard in the Jayhawks’ spring game.

And Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight and Texas Tech’s Davis Webb rode the momentum of their breakout bowl performances to spring improvement.

Even the two schools with the biggest quarterback questions received some possible panaceas this spring.

Matt Joeckel, Johnny Manziel’s backup at Texas A&M the last two seasons, revealed two weeks ago that he would be transferring to TCU, where he’ll be eligible immediately. The Horned Frogs, who are installing an up-tempo offense similar to one Joeckel played in with the Aggies, ended spring with Trevone Boykin as their No. 1 quarterback, even though Boykin finished last year as a receiver.

To the south, another high-profile transfer could soon be following Joeckel to the Big 12. Since announcing he was transferring from USC, Max Wittek has visited Texas three times, including the Longhorns’ spring game. Wittek would be eligible right away as well, and with David Ash out for now with a fractured foot, Wittek could viably challenge to become Texas’ opening game starter.

Such positive developments at the most critical of positions are welcome developments for a league that struggled and juggled at quarterback through much of the 2013 season. In fact, Baylor’s Bryce Petty was the only Big 12 quarterback to start every game for his team last season.

Petty, who was on the short list of Heisman contenders until November, will again be the class of the league at quarterback.

But he should have plenty more company this season, beginning with Kansas State's Jake Waters, who improved as much as any quarterback in the country did over the course of last season. In leading the Wildcats to victories in six of their final seven games, Waters actually produced a higher Adjusted QBR rating than Petty during the same stretch.

Kansas State coach Bill Snyder came away impressed with the confidence Waters carried throughout the spring, which included a crisp effort in the spring game minus his favorite receiver, Tyler Lockett, who sat out the scrimmage with a minor injury.

“He just understands things a lot better,” Snyder said. “He has gained more confidence, probably just because of going through the process of going through some growing pains.”

Both Walsh and Rohach also went through growing pains last season.

But after a jittery sophomore campaign in which he eventually lost the starting job back to Clint Chelf in October, Walsh re-established himself this spring and performed with the poise he did two years ago as a freshman to emerge as the favorite to become the Cowboys' starter again.

“J.W. has become more of a leader,” offensive tackle Daniel Koenig said after Oklahoma State’s “Orange Blitz” scrimmage. “He’s staying in the pocket more, which is good. Maybe a year or two years ago, he’d get nervous back there and start scrambling. But now he’s sitting in there and throwing.”

Rohach, who finished off the 2013 season by leading Iowa State to a come-from-behind, triple-overtime victory at West Virginia, also showed more confidence this spring, leading Iowa State on three of its six scoring drives in the spring game. Coach Paul Rhoads said he’d wait until mid-August before declaring a starter, but Rohach seems to have the clear edge over Sam B. Richardson and Joel Lanning heading into the summer.

"To begin [the spring], coming off that huge game against West Virginia, putting pressure on myself, my first few practices weren't very good," Rohach said. "But as spring ball went on I shrugged off those mistakes, and I think I got a lot better."

Webb and Knight also used their final performances of last season to springboard into their second springs on campus.

Webb has been especially impressive since earning MVP honors in the Red Raiders' National University Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State. In Texas Tech’s three spring open scrimmages, he tossed 13 touchdowns with no interceptions.

“He is night and day from what he was at this time last year,” Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I am really impressed with him.”

With a limited playbook and a no-contact jersey, Knight had a lackluster showing in Oklahoma’s spring game, and was actually outplayed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. But behind closed practices, the Sooners liked the development they saw from their sophomore quarterback, who last torched two-time defending national champ Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

“He’s continued to make strides,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s not even like he played perfect in the Sugar Bowl -- there are things he missed in that game. He’s by no means a finished product.”

The quarterback position in the Big 12 is by no means a finished product, either, coming out of the spring. But the position looks better -- and clearer -- now than it did just two months ago.
Big 12 teams rejoice.

For the first time in four years, Oklahoma faces the proposition of a season without Trey Millard as a critical piece of its offense and special teams.

[+] EnlargeDimitri Flowers
Tom Hauck for Student SportsWhile only a 3-star recruit, Dimitri Flowers' versatility stood out to scouts.
The former Sooner earned a reputation as one of the conference’s most physical and versatile players as a four-year starter and could easily be considered the hardest player to replace in the Big 12. Millard ran like a running back, blocked like an offensive lineman and covered kicks like a linebacker. Locating guys like Millard is nearly an impossible task.

The Sooners hope they found a similar hidden gem in early enrollee Dimitri Flowers. He starred all over the field at San Antonio Churchill, making plays as a running back, tight end and defensive end. Flowers, at 6-foot-1, 234 pounds, has been earmarked for a Millard-type role as a hybrid tight end and running back and is already impressing coaches and teammates with his versatility.

“He’s one of the most skilled, well-rounded guys that I’ve seen come into our program,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “His ability to play in line and in space as an H-back, motion guy, [and] he does a great job of catching the football and he’s extremely bright for a young kid coming into your program.”

Flowers was called “as versatile as any player in high school” by recruiting experts, who rated him as a three-star athlete with “above average” size, speed and strength.

It would be asking a lot for Flowers to step right into the Sooners plan and have a similar impact as Millard, who essentially forced the coaching staff to find an immediate role for him as a true freshman. Fortunately for OU, it doesn’t need him to make an similar impact with former walk-on Aaron Ripkowski already proving he can be a core contributor as a fullback/tight end after Millard missed the end of the 2013 season with a knee injury.

Nonetheless, Flowers still could provide superb depth and play a special teams role this fall, particularly if he makes a smooth transition to college football and can handle the little details that can be the difference between seeing the field or watching from the sideline.

“He came in [as] a really good [player],” sophomore running back Keith Ford said. “He’s adjusted to the speed and the things I’ve seen with the catching the ball and pass blocking, he’s picking it up fast.”

OU used Millard and Ripkowski together at various times in 2012 and 2013 so it’s not out of the question for Flowers to have a role in the Sooners’ offensive plans with a strong showing this spring.

“He’s a really versatile player, very young, but a lot of great qualities,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “A lot of our best players can do a lot of things and he’s showing a lot of versatility on the field. He’s green as grass, he doesn’t know much but he’s a good athlete and he can play for us so we’re excited to have him.”
Since the turn of the millennium, the Big 12 has forged a national identity of elite quarterbacking. In fact, dating back to 2000, the Big 12 had a quarterback become a Heisman finalist in every season but three.

Last season, however, that identity all but vanished.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight torched Alabama for 348 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Bryce Petty briefly emerged into a Heisman contender at Baylor. But otherwise it was a dismal season for quarterbacking according to the Big 12’s high standards. Oklahoma State’s Clint Chelf was named the league’s second-team quarterback despite starting only half of 2013. Nine of the league’s 10 teams juggled starting quarterbacks well into October.

But thanks to breakout performances during the bowl season, coupled with the imminent arrival of numerous blue-chip freshmen, the conference appears on the way back to restoring its quarterbacking reputation heading into spring practice.

Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech have their starters cemented. Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU and West Virginia will welcome true freshmen with the pedigrees and opportunities to compete for jobs right away. And Kansas (Montell Cozart) and Iowa State (Grant Rohach) enjoyed promising moments from a pair of freshmen.

After totaling 46 touchdowns to just three interceptions in his first season as the starter, Petty headlines the position in the league again.

But if the bowl season was any indication, he won’t be the lone headliner.

Oklahoma freshman Trevor Knight torched Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl to the level backup Blake Bell asked to change his position to tight end.

In the National University Holiday Bowl, Texas Tech freshman Davis Webb lit up Arizona State, too, driving Michael Brewer to ask for a transfer.

And Kansas State’s Jake Waters capped a red-hot second half of his season by throwing for three touchdowns in a rout of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Knight, Webb and Waters delivered three of college football’s 10 best bowl performances according to the Adjusted QBR metric. All three rapidly improved in their first seasons. And that rapid improvement figures only to continue in their second.

“Traditionally, Year 2 in the offense is when you see the most growth in a quarterback,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

Of the three, Knight was the only full-time starter to begin the season. Spearheaded by a dazzling preseason, he beat out Bell, who was the favorite to replace four-year starter Landry Jones. But Knight completed just 21 of his first 48 pass attempts, and after a knee injury, lost the job to Bell not even two games in.

Knight, however, emerged late in the season, and displaying improvement with his accuracy, led the Sooners to a late November win at Kansas State. Then in the Sugar Bowl, he finally showed why he won the job originally in August. Against one of the nation’s most dominant defenses, Knight completed 32 of 44 passes as the Sooners toppled the Crimson Tide in one of the biggest upsets in BCS bowl history.

“If you’re going to win a championship, your quarterback is going to have to make plays,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We all saw Trevor [struggle] as a young freshman, first start, first game. To see him grow throughout the entire year and play extremely well down the stretch and played really well in the Sugar Bowl, obviously -- he’s obviously got a great future.”

[+] EnlargeDavis Webb
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesTexas Tech signal-caller Davis Webb had a breakout performance against Arizona State, completing 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns in the win.
The same goes for Webb.

Despite being the only healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster in August, Webb was beaten out by walk-on true freshman Baker Mayfield. But like Knight, Webb settled in behind the scenes. After Mayfield injured his knee, Webb led Tech to a come-from-behind win at West Virginia. Then, after Mayfield transferred, Webb was almost flawless against the Sun Devils. He passed for 403 yards and four touchdowns as Texas Tech controlled the game the entire night.

“The success he had in that bowl game against one of the top defenses showed what he can be,” Kingsbury said.

Waters’ bowl success showed the same.

Out of junior college, Waters beat out Daniel Sams for the starting job to begin the season. But with Waters taking the majority of the snaps, K-State fell in its season opener to FCS opponent North Dakota State. The next two months weren’t much better for Waters or the Wildcats, as the defending Big 12 champs stumbled to a 2-4 start.

But after losing snaps to Sams, Waters reestablished control of the position and quarterbacked K-State to wins in six of its final seven games, including a 31-14 rout of Michigan in the bowl. Waters had his best outing yet, too, completing 78 percent of his passes for three touchdowns.

While Waters, Webb and Knight will be looking to build off their bowl performances this spring, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph will be looking to win a job. Perhaps the most highly acclaimed quarterback the Cowboys have ever signed, Rudolph had a monster senior season in Rock Hill, S.C., throwing for 64 touchdowns while leading his team to a state championship. Enrolled for spring ball, the ESPN 300 recruit will challenge J.W. Walsh.

“Mason really brings all of the characteristics you want to see in a quarterback,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. “All of the intangibles.”

Plenty more quarterback talent is on its way, too.

Texas’ Jerrod Heard, West Virginia’s William Crest and TCU’s Foster Sawyer were also four-star recruits in the 2014 class, and they will be joining their schools in the summer with chances to play right away.

Such opportunities exist because the Big 12 quarterback play was down last season. But heading to spring, the league’s most identifiable position is on its way back up.

Two QB approach could spark Sooners

December, 26, 2013
NORMAN, Okla. -- It’s rare that uncertainty transforms into something positive.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight could force Alabama's defense to sell out to stop the run.
For Oklahoma, the lack of clarity at the quarterback position could become useful against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Sooners played three different quarterbacks during their 33-24 win over Oklahoma State in Bedlam and have struggled to get consistent play at the position despite finishing 10-2 in the regular season.

During Bedlam, the Sooners offense was running the option and zone read plays with quarterback Trevor Knight during the first quarter and running a four-receiver, spread attack with Blake Bell at various times during in the second half after Knight left the game due to an injury. Having to defend both styles seemed to create problems for the Cowboys’ defense, which finished among the Big 12’s best this season.

Using both offensive approaches against the Crimson Tide could help challenge Nick Saban’s defense, which led the SEC in points per game allowed (11.3) and yards per play allowed (4.73).

The Sooners don’t plan to name a starting quarterback before the game.

“That will be a game-time decision,” coach Bob Stoops said.

It might not matter who takes the first snap in New Orleans. While Alabama would have had plenty of time to prepare for all the variations the Sooners' offense has shown this season, OU would be wise to take an Bedlam-like approach.

“We used a little bit of everything the last ball game,” Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We mixed and matched. Some of it was planned and some of it wasn’t.”

Knight started the game against OSU, as OU looked to use its quarterback run-game attack featuring option runs and zone read plays to take advantage of the redshirt freshman’s speed and athleticism. A similar approach against Alabama will force the Crimson Tide to account for Knight and help the Sooners win the numbers game in the box. In other words, Knight’s ability to run could make it easier to attack an Alabama defense that allowed just 108.33 rushing yards per game. The Crimson Tide are likely to sell out to stop the run with so Knight undoubtedly will have to make them pay with his arm for OU to have success.

With Bell, OU’s offense takes a different approach. The junior earned the nickname “Belldozer” thanks to his short-yardage running as a freshman and sophomore but OU turns to the passing game when he's taking the snap. Against OSU, Bell often came in on third down to throw the ball and he led the Sooners on their game-winning drive in the final minutes. Against Alabama, that offense could be used to help keep the Crimson Tide honest. OU’s running game has been, by far, the most consistent aspect of its offense. But the passing success with Bell under center during Bedlam provided some hope for OU’s offense.

“We’re finding who gives us the best chance in the style of offense we’re in and gives us the best chance to have success,” Heupel said.

With Knight at the helm, OU averages 15 pass attempts per game. With Bell under center, the Sooners average 21.1 pass attempts per contest. Combining the two attacks makes sense, particularly since the rest of the Sooners' offense has gotten comfortable running both offenses.

“You try to put those guys in the position to look successful,” Heupel said. “We’ll have a mixture of a little bit of everything at the Sugar Bowl to give ourselves a chance to win the ball game.”

No matter what offense the Sooners run, execution will be critical. OU will have to win individual battles in the trenches against an supremely-talented Crimson Tide defense and show it can make plays on the ground and through the air or risk having Alabama’s defense overwhelm and shut down OU’s offense.

“With our coaching staff, I feel like we’re going to develop a really good plan that will give us a good shot,” Knight said. “If we go out there and execute the way we can, I think we’ll be okay.”

Jalen Saunders soars as a Sooner

December, 23, 2013
NORMAN, Okla. — It was a perfect fit.

Receiver Jalen Saunders was searching for a home in early 2012, looking to transfer from Fresno State after two seasons with the Bulldogs. Oklahoma was looking for a veteran receiver, hopeful to replace the departed Ryan Broyles, the NCAA’s all-time reception leader.

After a tip from former New Mexico State coach Dwayne Walker, Sooners receivers coach Jay Norvell got in touch with Saunders and convinced him that Norman, Okla., was the place to spend his final two seasons. Saunders quickly became one of OU’s top receiving threats and he’s put himself in position to be the fourth Sooners receiver selected in the NFL draft in the last three years, joining Broyles, Justin Brown and Kenny Stills.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJalen Saunders turned out to be a perfect fit for Oklahoma, and vice versa.
OU received an explosive threat who has proven ability to change games. Saunders received added exposure and better competition week in and week out. Saunders' decision to finish his career at OU has paid off.

“Oklahoma has a great legacy behind its name and there have been a lot of greats come through here,” Saunders said. “Adrian Peterson, Ryan Broyles and Sam Bradford -- the list goes on and on. So this is just a great program to come out of.”

Entering the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Saunders has 198 career receptions on 295 targets for 3,010 yards and 24 touchdowns. In 21 games at OU, the senior has 118 receptions for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns, with 61.9 percent of his receptions gaining a first down.

“Jalen has had a huge impact,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He has been a great player for us, explosive player, and a very consistent player, too. Every week he performs well and he plays hard and always has that ability to make big plays.”

Saunders is playing his best in a crimson and cream uniform during his final few games as a Sooner. He changed the game with a punt return for a touchdown against Iowa State, sparking a 48-10 win. He led OU with seven receptions for 95 yards in a 41-31 win over Kansas State and saved his best for last, catching the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State and added a critical punt return in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over the Cowboys to help earn the Sugar Bowl bid.

“He’s ratcheting it up,” Norvell said. “He sees the end coming and he really is dialed in to how he can help this team. We’re moving him around a little bit more; we’re putting him in different spots. Sometimes when you’re a college football coach you start seeing the end with some guys and you want to get as much out of him as you can. But he’s a really good player. He’s really tough for a little guy and we just are trying to use him up here these last few weeks and put him in good spots.”

During OU’s last five games, Saunders has 27 receptions for 376 yards and three touchdowns, six punt returns for 192 yards and two scores (32 yards per return) and a 55-yard kickoff return.

“He’s played a major role in our success down the stretch,” co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.

The senior’s production helped earn him an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he will get a chance to prove himself in front of NFL scouts and coaches. Questions about his size (5-foot-9, 157 pounds) will undoubtedly hurt his NFL stock, but he can start answering those questions in Mobile, Ala. in late January.

Norvell, who coached in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders, believes Saunders can be an NFL receiver.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really showing he can do a lot of things very well as a punt returner and a route-runner. I think they like his toughness. He’s showing that he’ll mix it up. We use him in a lot of situations where you’d use a bigger receiver and he goes in there and throws his body around, so I’m probably most proud about that of him and just how he’s played the physical part of the game.”

Big 12 lunchtime links

December, 11, 2013
In case you missed anything, here are some highlights from the final week of Big 12 football.

Bell, Sooners excel on final drive

December, 10, 2013
It would have been hard to find anyone not dressed in crimson and cream who were expecting Oklahoma to cruise down the field in less than two minutes to score the game-winning touchdown in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over Oklahoma State last Saturday.

OU’s offense had three passing first downs and was averaging 4.63 yards per play before that final drive. Yet, the Sooners matched their previous output with three first downs on the final drive, averaging 7.13 yards per play on an eight-play scoring march (they added a defensive touchdown on the game’s final play).

Here’s a closer look at five key plays, after a film study review of the game, that transformed the Sooners from a potential three-loss squad to BCS bowl participant.

Sterling Shepard’s 9-yard catch on the drive’s first play. A good play call and design got Shepard loose on a receiver screen pass. The sophomore faked outside on a swing pass then dipped inside to catch the ball with three blockers ahead of him. Only a terrific tackle by OSU linebacker Joe Mitchell kept the play from being a big gainer. It was the perfect way to start the drive because it gave Blake Bell and the rest of the Sooners’ offense immediate confidence.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIBlake Bell came up big when the Sooners needed him.
Bell’s perfect throw to Shepard on the next play: On the second play of the drive, Bell showed tremendous touch on a 18-yard completion to Shepard. The Cowboys rushed three defenders and dropped eight, hoping to force Bell to thread a pass into a tiny window between coverage in a zone defense in order to get a completion. And Bell did it to perfection with touch on a throw over the outstretched arms of Mitchell but in front of safety Daytawion Lowe. Shepard, the overlooked hero on the drive, did a terrific job holding onto the ball despite Lowe’s hit. It was a clear sign that Bell was stepping up in the moment and sent the message that the Sooners could be on a march for a touchdown, not just a field goal.

OSU cornerback Justin Gilbert’s non-interception: After the Sooners had moved the ball to the OSU 30-yard line, Gilbert appeared to intercept Bell by outleaping Lacoltan Bester for the ball. But Bester continued to fight, pulling Gilbert’s right arm as the pair hit the ground, to knock the football out of Gilbert’s hands. It was a call that could have gone either way, so the awareness to go up tempo and the execution of a play immediately was the difference. That ability took the option to review the play and reverse the on-field call away from OSU coach Mike Gundy and the officiating crew upstairs. Even though OU hasn’t used it much in games this season, it’s unlikely a team that does not practice tempo, or is not prepared to execute in pressure situations, would have been able to eliminate a potential review. The quick recognition of the scenario and ability to run a play that quickly was easily the best thing OU did on the entire drive.

Bell connects with Saunders on third-and-10: The Sooners quarterback had plenty of time to simply stand in the pocket but scrambled anyway and found Saunders for 13 yards just before he passed the line of scrimmage. It was clear Bell was looking the entire way for Saunders, who has been a third-down conversion machine in the second half of the season. But it was actually his decision to scramble that forced the first level of OSU’s zone defense to react, allowing Saunders to get open and make the key reception. Even though there was no reason to leave the pocket with OSU rushing just three defenders, Bell’s decision to do so allowed the conversion to happen.

Saunders’ game-winning touchdown: Give Bell a ton of credit. He knew before the snap that he had the matchup he wanted with Jalen Saunders lined up in man-to-man coverage with OSU safety Lyndell Johnson. Saunders is a nightmare for the Big 12’s top cornerbacks so having him matched up on a safety with a play call that Bell knew would have Saunders running away from Johnson on a corner route took all thinking out of the equation. It was all about the throw at that point. Bell had a clean pocket, thanks to Brennan Clay and the offensive line, and made a perfect throw to the corner of the end zone.

The Boone Pickens Stadium crowd was stunned, Baylor rejoiced and the Sooners seized the opportunity to earn a BCS berth. The silence in the Cowboys’ home stadium -- outside of the section of Sooners fans -- can be matched only by the silence of the critics of Bell and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel after those critical moments. Bell and Heupel stepped up when the program needed them the most, Heupel with a couple of exceptional play calls and Bell with terrific throws and decision-making on the final drive. In less than two minutes, OU’s offense went from preparing to answer questions about why it didn’t show up to being the reason the Sooners are Sugar Bowl-bound.
NORMAN, Okla. -- The last time Oklahoma invaded Boone Pickens Stadium, the Sooners were sent home with their tails between their legs.

Oklahoma State dominated, overwhelmed and generally embarrassed OU in a 44-10 win in Stillwater, Okla., in December 2011. It was a humbling defeat that left a lasting image of OSU fans rushing the field at BPS and celebrating at the expense of the Sooners. But it’s not something the Sooners plan to use as motivation this week.

“We don’t talk so much about what happened as far as win or losses,” said OU cornerback Aaron Colvin, who started at safety in that blowout loss. “We don’t talk about that. We do talk about the preparation that goes into this game.”

When OU visits Stillwater on Saturday, the Sooners will face the difficult task of knocking off the No. 6-ranked Cowboys, who are coming off a 49-17 home win over then-No. 4 Baylor. As good as OSU has been in the Big 12 the past few seasons, it has been even better at Boone Pickens Stadium. OSU is 22-3 at home since 2010, averaging 49.7 points and 536 yards per game and 7.21 yards per play in those 25 contests.

As difficult as the task of winning in Stillwater will be, don’t expect the Sooners to make drastic changes on offense with the hope of keeping up with a Cowboys squad that is averaging 47.8 points and 449 yards per game and 6.1 yards per play in their five wins since Clint Chelf regained his starting quarterback spot.

“You’ve got to be who you are,” OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We’re playing an opponent who has a really good defense and is playing well as a team.”

OU’s offense is coming off arguably its best game of the season and the trigger man, Trevor Knight, is playing the best football of his young career. The redshirt freshman recorded a 90.4 adjusted Total QBR in OU’s 41-31 win over Kansas State which was a season-best in a game he has started. The Sooners offense, if Knight plays like he did against K-State, will have the firepower to keep up with OSU, giving Heupel and the rest of the offensive staff hope that drastic changes aren’t needed.

“It’s a hostile environment and a big game, so you’ve got to be who you are,” Heupel said. “You can always add wrinkles and things that you think give you an opportunity against their schemes. But for the most part you are who you are at this point in the year.”

Will that be good enough? We'll find out on Saturday.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 12

November, 14, 2013
OSUJohn Weast/Getty ImagesClint Chelf and Oklahoma State have to beat Texas in Austin if they hope to keep their conference title hopes alive, as the Cowboys are a game behind the Longhorns and Baylor in the loss column.
Let's take a look at the top storylines in the Big 12 for Week 12:

1. Can Oklahoma State make this a race? The stakes for Oklahoma State this weekend are obvious: Beat Texas and we're looking at a three-team Big 12 title race. Lose, and the Cowboys join Oklahoma on the outside looking in, making the Dec. 7 Bedlam game irrelevant to the conference-title picture. We haven't said that in a long time, have we? The Cowboys have won five straight and face a Texas team missing several key cogs. They've won their last two games in Austin. Do it again and they just might sneak into the top 10.

2. Texas Tech goes for the big upset: The Red Raiders have plenty of motivation this week as the 27-point David to the conference's undefeated green-and-gold Goliath. The team that was once as hyped as any in college football at 7-0 is now staring down the real possibility of ending the season 7-5. Maybe being backed into a corner and underestimated is just what coach Kliff Kingsbury's squad needs this week to end a three-game slide and stun Baylor.

3. Texas offense without Johnathan Gray: One of the best running backs in the Big 12 is done for the season. How will the Longhorns' offense regroup? Expect a heavy workload for the junior duo of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, and perhaps a few more creative ways to put the ball in the hands of the speedy Daje Johnson. If OSU loads the box to stop the Gray-less run game, can Case McCoy make the throws to beat the Pokes' talented secondary?

4. Baylor's defense tries to do it again: Shutting down Oklahoma in a 41-12 victory last Thursday might've done wonders for the national perception of Baylor's much-improved defense. But there will always be detractors who say Oklahoma was flat-out inept in Waco and that the Bears' performance wasn't conclusive enough. Maybe shutting down Jace Amaro and the rest of the Tech attack in front of a national primetime audience at AT&T Stadium would quiet a few of those remaining doubters.

5. K-State goes for four in a row: Winners of three straight, all by convincing or impressive margins, the Wildcats are enjoying the fruits of their weekly improvement after a tough 2-4 start to the season. A win over TCU makes Kansas State bowl eligible, a feat that seemed unlikely one month ago. Don't sleep on this KSU team -- it might be the Big 12's fourth- or fifth-best squad by year's end.

6. Does West Virginia have gas left in the tank? The Mountaineers have gone to overtime in each of the past two weeks, one a win at TCU and the other a shootout home loss to Texas in which they came up just short. This West Virginia defense is as beat up from an injury standpoint as any in the league. Can the Mountaineers get up for a road game against a Kansas team that plays most foes close? Knowing they need to win out to reach a bowl should be sufficient motivation.

7. Oklahoma offense must answer criticism: As usual, Bob Stoops faced another week full of criticism and second-guessing following a Sooners loss. This time, the public's focus was on quarterback Blake Bell, play-caller Josh Heupel and the sputtering offense that duo is held responsible for, fair or not. This might be a good week to pound the rock and rediscover the run game that was less than impactful against Baylor.

8. TCU trying to keep its bowl hopes alive: If there are two teams nobody in this conference wants to play right now, it might be Kansas State and Baylor. That's all the Horned Frogs have left in 2013, and all they have to play for right now at 4-6 is a puncher's chance at bowl eligibility. The only time Gary Patterson hasn't taken his team bowling was 2004.

9. Is this the week Kansas finally wins? You might've noticed my colleague Jake Trotter boldly went out on a limb and predicted Kansas would pull off a victory over West Virginia on Saturday. The Jayhawks, you might have heard, have lost 27 consecutive Big 12 games and are 0-15 in conference games under Charlie Weis. Will KU reward the bravery of Trotter and its remaining fans and finally notch that elusive victory? If this isn't the week, don't worry, there’s still a game against Iowa State left.

10. Bring it on, Grant Rohach: We're trying to find reason to get excited about an Iowa State offense that just hasn't been able to figure things out this season. Quarterback Sam B. Richardson is still dealing with a thumb injury, so Rohach will get a chance to shake off the jitters from his first career start and give it a go on the road against Oklahoma. Not an ideal situation by any means, but perhaps he can give ISU a spark.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma has been searching for answers in its passing attack for the majority of the season.

Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight got the first shot, starting the Sooners' first two games of the season, then Blake Bell got the nod against Tulsa on Sept. 14 and has been the starter ever since.

[+] EnlargeKendal Thompson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSophomore signal-caller Kendal Thompson played well in OU's Red-White spring game but has yet to play in 2013.
Neither player has solidified themselves as the Sooners' signal-caller of the future.

Meanwhile, there was another competitor in OU's quarterback derby throughout the spring and summer. Sophomore Kendal Thompson was part of the three-quarterback race to replace Landry Jones until a broken foot on the first day of fall camp derailed his hopes of winning the job.

With the Sooners still searching for consistency at quarterback it would seem natural for the now-healthy Thompson to get a shot to quarterback the squad, as the lone one of the three who hasn’t gotten the chance to show what he can do in a game. Yet coach Bob Stoops doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m not going to sit here and make wholesale changes in the ninth game of the year when we’ve done some good things through the year,” Stoops said. “Kendal has done an awesome job. We love what he’s doing. He’s got a bright future. It’s hard to overcome the initial way that he started.”

Thompson missed the month of August and part of September while recovering from the foot injury, creating a hole that the coaching staff believes has been too deep to dig out of. Asked what Thompson would have to do to get an opportunity to lead the Sooners offense in a game, co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell preached patience.

“Kendal has to do what he has continued to do, practice hard and continue to prepare,” Norvell said. “He will ready when his opportunity comes. It is unfortunate; he got hurt at a very critical time in training camp when people were competing for the spot and it just hard to get an opportunity once the season starts.”

It’s tough to spread the practice reps to three different quarterbacks, Norvell contended, particularly with the Sooners trying to do everything they can to work on the improvements needed if their passing attack expects to click consistently as the season comes to a close.

The OU quarterbacks rank ninth in the Big 12 at 195.3 passing yards per game with Kansas as the only other conference squad averaging less than 200 passing yards per game. It's an ugly realization considering the league is full of sub-par and unsettled quarterback play.

OU coaches consistently say their players must prove themselves in practice to get an opportunity in games but even Stoops admitted things can be different when the lights turn on.

“It’s always a different feel,” Stoops said. “Practice to games can be drastically different.”

It doesn’t sound like the Sooners are going to stray away from their commitment to Bell anytime soon. Even though Norvell and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said Thompson has continued to develop since returning to full health, Stoops reaffirmed his commitment to Bell earlier this week.

“Are we going to go and experiment now?” Stoops asked. “I don’t think that’s the case. [Kendal]’s doing everything. He’s a wonderful young man with a bright future, and he’s a talented guy.”

Will we ever see Thompson's talent on full display on the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium turf? That question remains unanswered.
NORMAN, Okla. -- The look of despair and disappointment on the face of Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard spoke volumes.

It’s rare that a win over a Top 10 team feels so bittersweet.

[+] EnlargeTrey Millard
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTrey Millard, who has played running back, fullback and tight end in his time at Oklahoma, has 13 career touchdowns.
Ikard was excited his team had just knocked off then-No. 10 Texas Tech, 38-30, last Saturday, yet the entire mood of the conversation changed when the senior was asked about the season-ending injury to fellow senior Trey Millard, who tore two knee ligaments -- including his ACL -- on special teams.

“My heart is just broken for him,” Ikard said. “He’s one of those guys who just loves the game, and for it to happen on something like getting rolled up on a kickoff, that’s tough to swallow for everyone on this team.”

It's heartbreaking because Millard returned for his senior season to finish his career with his teammates as a critical cog in the OU machine. His numbers --17 carries for 97 yards, 11 receptions for 78 yards and two touchdowns -- don’t come close to representing his value. Millard often paved the way for an OU rushing offense that averages 234 rushing yards per game, and he has been the Sooners’ top special teams player for the past three seasons, according to coach Bob Stoops.

“He’s the best player on our football team,” Ikard said. “He’s the most versatile person on our football team. He’s the heart and soul of this team, and he’s one of the leaders.”

Millard, who has played 48 career games for OU, had the ability to line up at fullback or tight end and excel during his four-year career.

“All you can say about Trey is he is the best in the country in doing what he does,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s been that way for a long time. We’re going to miss him. Other guys are going to have to step up and play well.”

As the Sooners strive to play without Millard it will be like trying to hang a picture without a hammer. It’s still doable but you’ll have to get creative to find a way to get the job done and your task just got much more difficult.

One player won’t be able to replace Millard. Tight end Brannon Green and fullback Aaron Ripkowski will be asked to fill the void on offense, with several candidates likely to fill his role on special teams. A huge portion of Millard’s value was in his ability to do so many things, thus allowing the Sooners to adapt without changing personnel.

And, with Baylor looming next on OU’s schedule, Millard’s injury couldn’t come at a worst time. The Sooners will undoubtedly try to control the ball against the Bears, leaning on its running game to help stop Baylor’s high-powered attack by keeping Bryce Petty and Lache Seastrunk on the sidelines.

“We’re going to miss him a lot,” Ikard said. “We’re going to have to make some serious adjustments on the offensive side of the football without No. 33 out there.”

The Sooners have used two tight end formations, featuring Millard and Ripkowski, to have running success this season. After Millard was injured early in the fourth quarter, OU used Green and Ripkowski in those two tight end formations and had success with 16 fourth-quarter rushes for 81 yards (5.06 yards per carry) against the Red Raiders.

Even with that success, Stoops isn’t looking forward to the task of replacing Millard.

“That’s tough because Trey is so versatile,” Stoops said. “We don’t have anybody else like that nor does anybody else. He’s pretty unique.”

Instant Analysis: OU 38, Texas Tech 30

October, 26, 2013

The Sooners (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) reasserted themselves in the conference race by handing Texas Tech (7-1, 4-1) its first loss of the season in the Big 12 game of the year so far.

It was over when: Texas Tech QB Davis Webb's pass attempt to Bradley Marquez fell incomplete down the sidelines on fourth-and-23 with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Red Raiders had a chance for a game-tying drive, but Webb was sacked by Chuka Ndulue on first down, sending the Red Raiders scrambling.

Game ball goes to: Oklahoma wideout Jalen Saunders hauled in six passes for a season-high 153 yards and two second-quarter touchdowns to ignite the Sooners offense late in the first half. It was Saunders’ first 100-yard receiving game of the season.

Stat of the game: The Red Raiders came into the game with the Big 12’s best third-down defense, and third-best red zone defense. But Oklahoma’s offense dominated in both categories. The Sooners converted 7 of 14 attempts on third down, and scored touchdowns on three of their four red zone attempts.

Unsung hero of the game: Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin, who came up with two turnovers in the first half to thwart Texas Tech drives. He picked off Webb in the first quarter inside the OU 5. Then in the second quarter, after OU’s Charles Tapper stripped Tech tight end Jace Amaro, Colvin scooped up the ball. Colvin was also solid in coverage all night against Marquez, who had just four catches.

Best call: After Kliff Kingsbury dialed up a series of trick plays to give Tech a 24-21 lead, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel dialed one back. Heupel called a reverse pass, except instead of throwing the ball, wideout Lacoltan Bester weaved through the Tech defense for a 35-yard touchdown run. OU never trailed in the game again.

What it means: After three straight shaky performances, the Sooners re-established their standing in the Big 12 race, with a Nov. 7 road trip to unbeaten Baylor up next. Tech is still alive, too, but could have taken a big step forward by pulling off the upset in Norman.

Bell, OU passing game must improve

October, 23, 2013
NORMAN, Okla. -- Sooners fans have been spoiled for the past decade.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerOklahoma signal-caller Blake Bell has had success when using play action this season, but all three of his interceptions have come against a blitz.
Jason White, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones have made being the quarterback at Oklahoma look easy. Heisman Trophies were secured, school records fell and, most importantly, Big 12 championships were won.

Blake Bell has huge shoes to fill.

After a record-shattering first start, OU’s current starting quarterback has struggled to find any kind of rhythm in four starts since the Sooners’ 51-20 thrashing of Tulsa on Sept. 14. Bell threw for 413 yards, a school record for a quarterback in his first start, and four touchdowns. In the four games since, Bell has passed for 648 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.

While Bell appears to have secured the starting job for the near future, he needs to play better if OU hopes to compete for a Big 12 title this season. Coach Bob Stoops knows it, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel knows it and Bell knows it.

“I still believe he can play better,” Stoops said. “We want to be effective in running and throwing the football, and I think the obvious part is that we need to be a little more effective throwing the football -- or consistent. We’ve had our times where we’ve been pretty good with it and we’ve had our times when we haven’t, so we’ve got to get that part of our game more consistent.”

A closer look at the numbers, thanks to ESPN Stats & Info, reveal the up-and-down nature of the Sooners’ passing game this season. OU’s passing game under Trevor Knight, the starter to open the season, was bad, but under Bell, there has been some renewed hope.

The junior has been good when OU uses play action, completing 27 of 38 passes and averaging 7.9 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and one interception. He has been solid but somewhat careless with the ball against the blitz, completing 27 of 46 passes and averaging 8.6 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and three interceptions.

But the blueprint to beating the Sooners is out in full view. Stack the box, force Bell to beat you and until he shows he can make teams pay, expect defensive coordinators to continue to load up to stop the run. And OU can’t expect to lean on its play-action success when Texas Tech arrives in Norman on Saturday. The Red Raiders hold opponents to an AQ-low 4.2 yards per attempt on play-action passes and are one of five teams that hasn't allowed a touchdown off play action this season.

OU’s only answer is to make big plays in the passing game to force teams to respect Bell and his receivers and do a better job converting third downs.

“There’s a bunch of big plays out there that we still missed,” Heupel said. “Those are things we’re going to need to hit on Saturday. It think that’s the difference, whether its run or pass plays, we haven’t got the big hitter.”

Bell is 8-of-31 on throws of 15 yards or more, averaging 6.6 yards per attempts. His 25.8 completion percentage is second worst in the Big 12 behind Clint Trickett of West Virginia, and Bell is averaging 14.1 pass attempts per completion of 20 yards or more.

“It’s going to come, we just have to keep fighting every day,” Bell said. “Like Coach Heupel says, you’re going to keep taking shots, you’re not going to hit them all but if we hit a few, we’re going to be in good shape.”

By comparison, Jones averaged 3.3 completions of 20 yards or more last season and 3.4 per game as he got his feet wet as a starter during his redshirt freshman season in 2009. Bell is averaging 1.6 per game including 1.3 in OU’s last four games. Even though OU’s offense has changed and he hasn't gotten the same opportunities Jones had in 2012, there have been big-play opportunities that Bell has misfired on.

“We need to get better,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “We feel like we’re still leaving yards on the field. We need to throw for a higher percentage and make more chunk [plays] down the field.”

Joining the lack of big passing plays, poor third-down conversion rate has been another focus for the Sooners this week. OU ranks 69th nationally, converting 39.4 percent of its third down conversion attempts and Bell’s 62.4 raw Total QBR on third down ranks ninth in the Big 12. With the Red Raiders on Saturday followed by Baylor on Nov. 7, the Sooners know their current offensive production won’t get it done if they hope to keep up with two of the nation’s highest scoring teams.

“We have to be better to beat the best teams in this league,” Norvell said.

Big 12 lunchtime links

October, 15, 2013
Here are some highlights of last weekend's action in case you missed anything.

Texas finds what Oklahoma loses

October, 14, 2013
A critical exchange of possessions in the second quarter defined this year’s Red River Rivalry.

With the Sooners trailing 10-3, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel dialed up three consecutive Blake Bell passes. All three fell incomplete.

Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite countered with three consecutive runs between the tackles for a first down. The drive ultimately ended with Case McCoy’s 59-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Johnson in man coverage that gave the Longhorns control of the game.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesBlake Bell and Oklahoma didn't take advantage of opportunities against Texas..
Saturday, on the same field where Texas finally uncovered an offensive identity, the Sooners completely lost theirs.

Oklahoma’s recipe for success before Dallas was simple and effective. Run the ball, take care of the ball and make the necessary plays in the fourth quarter. The game plan worked wonders in the Sooners’ convincing victory at Notre Dame. It was enough to beat TCU, too.

But against the Longhorns, once Oklahoma’s shaky passing attack was exposed, the entire offense fell apart.

Texas loaded the box and checked the Sooners’ ground game. The Longhorns dared Heupel and quarterback Blake Bell to beat them deep. And the Sooners blinked first.

Bell completed just 1 of 7 downfield attempts that were longer than 10 yards – a fullback pop to Trey Millard for 29 yards early in the game. Considering the defensive scheme Texas employed, the lack of completions downfield was staggering. The lack of attempts, even more so.

“There were opportunities there a little bit to unload the box that we're not taking advantage of,” Heupel said. “We haven't been good on the outside or in the middle of the field — anything past 15 yards. We’ve got to be better. There are explosive plays out there that have the opportunity to win. We’ve just got to make them.”

Heupel also shied away from calling many quarterback runs, which had been so effective for Oklahoma in the past and so lethal against the Longhorns this season. Against a loaded box, having the extra blocker would have been useful. But the Sooners didn’t attempt to capitalize off Bell’s power wheels, and Bell only ran three times for just eight yards.

“That’s just the way Coach Heupel and all of our offensive coaches wanted to go into the football game,” answered Bob Stoops, when asked why more Bell runs weren’t called. “Again, there were just some things we don't feel so comfortable with in some areas always with Blake.”

If the Sooners didn’t feel comfortable with Bell throwing the ball downfield or running him, maybe they should have made another quarterback change. But that wasn’t considered, either.

Now, the Sooners are left to pick up the pieces from their Red River disaster and rework an offensive identity that went to pot in Dallas.

“There’s no magical pill you’re going to take and correct it,” Heupel said. “You just go back to work.”

According to all reports, the Longhorns didn’t take any magic pills before the Oklahoma game. But they played a like a completely different team than the one that had shuffled through the first five games. And a week after calling 45 passes, Applewhite opted to run the offense through hard-nosed running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown behind the Longhorns’ veteran offensive line.

“They were determined to go play, determined to move the ball and they understood the game plan,” Applewhite said of his line. “I think we spelled it out for them in terms of where we wanted to be on third down so we could possess the ball and convert and keep the chains moving. I think the game plan was a lot more simplified; the schemes were very simple.”

The simple scheme couldn’t have worked better for burnt orange.

Texas gained five yards anytime it wanted up the middle, as Gray and Brown both rushed for more than 100 yards. That took the pressure off quarterback Case McCoy, who delivered the big plays when he was called on to.

The last three years, Texas coach Mack Brown has been trying to locate the right identity for the Longhorns offense. This past offseason, Brown indicated he wanted to speed up the tempo and spread the field.

But as Saturday showed, this offense is built to run between the tackles, then throw deep to a host of speedy receivers.

The formula worked wonders against the Sooners. And could work wonders going forward, too.

“I loved the game plan,” McCoy said. “I was confident in the plan and knew in any situation what was going on and what I was doing. We played hard and played to the plan.

“And that's exciting.”