NCF Nation: 2011 Fiesta Bowl coverage

Sooners end drought, rewrite ending

January, 2, 2011
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Even in a passing glance, the Sooners look bigger.

Turn that into a three-hour, 34-minute stare like in Saturday night's Fiesta Bowl, and there's no argument about the bigger, faster, more talented team.

[+] EnlargeTony Jefferson
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireSooners cornerback Tony Jefferson intercepts a pass and returns it for a touchdown to help seal Oklahoma's 48-20 victory.
Oklahoma was all three, and proved it with a 48-20 win over Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl.

"It's huge. We continued where we left off [in the Big 12 Championship against] Nebraska," said junior linebacker Travis Lewis. "Going into next year with most of the guys coming back, the sky is the limit for this team."

It wasn't a perfect game for the Sooners, who surrendered a pick-six in the first half to keep the Huskies' hopes alive and led by just 14 entering the fourth quarter. A dominant final period with a pick-six of their own provided the final score, and ended Oklahoma's five-game BCS bowl losing streak, giving the program its first win on the big stage since 2002.

"It's fair to say that probably had a strong impact on the players," Sooners coach Bob Stoops said of talk surrounding the program's highly public failures. "We've maybe not had the best fortune in some of the other ones, came in with not all of our players. ... You are playing another championship team. You are going to have a hard time winning. I'm not going to sit here and act like we weren't ready in some other games, but we were more healthy in this one and these guys worked hard and they had an attitude to play in this game."

The Sooners, for once, didn't fall victim to someone else's fairy tale ending.

This time, there was no West Virginia-loving hometown coach bringing home the program's biggest win ever. Bill Stewart was a whole mess of country roads away from Phoenix on this night.

This time, there was no Bible-verse spouting figure fulfilling a midseason promise to his entire fan base at the Sooners' expense. Tim Tebow is busy delivering mile-high salutes in the NFL, and his promise can't hurt Oklahoma twice, even if it was immortalized by being engraved outside the Gators' stadium.

This time, there was no postgame proposal after the Sooners got hooked-and-laddered while America fell in love with its new non-AQ darling. Boise State experienced its own heartbreak in 2010 and finished its season in Las Vegas.

Connecticut has only been playing FBS football for a little more than a decade, and receiver Kashif Moore wore No. 6 in honor of teammate Jasper Howard, who was fatally stabbed during the 2009 season and for whom the Fiesta Bowl would have been his last game.

The Huskies had the story. Oklahoma ripped up the script.

On this night, the Sooners' Texas-bred, five-star recruits and golden-armed quarterback did what they were supposed to do. The 17-point favorites won by 28.

That doesn't mean the Sooners didn't write a satisfying end to a story of their own, a story with a beginning fans would like to forget, but an ending they'll long remember.

"Being able to hoist that Fiesta Bowl trophy, there's nothing like it," Lewis said. "All those lost BCS games, that's all of us. We're all Oklahoma. This is for the guys that lost those games."

But of course this isn’t a book, this is college football. And in this world there is always next year. For Oklahoma, Saturday’s ending could be a beginning -- the prologue in a story that has already ended seven times with a national title for the Sooners.

Lewis and wide receiver Ryan Broyles have decisions to make about their NFL futures. But even if both bolt Norman for richer soils, both helped springboard the Sooners to what could be a run toward a national championship in 2011.

Ted Miller and David Ubben break down Oklahoma’s win over Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl.

UConn sees Fiesta Bowl positives

January, 2, 2011
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- College football is big business. It's a violent game played for high stakes. It's not often touchy-feeley. Moral victories? Those are for losers.

[+] EnlargeRobbie Frey
AP Photo/Matt YorkRobbie Frey's kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter was one of Connecticut's highlights.
And the scoreboard of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was stark and unforgiving: Oklahoma 48, Connecticut 20.

Just like everyone said: The Huskies got whipped. They didn't score an offensive touchdown. They never put a serious scare into the Sooners. They didn't belong.

But Connecticut coach Randy Edsall and his players didn't see it that way. They saw a game that was closer than the final count. They saw a program that has traveled a vast distance from I-AA to a BCS bowl game in 11 years. They saw hope in a bowl game bust.

"We didn't win the game," Edsall said, "but there's nothing negative that comes from this."

The Sooners scored two touchdowns on pick-sixes (UConn itself got one of those), and both came off deflected passes that probably should have been caught. The Huskies were zero for three on fourth-down, including a fourth-and-inches play on the Sooners 19-yard line in the first quarter.

"As I told them in the locker room, it is a game of inches," Edsall said. "And we couldn't make enough of those inches today against an outstanding football team."

It's also a game of scoring, and the Huskies didn't do much of that. Besides their pick-six, the Huskies got a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The offense? It produced just six points and never ended up in the end zone.

There were a number of times that the game looked like it would transform into a blowout, starting when the Sooners jumped to an easy 14-0 lead in the first quarter. But Connecticut found ways to claw back. It trailed just 20-10 at halftime, and still was within striking distance entering the fourth quarter.

[+] EnlargeZach Frazer
AP Photo/Matt YorkZach Frazer threw two pick-sixes and completed fewer than half of his pass attempts.
"Even though the score didn't show it, there were a lot of opportunities we missed," offensive guard Zach Hurd said. "That score should have been a lot smaller in difference. But you can't be more proud for these guys. We wanted to show the nation what we are about. We are on the rise. Every year, we keep getting better. Every year, we go to a better bowl."

Of course, a 28-point loss is a 28-point loss, which is not good.

So, plainly, there is room for some "I told you so" from a college football nation, which believed the Huskies didn't belong. The UConn bashers saw an unfair quirk in the BCS system -- the sanctity of a conference title from an AQ-conference --that allowed an unranked team to play here, and many shouted that quirk should be eradicated.

UConn received an invitation to a BCS bowl, no doubt, and that is something that few programs can claim. But that BCS bowl made clear that the program has yet to arrive. It's risen quickly from where it was in 1999 to where it is today. But the Huskies are not yet ready for prime time. No team that ranks among the worst in the nation in passing the football is.

"We just have to keep recruiting; we just have to keep getting more players is what we need to do," Edsall said. "These guys would tell you we are getting more talented each and every year."

So the program is half-empty, and half-full. Just being here is an accomplishment to be proud of. And it was a humbling experience as well.

But the message from the older guys to the underclassmen and future Huskies is upbeat. They believe the program is on the rise and just a few plays and players away from being able to go nose-to-nose with a program like Oklahoma.

Said Hurd, "My advice to young guys coming into the program is to buy into the system; the system works. ... I think we're pretty close."

Jones matures again in Fiesta Bowl

January, 2, 2011
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The groans from the crimson-and-cream-clad fans were audible, the interception apparently inevitable.

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesLandry Jones' record-breaking performance earned him the Fiesta Bowl's offensive MVP award.
For the third consecutive game, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones tossed a first-half interception. For the second time in those three games, Sooner fans watched a celebrating opponent coast into the end zone. Against Oklahoma State, Jones headed to the locker room with three picks.

He makes more mistakes than your average quarterback. Of course, he also throws more passes than your average quarterback. He was second among FBS passers in attempts this year -- 568 coming into the bowl season.

But for the third consecutive game, the unappreciated Jones bounced back in a big way. He finished with 429 yards and four touchdowns and led Oklahoma to a big win, beating Connecticut 48-20 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Most importantly, he didn't have another pass land in the hands of a Huskies defender.

"You're going to throw interceptions. In a football game, things are going to happen," Jones said. "Just thinking back on Oklahoma State and some of the games where we had multiple-interception games, just learning from those experiences. Guys just really brought me through a lot this season, playing bad on the road and then coming back and playing really well. And just remembering how it felt and just getting over that and letting it fly the next time you get it."

He did exactly that. On Oklahoma's next drive, he hit Ryan Broyles for a 35-yard catch and Kenny Stills for a 19-yard reception to add a field goal and put the Sooners up 17-7 in the second quarter.

Of course, he had some other motivation, too.

"I told him if he threw another one, I was going to beat him up," linebacker Travis Lewis said.

As a fresh-faced first-year starter a year ago, those rebounds didn't happen. Against Nebraska, Jones' interceptions (5) outnumbered the Sooners' points (3) in a loss to the Huskers. Away from home, where Oklahoma went 2-5 in 2009, he threw eight touchdowns to 10 interceptions. This year, the Sooners went 5-2 away from home and Jones tossed 20 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, and led his team to three wins to close the season. Oklahoma knocked off rival Oklahoma State in an upset in Stillwater, then dispatched Big 12 North champion Nebraska in Cowboys Stadium for the Big 12 title. Saturday night he had his second 400-yard performance in three games, this one against Connecticut with Oklahoma's national reputation -- and BCS bowl losing streak -- on the line.

A more mature Jones made the trip and took a win back to Norman with him, even if those interceptions were in tow, too.

"Landry just keeps getting better and better," senior receiver Cameron Kenney said. He and fellow receiver Broyles combined for 20 catches, two touchdowns and 324 of Jones' yards through the air. "He is having the confidence in us to make the plays whenever we need them on crucial downs." Kenney said.

"Ditto," added Broyles.

Video: Oklahoma's Cam Kenney

January, 2, 2011

David Ubben talks with Oklahoma wide receiver Cam Kenney about the win in the Fiesta Bowl.

Video: UConn linebacker Scott Lutrus

January, 2, 2011

Ted Miller talks with UConn linebacker Scott Lutrus about the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma.

Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis talks about the win over UConn in the Fiesta Bowl.

Jordan Todman will enter NFL draft

January, 2, 2011
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl will be All-American running back Jordan Todman's last game for Connecticut.

Todman, who ranked second in the nation this year with 1,574 yards rushing, announced that he would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft during a press conference following the Huskies 48-20 loss to Oklahoma.

"I felt like it was the right time for me," said Todman, who said he made the decision with his family around Christmas.

Todman rushed for 121 yards on 32 carries against the Sooners.

Said coach Randy Edsall, "I'm 100 percent behind him. We've talked and we've done research and given him the information that I received and what we received."

The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl went about like the "experts" expected. Connecticut scrapped like crazy, but it just didn't have the firepower to keep up with Oklahoma, losing 48-20.

How the game was won: Connecticut's inability to truly threaten the upset was based on a fairly basic problem: The offense couldn't score. The Huskies didn't score an offensive touchdown, which is a problem when you're playing an explosive team like Oklahoma.

Stat of the game: Oklahoma passed for 433 yards while UConn passed for 222. The Huskies are a nice power running team, but they will need to cultivate more balance to win games like this in the future.

Player of the game: Huskies running back Jordan Todman: You know he's coming, but he still gets his yards. Todman finished with 122 yards on 32 carries. It was tough going for Todman most of the night, but he fought for every yard.

Unsung hero of the game: The Huskies defense did a respectable job keeping the Sooners out of the endzone, particularly in the second half, allowing just 14 points.

Second guessing: Trailing 7-0 in the first quarter, UConn faced a fourth and inches on the Oklahoma 19-yard line. The Huskies went for it, which was a good call. But the handoff to Robbie Frey, who was stuffed for no gain, wasn't a terribly inspired call. Heck, the center was uncovered and quarterback Zach Frazer weighs 230 pounds. A QB sneak might have been a better choice. Hey, hindsight.

What Connecticut learned: The Huskies learned that they could play a competitive game on a big stage with one of the nation's elite programs. It also learned that it needs to get better, particularly on offense, if it is going to win a game on a big stage over one of the nation's elite programs.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Quick thoughts from the Tositos Fiesta Bowl, where Oklahoma beat Connecticut 48-20.

How the game was won: Oklahoma prevented Connecticut from scoring an offensive touchdown, and had a great day throwing the ball without a ton of mistakes. The Sooners far outgained Connecticut, who struggled to produce any offense in the first half, and controlled the game from start to finish.

Turning point: Oklahoma led 20-10 in the third quarter when Landry Jones hit Cameron Kenney for a long 59-yard score down the left sideline. On the ensuing possession, Jamell Fleming picked off a tipped pass and returned it 55 yards for another quick score. Connecticut's run-heavy offense isn't built for comebacks, and the Sooners 34-10 advantage was too steep for the Huskies to climb.

Stat of the game: Oklahoma wasn't flagged for a single penalty. That makes life a lot easier.

Player of the game: Jones. The sophomore had a huge day and paced the Sooners offense for all of it. He finished with 433 yards and three touchdowns on 35-of-50 passing.

Unsung hero of the game: Oklahoma's front seven. They won't get credit at the end of the day for really shutting down Jordan Todman, who finished with more than 100 yards, but they made him a complete non-factor in the first 2.5 quarters while Oklahoma rang up its big lead. If Todman gets going and Connecticut could control the ball early, the game might have been a whole different story.

Second guessing: Oklahoma's fake field goal. The Sooners were going for the dagger, but trying to connect on a deep ball to tight end Trent Ratterree from John Nimmo isn't a very high-percentage play. They had the lead, but gave up field position and some momentum against an offense that hadn't produced all day. Liked the aggressiveness, but didn't like the execution.

Record performance: Jones' 433 passing yards, broke Oklahoma's record in a bowl game. Jones set the record in last year's Sun Bowl win over Stanford when he threw for 418 yards.

What it means: Oklahoma finally ends its BCS woes, even if it came against an underwhelming opponent. The Sooners' five-game BCS bowl losing streak came to an end, and their nine-year drought without a BCS win ended against the Huskies.

Here's a look at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl from a Connecticut perspective:

WHO TO WATCH: Quarterback Zach Frazer needs to come up big for UConn to win. Sure, All-American running back Jordan Todman is the Huskies' money guy, and his offensive line is outstanding. Todman should have some success against a mediocre Oklahoma run defense, which ranks 63rd in the nation, giving up 151.8 yards per game. But if Frazer doesn't keep the Sooners honest with a passing threat by making plays downfield, Todman won't be able to do enough to allow the UConn offense to keep up with the high-scoring, balanced Sooners. Frazer only threw five TD passes this year. He might need a couple to keep UConn in this game.

WHAT TO WATCH: The UConn secondary vs. Sooners quarterback Landry Jones will be an interesting matchup. While there was a lot of concern about the Huskies secondary -- particularly at safety -- in the preseason, the results have been generally strong. UConn ranks fifth in the nation with 19 interceptions and 16th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. And four of those interceptions became pick-6s, which is a good way to overcome a middling offense. The Huskies will need to force Jones to make some mistakes. Jones is prolific; he's passed for 4,289 yards and 35 TDs this year. But he, at times, can let some throws get away from him, see 11 interceptions. The Huskies need to win the turnover battle, and their secondary might be where that starts.

WHY WATCH: Everyone expects the Sooners to roll. You know: Just like they did in 2007 when Boise State notched an upset for the ages in an extraordinarily entertaining Fiesta Bowl. Did you ever regret watching that game? Further, this is an interesting measure for the Big East. Folks have been beating up on the conference all season. This is a good opportunity for it to take a swing back at its critics.

PREDICTION: UConn will make things competitive into the second half, but Oklahoma just has too much firepower. The Huskies' offense won't be able to keep up and the defense will wear down. Sooners roll late, 42-24.

My Tostitos Fiesta Bowl pick

December, 31, 2010
Colleagues Ted Miller and David Ubben have been on the scene in Arizona all week and have already weighed in with their Tostitos Fiesta Bowl predictions. Not surprisingly, both have picked Oklahoma to win big over Connecticut.

Of course, I couldn't let this game pass by without offering my own prediction.

There's no glossing over the fact that Oklahoma is a major favorite, or that the Sooners have a world of talent. One thing I think people have overlooked, though, is that Connecticut is playing with a ton of confidence after its five-game winning streak. It's not often pretty, and sometimes you shake your head wondering how they do it, but the Huskies have been finding ways to win.

They will have to run the ball to their usual level, make big plays in special teams and be completely sound defensively against the Sooners' high-tempo, high-octane offense. The best defense is a a good running game led by Jordan Todman.

Oklahoma is really good but not invincible. We saw that earlier this year when Cincinnati almost -- and should have -- knocked off the Sooners. And we've seen in bowl games so far that the Big 12 defenses are highly suspect.

With all of that in mind, I think the Huskies will keep this one closer than most people expect. In fact, I think it will be in doubt into the fourth quarter. I can't pick the upset because I just don't think UConn has enough offensive firepower -- especially in the passing game -- to pull this off. But I see Randy Edsall's team turning in a very respectable effort before falling 31-24.

Video: Sooners DB Tony Jefferson

December, 31, 2010

Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Tony Jefferson talks about his first year on the field.

Fiesta Bowl: Three keys for Oklahoma

December, 31, 2010
1. Do not turn the ball over more than twice. There's no underestimating this for the Sooners since they are playing as heavy favorites. Even if Huskies running backJordan Todman runs wild on them for 200-plus yards, Oklahoma has the offense that can outscore Connecticut and score 50 points to win if necessary. What can stop that? Turnovers. Oklahoma's receivers, Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills, should be able to get open. The Sooners should be able to run the ball with at least moderate success. But lose the ball or throw it to the guys in the wrong jerseys and Oklahoma opens up a game that it should close in the second half. Oklahoma's lost just five fumbles this year compared to 11 interceptions from Landry Jones, so picks are more likely for the sophomore passer. Jones threw three in the first half against Oklahoma State.

One or two turnovers, unless they're returned for scores, won't be enough to cost the Sooners a win. But if the turnover battle gets to 3-0 or 4-0 in favor of UConn, brace yourselves for another Big 12 bowl upset.

2. Keep Todman from busting big runs. Oklahoma gave up a 66-yard touchdown run to Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. early in the Big 12 Championship as part of the Huskers' 17-0 spurt to open the game. That's no big surprise, the Sooners have given up 25 runs of 20 yards or longer this season. Only eight teams in FBS have surrendered more. Of those eight teams, only two are bowling. Todman will get plenty of tough yards against Oklahoma's defense. But if the Sooners keep him from getting easy ones, they'll keep him under 150 total yards, limit big gains for Connecticut, and wear Todman down.

3. Defensively, win the fight on first down. Oklahoma has to force Connecticut to throw the ball as much as possible. The best way to do that is force lots of 2nd-and-8 or 2nd-and-9s that eventually force third down passing situations. If you see Connecticut with an impressive third-down percentage, it'll be because they're converting lots of 3rd-and-2 and 3rd-and-3 situations, rather than completing tough passes against Oklahoma's underrated corner duo of Demontre Hurst and Jamell Fleming. The more times Zach Frazer has to drop back and throw it against a prepared defense, the better it will be for Oklahoma. Some teams can consistently convert long third downs. The Huskies, ranked 105th nationally in completion percentage (53.1 percent), aren't one of them.

Video: Fiesta Bowl predictions

December, 31, 2010

David Ubben and Ted Miller makes their predictions for the Fiesta Bowl.