NCF Nation: Castine Bridges

Posted by's Tim Griffin

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Oklahoma came into the Big 12 title game needing to make a statement to prove their legitimacy as the South Division title-game participants.

After one half, the Sooners' resounding 38-7 lead shows that they not only belong in Kansas City, but likely in Miami for the BCS title game as well.

The Sooners have scored on all but one first-half possession as they have manhandled the Tigers from the start. They've already piled up 359 yards on 54 first-half plays, averaging 6.6 yards per snap.

It's that high-powered offense that has enabled them to score 678 points for the season, setting a modern-day NCAA record.

Oklahoma's defense has been fearsome, notching two sacks and forcing two turnovers. Cornerback Brian Jackson has notched a fumble recovery and an interception that set up scoring drives.

How dominant has it been? Leading Oklahoma rusher DeMarco Murray sprained his ankle on the opening kickoff and hasn't played. And he's hardly been missed as the Sooners have piled up 119 rushing yards.

The onslaught could best be seen late in the first half. After Chase Daniel was tackled with seven seconds left, the Tigers decided to meekly let the rest of the clock tick away despite having the ball on the Sooners side of the 50.

Oklahoma scored 28 points in the second quarter and blew the game open. The Tigers look beaten and like they want to go sit where it's warm instead of coming out for the second half.

Here are some items of interest I've noticed in watching the first half.

  • The South Division has dominated the Big 12 in the last several years and it's continuing tonight with Oklahoma's fast start. Including the last four years and tonight's first half, the South Division teams have outscored the North, 202-37.
  • The Sooners have taken advantage of their huge size edge on the left side, running behind clearing blocks by massive left tackle Phil Loadholt and Outland finalist Duke Robinson for success throughout the first half.
  • The Sooners became the first team in Big 12 history with a pair of 1,000-yard backs. Murray came into the game with 1,002 yards. And Brown has joined him with 83 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, giving him 1,071 for the season.
  • Missouri's secondary struggled throughout the season. And the loss of starting cornerback Castine Bridges appears to have worsened the condition. The Tigers have been susceptible to slants as they've been outclassed by Oklahoma's more physical and quicker collection of receivers. Ryan Broyles has six catches, Juaquin Iglesias has four and Quentin Chaney has two. And massive tight end Jermaine Gresham has run free through the secondary with six receptions for 59 yards.
  • The game has been chippy in the early going. Oklahoma defensive end Frank Alexander and Missouri tackle Elvis Fisher both were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after tangling in the first quarter.

Veteran Missouri wide receiver Tommy Saunders was flagged for taunting after the Tigers' touchdown, setting up good field position that the Sooners turned into a 53-yard touchdown drive. And Iglesias was flagged for taunting after his own touchdown later in the second quarter.

It prompted referee Randy Christal to call the teams together with about 12 minutes to go in the half, telling them to cool the extra energy.

  • Sam Bradford's Heisman candidacy has never looked stronger. Despite playing with an injured left thumb immobilized by a splint, Bradford has completed 22 of 31 yards for 240 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.

Posted by's Tim Griffin

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Forget record-setting offenses and a slew of top quarterbacks. The Big 12 is becoming just as well known for its pre-game flyovers as anything else.

Texas fans made their presence well known tonight. A plane flew over the stadium a couple of hours before the kickoff with the banner "Enjoy the Bowl." Texas had beaten both teams by double-digit margins earlier this season.

The Web site Longhorn Nation revealed the rationale behind the flyover, which comes after similar spectacles at Austin and Stillwater during games last week. Another flyover lampooned Mack Brown on Thursday over the Texas campus.

It will be interesting if any other airplanes come by during the rest of the game. An even more dramatic point could be made if one of the groups decided to rent a blimp for its message delivery.

Here are some other late factors as we get ready for kickoff, about 30 minutes away.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: The conference's championship and an automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series will be contested. Oklahoma can likely cement a chance to play in the BCS championship with a triumph. It would be a record third-straight Big 12 championship for the Sooners and would also provide Bob Stoops his sixth Big 12 championship. No other coach in league history has won more than one title.

And despite disappointment from a 9-3 season, Missouri can claim their first Big 12 title and also their first BCS berth in school history with an upset tonight. They would be headed for the Fiesta Bowl with the win.

The loser of the tonight's game could slide all the way to the Alamo Bowl, although Oklahoma might be able to squeeze its way into the Cotton Bowl if it should lose tonight.

One other item to note. Missouri is the biggest underdog in Big 12 conference history.

WEATHER: It's going to be cold tonight at Arrowhead Stadium, but not as frigid as for some previous Big 12 title games. Temperatures are in the mid-30s with a wind chill of 29 degrees and will slide below freezing as the game continues. The wind will be coming from the northwest at about 10 mph, so it could be a factor. There is no chance of precipitation.

Most importantly, the Arrowhead Stadium field looks to be in good shape. After turning soupy during the rain and snow at the end of last week's Missouri-Kansas game here, the Kansas City Chiefs' ground crew has done a masterful job of getting the turf back in shape. It looks like it's ready to go.

INJURIES: The biggest concern for Oklahoma is the loss of starting linebacker Austin Box, who sprained his knee against Oklahoma State last week. Construction-worker-turned-Sooner Mike Balogun apparently will get the start, although Travis Lewis might get more snaps in the middle and linebacker Nic Harris could switch from safety. Top Oklahoma pass rusher Auston English has looked sturdy in pre-game warm-ups and could return to the game for up to 20 to 25 snaps. And Sam Bradford's damaged thumb ligament on his non-throwing hand has been stabilized with a splint. He has been passing normally during the pre-game throws I've seen.

Missouri will be missing starting cornerback Castine Bridges, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last week against Kansas. Undersized senior replacement Tru Vaughns will get the first start of his career tonight in his place.

Posted by's Tim Griffin

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri entered the year with more preseason buzz than any season in recent history.

The return of 2007 Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Daniel and many of his offensive weapons made most think the Tigers offense would be a juggernaut this season. But the real excitement was about 10 returning defensive starters, making people think this Missouri team could evolve into a legitimate national title threat.

Mid-season losses to Oklahoma State and Texas snuffed out those dreams. And a loss to Kansas last week dropped the Tigers to 9-3.

They claimed a North Division title. But fans wanted more -- much more -- that never materialized.

Those disappointments could be changed if Missouri wins tonight. An upset tonight over Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game would catapult the Tigers into their first BCS bowl berth in history.

And that realization keeps Missouri coach Gary Pinkel from proclaiming this season was a failure despite the dashed national title hopes.

"I'm really proud of our team," Pinkel said. "You all want to win 10 or 11 games a year, and there's no question I want to do that.

"We didn't get it done. We lost to Texas, we had four straight games and lost a close one at the end after we had secured our championship. But I'm really proud of our team. You have to do the right things to win and we didn't do the right things."

Missouri wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was more succinct than that.

"You know, this is a crazy league," Maclin said. "We lost to Texas and Oklahoma State and then we beat Colorado 58-0. But I know we're where we want to be tonight. And if we can win the game tonight, we'll definitely be where we want to be."

Coming into the game, here are some notable items I'll be watching as the game unfolds.

  • How will the cold weather affect Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford's injured left thumb? Bradford tore a ligament in his non-throwing hand last week against Oklahoma State. The injury has been stabilized with a splint and Bradford should be ready to go. A sign to watch will be if Oklahoma coaches trust him to take direct snaps from center Jon Cooper. The Sooners used shotgun formations almost exclusively in the second half last week, affecting their running game. If Bradford can take direct snaps, the Sooner running game should be more effective.
  • Daniel's chance to make history. It should be an emotional night for the Missouri quarterback, who will leave with nearly every major passing record in school history. But he still doesn't have a Big 12 title to his credit, which he could produce tonight with a major effort.
  • How long will the Sooners remain with untested starter Mike Balogun at middle linebacker? Balogun, who skipped playing high school football to make money for his family as a construction worker, will be making his first career start for the Sooners tonight. Coaches like his determination and moxie, but he's not schooled in the intricacies of pass coverage. That could be a huge liability covering Missouri tight end Chase Coffman. If Balogun should struggle early, look for Travis Lewis to switch from weakside linebacker to the middle with 230-pound safety Nic Harris taking his place.
  • Can Missouri withstand an early Oklahoma assault? It will be important for Missouri to stay in the ballgame against an Oklahoma team that has steamrolled most opponents early in the game with their no-huddle attack. An early stop or two would give the Tigers some confidence and quickly bring what should be a pro-Missouri crowd into the game.
  • How will Missouri's secondary hold up? Losing top cover cornerback Castine Bridges isn't a good sign. The Tigers will have to insert undersized senior Tru Vaughns into the lineup against Oklahoma's tall group of receivers. They'll have to combat that disadvantage, which is especially worrisome against Bradford, who averages 15.22 yards per completion and has nine completions this season for 50 yards or more.

Posted by's Tim Griffin

1. Oklahoma's hopes for a three-peat: Sure, they haven't lit the world up in BCS games in recent seasons. But Oklahoma and Bob Stoops are in their element in Big 12 championship games. The Sooners will be aiming for history Saturday night as they try for a record-breaking third straight conference title with a victory over Missouri. The Sooners' back-to-back title run in 2006 and '07 was a league first. Stoops is 5-1 in Big 12 championships games. No other league coach in history has won more than one Big 12 championship.

2. Sam Bradford finishes his Heisman bid: Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford will have the closing argument of the Heisman contenders as he plays in the final major game of the regular season before balloting ends next week. A big outing could put him over the top in a still too-close-to-call race with several other worthy challengers. Bradford should have an easier task against a leaky Missouri secondary in his bid to become the first quarterback in Big 12 history to win two conference championships.

3. Ex-construction worker Mike Balogun's first start: Oklahoma middle linebacker Mike Balogun's trek to the Big 12 title game sounds like a corny movie script. He skipped high school football to support his family by working and then bounced to junior college after winning his chance through a combine. Balogun ended up with the Sooners only because of some unexpected departures after last season. He's played only 20 snaps in his career, but will be forced into the starting lineup after Austin Box sustained a sprained knee last week against Oklahoma State. Oklahoma coaches like Balogun's hitting ability and instincts, but admit that he is raw in pass coverages. That could be an open invitation for heavy challenges from Missouri tight end Chase Coffman, the most prolific pass-catching tight end in FBS history.

4. Can Missouri turn around its Oklahoma jinx? The Sooners have dominated the series, winning 18 of the last 19 games between the two teams, including twice in the last 14 months. Stoops has never lost to the Tigers in six previous games and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is 0-5 against the Sooners. Chase Daniel could cement his legacy as the greatest player in Missouri football history by summoning up an upset, leading the Tigers to their first Big 12 championship. But it won't be easy, particularly if the Tigers get caught up in the past.

5. Missouri's struggling secondary: The Tigers have labored all season in pass defense, ranking last in the conference and 116th nationally. And it won't be any easier for them against Oklahoma without starting cornerback Castine Bridges, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last week against Kansas. The departure of Bridges means that undersized senior Tru Vaughns will be making his first start against a smoldering Oklahoma offensive attack. Oklahoma will be looking to make history by becoming the first team in NCAA history to score 60 points in five straight games -- with a passing attack that leads the nation with 47 touchdown passes.

Posted by's Tim Griffin

Oklahoma 52, Missouri 31 -- The first rematch in Big 12 title game history from the previous season will take place at Arrowhead Stadium. And the streaking Sooners appear to be ready.

Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford has the offense humming as the Sooners have scored at least 61 points in each of their last four games. They have the balanced kind of attack that will pose problems to a Missouri defense that has struggled this season despite returning 10 starters from last season. The Sooners' offensive balance will prove difficult for Missouri defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus to contain.

Bradford has a torn ligament in his non-throwing hand that will be braced for Saturday's game. That injury could affect the Sooners' rushing game as he could be forced to take the majority of his snaps from shotgun formations like he did last week against Oklahoma State after the injury. But Bradford should be effective against a banged-up Missouri secondary that will be missing its best cornerback after Castine Bridges went down with a season-ending knee injury last week.

Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel has struggled recently with interceptions, throwing at least two in three of his last four games. He can't afford that in Saturday's game as he must be more patient and avoid throwing the ball into tight Oklahoma coverage. The Tigers are going to have to do a good job of keeping Daniel from being pressured against an Oklahoma defense that should be getting top pass-rushing threat Auston English back from injury for spot duty.

The Tigers needs to exploit their advantage in the special teams and will need some big plays for Jeremy Maclin to nab the upset. And they also have an advantage at kicker, where Jeff Wolfert is more consistent and has better range than Jimmy Stevens.

But when everything is considered, the Sooners have too many weapons. And the controversy about their legitimacy of playing in Saturday's game should spur them to a strong performance. A victory will provide them with a shot at a history-making third straight conference title and a likely berth in the BCS Championship Game next month.

My record for last week: 4-1 (80 percent)
My record for the season: 83-13 (86.5 percent)