NCF Nation: Gabe Ikard

Big 12 all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
9:00
AM ET
The Big 12 had some memorable bowl performances, and some not-so-memorable ones. Below, we honor the memorable ones with the Big 12's all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Trevor Knight, Oklahoma. Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Kansas State’s Jake Waters were marvelous, too, but Knight was simply incredible, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the two-time defending national champs.

RB: Malcolm Brown, Texas. Brown did everything he could to keep the Longhorns in the Valero Alamo Bowl, rushing for 130 yards on 26 carries. Unfortunately, he had little help from the rest of the offense.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTyler Lockett proved just as much a handful for Michigan as he does Big 12 teams.
RB: John Hubert, Kansas State. In his final game at K-State, Hubert went out with a bang, rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown as the Wildcats rolled Michigan.

WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State. The Wolverines became the next team unable to guard Lockett, who had another stellar outing with 10 catches, 116 yards and three touchdowns. Big 12 defensive backs cannot be looking forward to this guy coming back next season.

WR: Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma. Saunders hauled in two of Knight’s touchdown passes, the second a 43-yarder coming off a gorgeous double move that gave OU the lead for good.

TE: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech. Amaro became the NCAA's all-time single season tight end record holder for receptions and receiving yards, reeling in eight catches for 112 yards against the Sun Devils before revealing he would be turning pro.

OT: Bronson Irwin, Oklahoma. Irwin held up remarkably well against Alabama’s mighty front in his first career start at right tackle, as Knight was sacked only once. Irwin, a guard his entire career, had to move outside because of an injury to Tyrus Thompson.

OT: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech. Webb attempted 41 passes and wasn’t sacked once. Clark was a big reason.

OG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State. The Wildcats moved the ball at will against Michigan. Along with Clark, Whitehair is one of the best young returning offensive linemen in the league.

OG: Beau Carpenter, Texas Tech. After missing three straight games with a concussion, Carpenter returned to help shut down Arizona State All-American DT Will Sutton, who basically was a non-factor.

C: Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma. Even with a makeshift offensive line, OU somehow won the battle in the trenches against Alabama. Ikard, an All-American and quarterback of the line, deserves a ton of credit for keeping the line together.

DEFENSE

DE: Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma. Grissom was a man possessed against the Crimson Tide. The former tight end had two sacks and two fumble recoveries, the latter of which he returned for a touchdown to clinch the Sooners’ victory.

DT: Calvin Barnett, Oklahoma State. Despite the loss, Barnett tied a career high with five tackles and one sack and repeatedly found his way into the Missouri backfield.

DT: Dartwan Bush, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders desperately missed Bush late in the regular season. His performance against Arizona State underscored why, as Bush delivered three tackles and a sack and freed up Kerry Hyder to make plays, too.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSooners LB Eric Striker sacked AJ McCarron three times in the Sugar Bowl.
DE: Jimmy Bean, Oklahoma State. Bean had a breakout game in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, with a career-high seven tackles, including three for loss.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma. Not even Alabama could block Striker off the edge. Striker had a monster performance against the Tide with seven tackles and three sacks, with his final sack forcing the game-clinching fumble in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

LB: Will Smith, Texas Tech. The senior had a National University Holiday Bowl-high 14 tackles, as the Red Raiders held Arizona State 17 points below its season average.

LB: Blake Slaughter, Kansas State. One of the better linebackers in the Big 12 all year, Slaughter had another fine game in the desert with seven tackles, including one for loss, as Michigan’s offense was held in check all night.

CB: Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma. The Sooners gave up some big plays in the passing game, but Colvin was the exception. He also had a critical, touchdown-saving tackle in the first quarter that resulted in Alabama having to settle for a field goal.

CB: Demetri Goodson, Baylor. The Bears gave up 52 points, but they might have given up more had Goodson not collected an acrobatic interception inside the Baylor 5-yard line.

S: Dante Barnett, Kansas State. Barnett led the Wildcats with eight tackles, and he delivered the exclamation point against Michigan with a 51-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.

S: Tanner Jacobson, Texas Tech. In his last college game for a while, the walk-on freshman had a very solid performance with seven tackles. Jacobson is leaving the program for a two-year Mormon mission to Bolivia.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma. “Moneycutt” nailed a season-long 47-yard field goal in the second quarter that allowed OU to keep momentum. It was the third-longest field goal of his career.

P: Spencer Roth, Baylor. One of the few bright spots for Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was its punter, who was busier than he had been all season. Roth averaged almost 44 yards on seven punts, and pinned UCF inside the 20-yard line three times.

Returner: Reginald Davis, Texas Tech. After Arizona State had trimmed Tech’s lead to 27-20 early in the third quarter, Davis answered on the ensuing kickoff with a 90-yard touchdown return down the sideline. The Sun Devils failed to retake the momentum again the rest of the game.
video

NEW ORLEANS -- The focus was there. So was the determination and the motivation.

But as the final seconds of the Allstate Sugar Bowl dripped off the clock inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alabama once again had to watch someone else celebrate a wild finish. For the first time since 2008, No. 3 Alabama (11-2, 7-1 SEC) lost back-to-back games after falling 45-31 in stunning fashion to 11th-ranked Oklahoma (11-2, 7-2 Big 12).

The team overwhelmingly pegged to win it all from the beginning of the season to just before Chris Davis' miracle return on the Plains on Nov. 30, was once again dragged down to earth with a head-scratching loss.

"We were more focused than we needed to be. We were ready to play, we just came out slow," safety Landon Collins said. "We came out very slow, very sluggish -- not to the Alabama standard."

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAJ McCarron, playing his final game for the Crimson Tide, was sacked seven times as Alabama lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2008.
While the talk all week leading up to the game was about Alabama being prepared and motivated to play the Sooners, the Tide were out-muscled at their own game. This team looked fired up from the jump, but so did Oklahoma. The Sooners didn't have near the talent that Alabama did, but it was the tougher team on the field.

So it begs a couple of questions: Was Alabama as great as we thought it was? And where does it go from here?

For all the talk about Alabama being favored against national championship opponents Auburn and Florida State, the Crimson Tide looked nothing like the best team in the country Thursday night. A fluke play ended their BCS title hopes, but this Sugar Bowl debacle ended any sort of "best team" talk.

Alabama was repeatedly pushed around, run by and slammed to the ground against an Oklahoma team that struggled to find its identity until late in the season.

The team so used to mistake-free football saw all of the demons that plagued it in some form or fashion this season attack all at once. The secondary couldn't keep up, the offensive line broke down, T.J. Yeldon fumbled and AJ McCarron had two uncharacteristic interceptions.

Oklahoma's makeshift offensive line stuffed the biggest line it had seen all season. Alabama struggled to put consistent pressure on quarterback Trevor Knight, who picked the Tide apart for 348 yards and four touchdowns, after being the on-again, off-again guy at the position all year.

In Saban's first six seasons at Alabama, no quarterback threw four touchdowns against Alabama in game. Now, two have in this season (Johnny Manziel’s five being the other one).

"We had it in our minds that we could beat these guys, that we could move them off the ball," Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said.

"In our opinion, they're the best team in the country, but we out-executed them."

When Alabama swung back with a pair of Derrick Henry TDs -- one a 43-yard run and the other a 61-yard reception -- to pull within a score in the second half, the Sooners fought back, exploiting Alabama's defense, especially its secondary. Collins admitted that the uptempo offense tired guys out, helping Knight & Co. find space.

"Once they got tired with that uptempo -- we knew they were big boys up front -- and we started to get them sweating and a little bit winded, we could start pounding them a bit," OU running back Brennan Clay said. "We started hitting those creases up the middle and finally they broke."

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyNick Saban admitted that maybe Bama wasn't as focused as it needed to be late in the season and it paid for that in the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.
Then, there was the Alabama offensive line, which looked more makeshift than Oklahoma’s, yet was only down one starter -- right guard Anthony Steen. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio struggled all night to stop Eric Striker, who finished with three sacks. As the game went on, McCarron could barely stand upright, as he was sacked seven times.

"We were late off the ball, technique was all whacky a couple times," Kouandjio said. "If you're going against a normal guy, you'll get away with that type of stuff, but when you're going up against a top guy, it's not going to look good.

"It was all just being lazy on technique. They'll take advantage of that because they're good players."

To Alabama coach Nick Saban, you could sense that a performance like this didn't exactly surprise him after the way players took to preparation leading up to the Auburn game.

"I thought our team late in the season, from the LSU game on, maybe didn't have the focus we needed to have," Saban said. "We didn't pay attention to detail, didn't do little things right, didn't practice well. I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game.

"I just don't think that our players realized sometimes that they won so much that they realize sometimes what it really takes to win every game and that you can never take anything for granted, and that everyone that plays us has something to prove. And they have to change the way they think, and that's difficult to do. And they've gotta stick with the process with what they have to do to do it, and it's tough."

A loss like this can do two things to a program: It can motivate, or it can drain. Right now, players are saying it will serve as motivation, but losing leaders, including seniors McCarron and C.J. Mosley, will be major blows. Finding guys who can step up and carry this team will be a top priority for Saban moving forward.

"These losses are not the Alabama standard," Collins said. "We're looking to come into next year and stepping it up. These losses, they weigh on us and we have a point to prove now. We know people are coming at us because they always have a point to prove against Alabama, and now we have a point to prove against everybody else in the nation."

NEW ORLEANS -- "The King" tweeted it best.

"What's great about playing Bama," legendary former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer wrote on Twitter this week, "is they are the team to find how good you are or how far you have to go."

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezHow good are Bob Stoops' Sooners? We'll find out in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (ESPN, 8:30 ET), the Sooners will play in the ultimate barometer game against third-ranked Alabama.

It's a game that will reveal where the Sooners are, relative to the Crimson Tide. And just how far they have to go.

"How could it not be that?" Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops asked. "They're as good a football team as we've played in 15 years.

"So it’s definitely that."

Under coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide have become the standard-bearers in college football. Since 2009, Alabama has won three national championships, and only the wildest ending in college football history prevented the Tide from playing for another.

"They're obviously the program the last five years that has set the bar in college football," Sooners co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "Is it any more of a benchmark than any other game? Probably so."

Under Stoops, Oklahoma once set the bar in college football. At the turn of the millennium, the Sooners played for three national titles in five years, and captured the championship in Y2K with a defensive flattening of Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Like the Tide of now, the Sooners of then rolled in top-five recruiting classes every February. And every April, Oklahoma produced a lion's share of first-round draft picks.

But that was then.

And in the present, the Sooners have fallen on hard times -- at least according to the towering expectations that apply to the likes of an Alabama or an Oklahoma.

"We win 10 games every year," said center Gabe Ikard, "and people feel that we’ve fallen off."

True, the Sooners haven't fallen off into a canyon like their Red River brethren (even though Texas did dismantle Oklahoma this year in Dallas). But in Norman, 10-win seasons minus the championships ring hollow.

It has been six seasons since the Sooners seriously contended for a national title past October. And after seizing six Big 12 championships over a span of nine seasons, Oklahoma has only one outright conference title since 2008.

This November, once they fell 41-12 to Baylor -- yes, the same Baylor that Central Florida roasted Wednesday night in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl -- the Sooners weren’t even a factor in the Big 12 race, much less the national one.

At the moment, Alabama owns RecruitingNation's No. 1 class, while Oklahoma's just barely cracks the top 25. Last year alone, the Crimson Tide furnished the NFL with three first-round draft picks. The Sooners, meanwhile, have had just one first-rounder (OT Lane Johnson) since 2010.

But just because the results have tapered off in Norman doesn’t mean the expectations have.

And against Alabama, the Sooners will find out where they stand.

"This is definitely going to show what kind of team we have right now," said Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders. "What type of players we have at OU. Where we stand nationally."

Lately, the Sooners haven’t stood quite as tall.

As a testament to Stoops' unrivaled, long-term consistency, Oklahoma still managed to grind out 10 victories in 2012 despite having no running game and a shaky defense. But whenever the Sooners faced a quality opponent last season, they were vanquished. Kansas State out-executed them in the Big 12 opener, Notre Dame smashed them in the fourth quarter, and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, well, he just made them look ridiculous in an AT&T Cotton Bowl rout.

As a result, Oklahoma opened 2013 outside the top 10 in the preseason polls for the first time since Stoops' second year.

Even though the Sooners stunned Oklahoma State in the 2013 Big 12 regular-season finale to sneak their way into the BCS, Las Vegas oddsmakers have pegged them as 16½-point underdogs against the mighty Tide. That, by the way, is the third-largest point spread in BCS history, behind only this year's Baylor-UCF Fiesta Bowl and the 17-point line Oklahoma was handed over Connecticut in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl.

In other words -- at least according to Vegas -- the gap between Alabama and Oklahoma right now is roughly equal to the gap between Oklahoma and Connecticut then.

"They're a great, great team," Stoops said of the Tide. "Great talent across the board."

When facing great talent, however, comes great opportunity. To ascend back atop college football's summit, the Sooners have to start somewhere. They'll find no more opportune setting than the Sugar.

"They’ve been so dominant," said Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay, "that if we come out with a victory, it would definitely say we're a national championship-contending-type team."

The Sooners can't secure a national championship overnight. And they certainly can't on Thursday night. But they can send a message. And in doing so, also can launch their climb back to the top.

"Winning this game would be big," Ikard said. "Big for recruiting, big for the program, big for the fan base.

"It would show that we're still one of the premier, top-five programs in the country."

The Sooners haven’t been a top-five program lately. But in New Orleans they get to find out how good they really are.

And just how far they have to go.

NEW ORLEANS -- As the clock ticks down to Thursday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl matchup between No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12), it's time to take a look at why Alabama will capture its third straight BCS bowl win.

This might not be a national championship scenario for the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban and his players have made it clear that they are treating this one with the same sort of importance.

Here are 10 reasons why Alabama will beat the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

1. Alabama's running game: One thing you can always count on with the Crimson Tide is a stout running game. Led by sophomore running backs T.J. Yeldon (1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Kenyan Drake (694/eight), Alabama averaged 212 rushing yards per game and almost 6 yards per carry. Oklahoma's rush defense is giving up only 138 yards per game, but the push from Yeldon and Drake will just be too much.

2. Play in the trenches: It's cliche, but it's true. If you can't win up front, you can't win at this level. Alabama's offensive line has been a force all year, while the defensive line is bigger than any line the Sooners have faced this year. It doesn't help that Oklahoma is dealing with the loss of two starters on its offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron will be motivated to have a big finale.
3. That seasoned guy under center: This is AJ McCarron's swan song and you better believe he's fired up about going out on top. Yet again, he was one of the nation's most efficient passers this season, throwing for 2,676 yards and 26 touchdowns with five interceptions. McCarron isn't the most athletic QB, but he knows how to make plays and win games. Expect him to show plenty of moxie and take some shots on the Big 12's No. 1 pass defense.

4. This team's mindset: A lot of the talk leading up to this one has been about Alabama's approach to a game that isn't the national championship. Thanks to a miracle kick return, the Tide is on Bourbon Street and not out in Cali. But players sound motivated and ready, while Saban has said all week that he has been proud of his players' preparation. Seniors have talked about younger players buying in and youngsters have talked about sending the seniors out right. This Alabama team also wants to prove that it's still one of the best teams in the country.

5. C.J. Mosley: Is there anything he can't do? Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called him an "absolute perfect football player." Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said he was the best defensive football player he has ever seen during his career. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said he "is the defense." Mosley can move from sideline to sideline, drop back in coverage, stuff the run and rush the passer. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker for a reason, and he'll show why over and over Thursday night.

6. A healthier secondary: It seems like Alabama's secondary has been nicked up all year, but the time away from the playing field has given guys the opportunity to rest up and get back up to speed. Clinton-Dix is moving around better after getting his knee scoped and fellow safety Landon Collins is healthy after spraining his ankle early in bowl prep. Corner Deion Belue appears to be feeling much better after dealing with a nagging toe injury all season. This is a unit that has been up and down this season, but Alabama still owned the SEC's best pass defense (166.3 yards per game) and playing a team that rotates at quarterback and averages just 186 passing yards a game could be a good thing for the Tide.

7. Playmakers galore on offense: There will just be too much of a mixture of McCarron, Yeldon/Drake and those talented receivers for Oklahoma's defense to handle. The Sooners have a linebacker in Eric Striker who has made his home in opposing backfields, but I don't see him having too much of an effect on McCarron's ability to throw or those running backs. Alabama will be able to churn yards out on the ground and McCarron will hit a couple of big plays down the field with Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood.

8. Stopping the run early: If Oklahoma can get its running game going early, it will open up things for the pass as the game goes on. That wouldn't be good for the Tide, but Alabama won't have to worry about that because this defense is looking to stop the run first, second and third. Before the Auburn game, Alabama was allowing just 91.3 rushing yards per game and 1.5 yards before contact per rush. OU likes that zone-read, but this isn't Auburn's run game.

9. Oklahoma's revolving quarterback door: The fact that the Sooners won't know who their starting quarterback is until just before a game with Alabama isn't a good thing. Alabama prides itself on its consistency and thrives on opponents' errors. The revolving door at quarterback with Blake Bell and Trevor Knight could be an issue against such a detail-oriented defense. The Tide seems pretty comfortable defending either guy, after both passed for a combined 2,119 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions.

10. Nick Saban: Is there a better game manager out there? Sure, Gus Malzahn got the best of him on the Plains at the end of the regular season, but Saban is still the coach everyone would want for a game like this … or any game, really. He'll have no problem pumping his team up and preparing it for the Sooners. He's obsessed with details and should have every single one of his bases covered for this game. He wants this win just as badly as his players.

Oklahoma focused on stopping Mosley

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
1:00
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- When asked about his very first impression of Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard was as concise as he could be, sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
AP Photo/Dave MartinButkus Award winner C.J. Mosley leads Alabama in tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries this season.
"That dude's good; very, very good," Ikard, an All-American, said.

"He's obviously the most talented linebacker in the country."

Mosley, an All-American himself and the recipient of the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, is quiet and gentle away from the field but a thunderous wrecking ball on it. He can cover the field from side to side, drop back to defend the pass, rush the passer and stuff the run.

He's the heart of Alabama's staunch defense and enemy No. 1 for Oklahoma's offense.

Ikard and his teammates agreed they'll game plan to try and thwart Mosley's effectiveness in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl. You'd think that added attention would put some pressure on Mosley, but this is nothing new for the nation's best.

"I can't really control that," Mosley said. "I just gotta do what I have to do and make plays when my name is called."

He's made plenty of plays this year for the Crimson Tide. A year removed from leading the Tide with 107 tackles while sharing time, Mosley leads Alabama this season in tackles (102), tackles for loss (nine) and quarterback hurries (eight) as a full-time starter at weakside linebacker. He's also defended five passes and forced a fumble.

"C.J. Mosley is probably the best player we've played against this year, probably one of the best I've played against in my four and a half years here," Ikard said.

"You always have to be aware of where 32 is at."

And that isn't easy to do. He's so active that one blink and you'll lose him. But spend too much time locking in on him and you'll lose focus, making it easier to blow an assignment. It puts many offensive players, especially offensive linemen, in precarious situations.

Like a playmaking receiver who can line up inside, outside or in the backfield, you have to account for Mosley in some form or fashion whenever he's on the field or he'll make you pay.

"Your eyes are just attracted to him just by the way he runs around and makes big plays," Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight said.

"We're going to account for him like anybody else, but he's definitely a force to be reckoned with. He's all over the field and he's a great leader out there."

Despite lining up in the middle of Alabama's defense, the Tide's defensive quarterback finds ways to get to the ball, no matter where it is. He's so dangerous because he's so multitalented. He pores over extra film for hours each week, while still trying to motivate and push his teammates with his relentless practice habits.

The quiet tone and smoother demeanor he shows the media is only a small part of who Mosley is. He's an animal on the field, and the Sooners understand the challenge of making him obsolete is quite an undertaking.

"He's a great player. He won the Butkus Award for a reason," Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay said. "He's fundamentally sound, he gets to the ball, his technique is great."

But for all the good Mosley does, he admits he isn't perfect. He's actually pretty goofy in the way he looks when he plays. Though he carries an impressive, stone-like 6-foot-2, 238-pound frame, his legs can get the best of him at times with his "unorthodox" running style that gives him some awkward-looking strides when he runs. His legs sometimes get caught under him, making sprinting tough.

It doesn't impede his pursuit too much, but it does receive a few giggles in the film room from his teammates.

"I've been doing that since high school," Mosley said with a laugh.

The Sooners might have 10 other players to account for when Alabama's defense takes the field, but everyone knows the Tide's defense goes the way of its commander. Mosley is the linchpin, and disengaging his playmaking ability will go a long way for the Sooners inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"That kid is the defense, if you ask me," Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said.

"It's been a blessing having him on this team, and I'm definitely going to miss him next year."

Alabama ready for more of the zone-read

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
10:30
AM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- When No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) looks at its matchup with 11th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) in Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide can't help but see similarities to their last opponent.

You know, the opponent that derailed Alabama's national championship hopes with a miracle of a kick return and a run game that churned out nearly 300 yards on the Tide's vaunted defense.

Oklahoma, which is averaging 235.8 yards per game this season, isn't quite Auburn, but it does possess that pesky zone-read that gutted the Tide on the Plains. For all the inconsistency that Oklahoma has had this season on offense, Alabama isn't overlooking the Sooners' running game, which could pose quite the threat if it gets going early.

"It's very important [to stop the running run early] because once they get started, they keep on rolling," cornerback Deion Belue said. "They're a tough team as it is because their offensive line is big and strong. The thing is stop the run. If all else fails, we have to do that. If not, they can keep on rolling and then they have the option to run and pass any time they want to."

The thing with Oklahoma is that the offense can get a little complicated at times with quarterbacks Blake Bell and Trevor Knight sharing time. A starter hasn't even been announced for Thursday, but the good news is that both can run the zone-read, which has been pretty successful for the Sooners this season.

Oklahoma averages 7.2 yards per zone-read play when Knight is in and 4.5 yards per play with Bell, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Knight has gained 257 yards and is averaging 10.3 yards per play when he keeps the ball on zone-read rushes, which is the best among AQ players with at least 25 zone-read runs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So while the Sooners aren't sure who will be under center first, Alabama knows to expect plenty of running plays, regardless.

"We're just going to look at it as them trying to take our manhood, kinda, and try and down us a little bit [with their run game]," defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oklahoma has run 138 zone-read plays this season and averaged 18.7 zone-read plays (130 yards per game) in each of its last three games (all wins) after averaging 9.1 plays per game (47.2 yards per game) in its first nine games.

"We're going to be all right against it," linebacker Trey DePriest said. "We've repped it. That's the same offense the last we guys we played [ran]."

In Alabama's 34-28 loss to Auburn, the Tigers gained 270 rushing yards on 38 zone-read plays (7.1 yards per carry), including seven runs of 10 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Alabama entered that game allowing 3.6 yards per rush on such plays, which second best in the SEC.

Senior running back Brennan Clay (913 yards) has been the bell cow back for Oklahoma, and while he's been very impressed with Alabama, he thinks Auburn's 296-yard outing against the Tide created a blueprint for how to hurt a rush defense that was allowing just 91 yards a game before facing Auburn.

"They're not the gods that everyone [claims] them to be," Clay said. "I feel like everyone was putting them on such a high pedestal, but anyone can get beat on any given day. It's whatever transpires in between those lines on the football field is what matters.

"If we come out being aggressive, being able to establish the run, make big plays, we'll be fine."

Establishing the run is easier said than done. Before Auburn, Alabama had allowed 100-plus rushing yards just four times and surrendered just five rushing touchdowns. With about a month to prepare, Alabama won't be startled by what it sees inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Thursday.

This isn't a defense prone to continuing its mistakes.

"They're just very technical. They don't make a whole lot of mistakes, they're really physical, they know how to make plays and stop offenses, especially high-powered offenses," Knight said. "That's been a staple of their program the last couple years."

What's also been a staple of this defense is winning up front. Getting the push up in the trenches will be important for both teams, and Oklahoma All-American center Gabe Ikard said winning there will dictate the game. Fail against their big uglies, and Ikard said Oklahoma is toast.

"They're extremely powerful and big up front -- biggest defense we've seen, most physical defense we've seen, best defensive we've seen all year," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge to control the line of scrimmage against those guys. They're D-linemen are bigger than anybody we've seen this year, and that includes Notre Dame.

"If we can't run the ball, it'll be a long day for us."

Sugar Bowl glance: Alabama-Oklahoma

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
11:40
AM ET
There's one thing the Allstate Sugar Bowl has in spades: tradition.

Alabama and Oklahoma are members of college football's aristocracy with a history of winning that goes back decades. From Paul Bryant to Bud Wilkinson, dusty images come to mind with these two schools. And it's only fitting that they'll meet in New Orleans, which holds its own storied place in history.

But what about the game itself? It's still a few weeks away, but let's break down some of the aspects that might make Tide-Sooners an interesting event to watch on Jan. 2.

Key storylines

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIAfter leading Oklahoma to a Bedlam win, will Blake Bell get the call against Alabama?
Letdown factor: Both Alabama and Oklahoma came into this season with eyes on Pasadena, Calif., and the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, but neither wound up in a position to make the long trip to the West Coast. How will that play a factor when the two teams meet in New Orleans? Is there any kind of unfinished business both programs feel? For Alabama, at least there's the idea that coming out and winning big might show the country that despite a last-second loss to Auburn, the Tide is the better team. A convincing win won't vault it to No. 1 in the rankings again, but a No. 2 finish could be cause enough to show up in New Orleans ready to compete.

Who starts at QB?: Oklahoma will begin bowl practice soon, but who starts under center is still a significant question mark. As Sooners offensive coordinator Josh Heupel explained, he'll go with, "Whoever it takes." Redshirt freshman Trevor Knight is nursing an injured non-throwing arm, though it's unclear the severity of the injury. Meanwhile, junior Blake Bell, who came on in relief of Knight against Oklahoma State and led the Sooners on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, seems like the hot hand. But he entered the game third on the depth chart behind Kendal Thompson so making any assumptions here seems futile.

Stoops vs. the SEC: Some folks just don't like to dredge up the past. But after what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has said about the SEC in the past year or so, it's hard to forget. Stoops has called the league with seven straight BCS champions overrated, top-heavy and overstated in terms of its defensive prowess. It's all propaganda, he claims. A veteran of the Big 12, he's been mostly alone in his criticism of the SEC, which has made him a favorite target of college football fans in the South who like to chide other conferences already. But Stoops will have his chance to answer their criticism and state the case for his own. A win over the Tide might spell vindication.

Players to watch

Oklahoma DB Aaron Colvin: He's a big, physical corner who might be able to give Amari Cooper trouble. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, he's an aggressive type that doesn't intercept the ball a lot -- he has just one this season -- but does draw his fair share of flags. He's fifth on the team in tackles (49) and tied for sixth in passes defended (4).

Alabama LB Adrian Hubbard: We saw it play out last season where Hubbard came from nowhere to close the season strong (three sacks in the final games) and flirt with the NFL as a redshirt sophomore. He ultimately stayed for his junior season, but we could see a repeat of last year as Hubbard has racked up three sacks and 11 tackles in the Tide's past four games.

Oklahoma DL Charles Tapper: The Sooners have struggled some on offense this season, but their youth on defense is cause for hope. Trapper, a big 6-foot-4, 261-pound defensive end, is one of those bright spots. As a sophomore, he leads the team with nine tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.

Alabama QB AJ McCarron: It's ironic to consider that McCarron's final game at UA will come against a team he nearly signed with as a player coming out of high school. The night before he was set to decide, he said he was thinking he'd go with Oklahoma. Why? He liked their program and Sam Bradford. But as he said, when you're a teenager, "Your mind changes about 20 times a day." In the end, it's safe to say McCarron made the right decision as a win over Oklahoma would be the cherry on top of a career that's seen him win two national championships as a starter and earned him a trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

Stats to keep an eye on

2: Oklahoma has a history of being a talent-rich program on offense, but this season's been different as the Sooners placed just two such players on the first- and second-team AP All-Big 12 Team. And those two selections -- center Gabe Ikard and kicker Mike Hunnicutt -- aren't what you'd call impact players.

18: The Sooners have flipped the script after being known as a passing team under former quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Landry Jones. This season Oklahoma's relied heavily on the run, ranking 18th in the country with 235.8 rushing yards per game.

20: Alabama's still shaking off the reputation of a slow and plodding offense. And while it may be true the Tide doesn't huddle, it does get big plays. In fact, UA ranks 28th in the country with 68 plays of 20 or more yards. Meanwhile, Oklahoma ranks 86th with only 48 such plays.
1. I don’t know who’s going to win the Campbell Trophy, sometimes referred to the Academic Heisman, but among the 16 finalists announced Thursday by the National Football Foundation are several players who could be All-Americans. Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough, Nebraska guard Spencer Long, Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray could stand on their athletic feats alone. Turns out they grade out well on days besides Saturdays. My Campbell favorite is Penn State guard John Urschel, a graduate student with a 4.00 who teaches math classes.

2. What do you do in an off week? Alabama coach Nick Saban spent his 62nd birthday on, yes, Halloween, doing what he does. “It’s a Thursday,” Saban told me in an ESPNU College Football Podcast interview. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich ran a midweek practice, with the bonus of the scout team offense and defense facing each other. Then there’s Stanford coach David Shaw. He flew to Washington to watch his former Cardinal teammate and close friend Cory Booker sworn in as a U. S. senator from New Jersey.

3. This is the 13th time that Florida State and Miami will play as top-10 teams. That’s not so surprising. Here are a few things that are, according to ESPN Stats & Info: it’s the first time they have met as top-10 teams since 2004; Miami has won the last four of these matchups and leads them 9-3; and the ‘Canes are 4-2 when the lower-ranked of the two. That said, it’s safe to say that in none of those six games were the Seminoles three-touchdown favorites. Miami has a big gap to close.

OU runs over Tech with eyes to Baylor

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
4:12
AM ET
NORMAN, Okla. – Oklahoma’s game plan coming out of halftime Saturday night didn’t include tailback passes, onside kicks or punt-return decoys.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiBlake Bell and the Sooners found an offensive identity -- less than two weeks from a showdown at Baylor.
The Sooners’ scheme was sublimely simple. Get behind all-everything fullback Trey Millard and pound the ball between the tackles.

That wham-bam offensive style topped Kliff Kingsbury’s wily bag of tricks in a 38-30 victory over Texas Tech, and it reestablished the Sooners as the biggest threat to unbeaten Baylor for the Big 12 title.

“I love our team and their attitude,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “Are we in great shape? No. Am I excited about our team and our opportunity and our willingness to fight and all of that? Yeah, I am.”

The Sooners suffered yet another devastating injury, as Millard tore his ACL covering a kickoff in the fourth quarter. The Sooners had already lost their best linebacker (Corey Nelson) and best defensive lineman (Jordan Phillips) for the year. Now, they’ll go to Baylor without their most valuable offensive player, too.

But even with more injury adversity, the Sooners also, for the first time in a month, looked like a team that could challenge for the Big 12 crown.

When he had to, quarterback Blake Bell delivered confident completions to convert third downs. The defense continued to batten down the hatches, even while having to resort to playing true freshmen Jordan Evans and Dominique Alexander at linebacker.

And the Sooners ran the ball at will.

Oklahoma racked up 277 yards on the ground, featuring the trio of Damien Williams (101 yards), Roy Finch (55 yards) and Brennan Clay (42 yards).

“When you’re blocking it that way and running it that way,” Stoops said, “you have got to keep calling it until they can stop it.”

Tech couldn’t stop it.

In fact, on the first possession out of halftime, Oklahoma called 10 runs and one pass and marched right down the field to take a 21-7 lead.

“That was the game plan,” Finch said. “We wanted to play Oklahoma football, get our run game going, and open up shots down field.”

The run did exactly that.

Early in the second quarter, after three inept weeks of offense, the Sooners rediscovered their stride offensively. In its longest drive of the season in plays, yards and time, Oklahoma ground out an effective -- if aesthetically displeasing -- 16-play, 97-yard touchdown drive covering almost eight minutes.

“I thought that drive was really good,” Stoops said. “When you can run a bunch of plays, and stick it in the end zone, it makes a big difference.”

On the first play of the following possession, with Tech’s safeties creeping up to the line of scrimmage, Bell faked a handoff, then uncorked his best pass since the Notre Dame game over the top to Jalen Saunders, who coasted in for a 76-yard touchdown to give Oklahoma its first lead, 14-7.

The Red Raiders were on their heels defensively the rest of the way.

“We controlled the line of scrimmage,” center Gabe Ikard said. “We ran power a lot. I don’t know how many times we ran it, but we ran it over and over and over again. We had a lot of success with it.”

Even without Millard, who has been an integral piece of the running attack, the Sooners are sure to heave the same game plan at Baylor in two weeks.

These Sooners can’t outscore the Bears through the air. Who can? But as they did with Tech, they can run the ball at Baylor, control the clock and keep the Bears off the field. After all, a team far less imposing than Oklahoma almost beat the eighth-ranked Bears with that formula two weeks ago.

With little semblance of a passing game, Kansas State still racked up 327 yards on the ground, while keeping Bryce Petty and Lache Seastrunk on the sidelines. As a result, the Wildcats took a lead into the fourth quarter but couldn’t make enough plays to hold on.

The Sooners made enough plays to topple one of the Big 12’s last two unbeatens on Saturday. A week from Thursday, they’ll see if they can do the same to the other.

“I feel good about what we’re doing,” Stoops said. “I’m excited.

“And we’re excited.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro was simply trying to help his team.

He ended up doing more damage than good.

Amaro’s fumble late in the second quarter was one of two Texas Tech turnovers that directly lead to Oklahoma touchdowns in the Sooners’ 38-30 win over the Red Raiders at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJalen Saunders scored one of his touchdowns following a takeaway by OU's defense.
“I fumbled for the first time ever in the biggest game I’ve ever played,” Amaro said. “It was a 14-point swing because they score on that 76-yard (Blake Bell to Jalen Saunders) pass on the next play and I put a lot of that on myself.”

Sooners defensive end Charles Tapper forced the fumble as Amaro was battling for extra yardage. OU also got an interception from safety Gabe Lynn at the start of the fourth quarter with OU clinging to a four-point lead. The Sooners capitalized following both plays with touchdowns by Saunders and Damien Williams respectively.

“That’s huge,” TTU coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “You cannot come into this stadium, against this team, with these coaches and those athletes, and do that. We knew coming in that we couldn’t have the turnovers but we didn’t take care of business.”

The Tech turnovers helped the Sooners overcome a creative and aggressive game plan from Kingsbury. A fake punt, a halfback pass, an onside kick, the Ninja formation, it was all on display -- and successful -- for the Red Raiders who were trying to remain unbeaten.

Yet, the Sooners consistently came up with key defensive plays when they needed them.

“We hadn’t seen that in a couple of weeks but we’ve always had faith in them,” Lynn said of the offense turning the miscues into touchdowns. “I’m proud of them, running game, passing game, we made some huge plays on offense.”

Lynn’s interception was the only time the Sooners’ defense stopped the Red Raiders from scoring in the second half before Tech’s final drive of the game. Tech opened the second half with 17 points on three drives before Lynn picked off a tipped pass and the Sooners’ offense took the field with a seven-play, 58-yard drive to take a 35-24 lead on a three-yard touchdown run by Williams.

“It was very important because they have a great offense and we know they like to hurry up and get after it,” Williams said. “Whenever they [the defense] gave us a chance to get back on the field, we knew we had to capitalize and that’s exactly what we did.”

The Sooners’ defense was far from perfect, allowing 460 yards on 79 plays (5.8 yards per play) including 388 passing yards. However, OU held Tech to 5 of 14 third down conversion attempts and forced all three of the Red Raiders’ turnovers in its own territory.

“They got stops when they had to get stops,” center Gabe Ikard said of OU’s defense. “I thought besides a fumble early we [the offense] took care of [the ball]. The ball is everything in this game, for them to get key turnovers in key spots really helped us out, gave us momentum and we capitalized on them.”

And that, ultimately, was the difference.

Reranking the Big 12's top 10 players

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
11:30
AM ET
In August, this blog reviewed the 25 best players in the Big 12 entering the 2013 season. Now, midway through the season and just as conference play really starts to get interesting, it's time to wipe the slate clean and start over.

The No. 3 player in our preseason list, TCU defensive end Devonte Fields, is out for the season. Others have had good or great starts to their seasons but didn't hold onto their top-10 spots. Here, then, is our new take on the 10 best players in the Big 12 at midseason.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesBryce Petty has efficiently led Baylor's explosive offense.
1. QB Bryce Petty, Baylor (preseason ranking: NR) Petty entered his first season as a starter with impossibly high standards. He’s surpassing them. He’s the Big 12’s leading passer, he had a TD-INT ratio of 13-1 and he leads the nation in yards per attempt (14.8) -- and he’s just getting started. The triggerman of the highest-scoring offense in college football will be challenged more in Big 12 play, but so far, he’s needed fourth-quarter snaps in only one game.

2. CB Jason Verrett, TCU (preseason: 1) He’s the best cover man in the conference, and it’s probably not even close. Verrett leads the Big 12 in pass breakups with 10 and nabbed his first interception against Kansas. He’s well on his way to matching last year’s total of 22 passes defended, which led the nation. Opposing offenses know to avoid the All-American, but he’s still making a major impact for the Horned Frogs.

3. RB Lache Seastrunk, Baylor (preseason: 5) He wants to be a Heisman contender, but right now he’ll have to settle for the title of most explosive back in college football. Seastrunk leads the Big 12 in rushing on 13 carries per game. He’s averaging just a shade under 10 yards per carry. He’s sharing the load right now, but expect Seastrunk’s workload to increase as the Bears’ schedule gets much more difficult late.

4. DE Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas (preseason: 10) Jeffcoat leads the Big 12 in sacks with five, has seven tackles for loss and, most important, he’s staying healthy. The senior is finally playing up to his elite potential and has made big plays for the Longhorns, including the game-clinching interception at Iowa State and two key sacks against Oklahoma. It’s possible fellow Texas DE Cedric Reed joins him on the postseason list: Reed leads UT in tackles and pass breakups and has similar sack/TFL numbers.

5. OG Cyril Richardson, Baylor (preseason: 2) The mammoth 6-foot-5, 340-pound lineman is the star of a Baylor offensive line that consistently bullies opponents and paves the way for 302.2 rushing yards per game. The Bears' line has also kept Petty relatively safe, with just seven sacks in five games. Richardson is one of the best guards in college football and has a long NFL future ahead of him.

6. TE Jace Amaro, Texas Tech (preseason: NR) In a league with so few impact receiving tight ends, Amaro has been an absolute revelation in 2013. He’s developed into a dangerous target in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense with a Big 12-leading 47 catches for 606 yards and a touchdown. He’s put up nearly 200 more receiving yards than any other tight end in the country and makes life easy for Tech’s freshman passers.

7. DL Kerry Hyder, Texas Tech (preseason: NR) Texas Tech's transition to a 3-4 defense this season is working out just fine for Hyder, and the senior end/tackle could end up being a serious contender for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year if the Red Raiders remain a conference title contender. Nine of his 27 tackles have been behind the line of scrimmage, and Hyder has two sacks and two forced fumbles.

8. WR Antwan Goodley, Baylor (preseason: NR) You can make just as good a case for Tevin Reese making this list, but Goodley gets the nod on better stats and the pure surprise factor. Baylor’s fifth-leading receiver last season has become its best downfield threat. He’s No. 1 in the Big 12 with 669 yards, and his touchdowns catches have gone for 72, 61, 63, 65, 83 and 27 yards.

9. C Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma (preseason: 4) Oklahoma’s line took a bit of a hit against Texas but has otherwise impressed this season, and Ikard is its unquestioned leader. It has helped lead the way for the No. 2 rushing offense in the conference. Ikard is as versatile and accomplished as any lineman you’ll find in this league and should probably be ranked much higher than ninth.

10. RB Johnathan Gray, Texas (preseason: NR) We considered several players for this final spot, and a lot more than 10 merit inclusion. Gray, a true sophomore, is playing up to his five-star potential. He leads the Big 12 in rushes and is No. 2 in yards, with big performances against Oklahoma (123 yards) and Kansas State (141) and has emerged as Texas’ workhorse in the absence of David Ash.

Sooners' Big 12 hopes dwindling

October, 12, 2013
10/12/13
7:06
PM ET
DALLAS -- Dressed in all-white uniforms with crimson-and-gold trim, a shell-shocked group of players sat before the media after Oklahoma’s 36-20 loss to Texas, yet the Sooners didn’t really have answers.

Two hours earlier, on the field, they didn’t really have answers either.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesBlake Bell looked like a totally different quarterback Saturday.
Texas outplayed, outschemed, outexecuted and outcoached Oklahoma on its way to an upset win at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday. Some may say the Sooners didn’t take the Longhorns seriously, entering the game as clear favorites with UT struggling. Yet anyone taking away all expectations and just watching what occurred on the Cotton Bowl turf would assume the Longhorns entered the game as the favorite and simply took care of business.

“I don’t think we were overconfident,” Sooners center Gabe Ikard said. “I think we got outplayed.”

Quarterback Blake Bell's interception was returned 31 yards by Texas’ Chris Whaley for a touchdown, the Sooners’ punt team gave up an 85-yard touchdown by UT’s Daje Johnson, and OU was 2-of-13 on third down and allowed UT to convert 13 of 20 third downs. All this from a team that many expected to compete for the Big 12 championship and maybe even insert itself into the BCS title conversation after a stellar 5-0 start to the season.

“You give up a touchdown on offense, give up a touchdown on special teams, can’t convert on third down, can’t stop them on third down,” Ikard said. “All of these things adding up to something that was really poor on our part.”

That’s phrasing it nicely. Not to mention, OU’s offensive and defensive lines consistently lost the battle up front, as a Sooners rushing game that averaged 246 yards entering the game was held to 130 rushing yards and 3.9 yards per carry.

“They dominated up front, the offensive and defensive lines,” fullback Trey Millard said. “That was one of the things we wanted to focus on, and they beat us in that aspect. We wanted to play better than we did, get more consistent runs.”

Meanwhile, the Longhorns were running all over the Sooners defense, which had looked much improved through five games. On Saturday? Not so much. Johnathan Gray (29 carries, 123 yards) and Malcolm Brown (23 carries, 120 yards) became the first Longhorns duo to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game against OU.

While the Sooners' rush defense was nonexistent, Bell wasn’t much better in his first Red River Rivalry start. The junior finished 12-of-26 for 133 yards and two interceptions while looking jittery and uncomfortable in the pocket, the complete opposite of how he played in the Sooners’ 35-21 win over Notre Dame on Sept. 28.

“I’m the same player today I was at Notre Dame,” Bell said after the loss.

He sure didn’t look like it.

It all adds up to one of the worst performances of the Bob Stoops era, as there was never really any point in the loss when OU looked comfortable or confident.

“I expect more out of us,” Ikard said. “We weren’t able to get the job done today, and it starts with me and my guys [along the offensive line]. We’re a much better team than we played today.”

OU entered the game as one of the favorites to win the Big 12 alongside Baylor. Now, it's looking up at Texas and Texas Tech in the Big 12 standings. Unless the Sooners drastically improve in the weeks following Saturday’s debacle, they could slide even further down the standings.

The Sooners insist they are still in race to win the Big 12, and they’re right, as the 2009 Longhorns were the last Big 12 team to go undefeated to win the conference.

“We had one loss in the Big 12 last year, and we got a co-championship,” Millard said. “It’s still out there for us.”

But they’re not going to insert themselves back into the Big 12 title hunt playing like they did against the Longhorns.

“We just have to win all of our games,” defensive tackle Chuka Ndulue said. “Whatever happens, happens.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- As quarterback Blake Bell trucked Sam Carter for the game-clinching first down against TCU, the Sooners began to shift their eyes to that team south of the Red River.

Oh yeah, and to the Longhorns, too.

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsBlake Bell has six touchdown passes and no interceptions in three starts for the Sooners.
Saturday, Oklahoma survived the Horned Frogs 20-17 at Owen Field in a defensive impasse in which TCU couldn’t buy a first down in the first half, and the Sooners couldn’t generate one for most of the second.

But, as it has all season, OU got the plays it needed when it mattered most. With four minutes left, Brennan Clay finally broke through TCU’s front wall for a 76-yard touchdown. Then, after the Frogs answered with a quick touchdown, Bell battered his way through the TCU secondary to seal the win with a first down.

“We struggled offensively, and if we weren’t that strong defensively, it would have been tough,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Would have been tough to win.”

Thanks to tough defense, the Sooners prevailed again. But tough defense alone won’t be enough to prevail in the Big 12.

The Red River Rivalry has long been the game to determine who would prevail in the Big 12. But the way Texas has been struggling -- and Baylor has been scoring -- OU’s path to a Big 12 title is looking like it will go through the game in Waco on Nov. 7 instead of the one in Dallas next weekend.

After dropping two games in September, the Longhorns needed help from everyone, including the Big 12 officials, to escape Iowa State on Thursday on the same field the Cyclones fell to Northern Iowa just a few weeks ago.

Baylor, meanwhile, pummeled yet another opponent Saturday, racking up Big 12 records for points and yards in a 73-42 demolition of West Virginia.

“They’re obviously very special on offense,” said OU center Gabe Ikard, who admitted he has been following Baylor’s scoring barrages. “It seems like they’re on pace of breaking every record that exists in college football for offense. Obviously what they’re doing, it’s very impressive.

“But we can’t worry about them until we face them.”

First, the Sooners face Texas, which has to be one of the shakiest squads with a 2-0 league record in Big 12 history.

The Longhorns will also be without quarterback David Ash, who Saturday was ruled out of the OU game due to lingering effects from a head injury. Factor in that the Sooners are coming off back-to-back obliterations of Texas, and it will take one of the bigger upsets in series history for the Longhorns to win. Especially considering that OU is back to playing defense like it did at the advent of the Stoops era.

Saturday, the Sooners held TCU to without a first down in the first half and just 16 yards of offense. Dating back to its win at Notre Dame, the OU defense forced 10 consecutive three-and-outs, until the Frogs finally grinded out a first down in the third quarter.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “We’ve got three or four impact players, but the rest of our guys are playing impact football. We don’t have any glaring weaknesses, and that’s a good place to be.”

OU has the kind of defense that could overwhelm Texas once again, especially with Case McCoy in place of Ash at quarterback.

The Sooners, however, haven’t showed they can score with Baylor yet.

Saturday, the Bears became the first team in 83 years to score 70 points in three straight games, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

And they have already scored four touchdowns in seven different quarters. The 2008 Sooners, who broke the modern record for points in a season, broke the 28-point barrier in only six quarters the entire season.

Sure, the Bears haven’t played anyone with much of a pulse. But the same West Virginia defense that completely capitulated in Waco checked OU to 16 points in Norman last month.

Since taking over at quarterback that West Virginia game, Bell has given the Sooners an attitude and a spark. But still, OU has continued to scuffle at times offensively.

The Sooners themselves were held without a first down with just four yards of offense the whole third quarter, which allowed TCU to claw back into the game.

The Frogs have a great defense. But that great?

“It was frustrating that we couldn’t get anything together,” Bell said. “But our defense did a great job holding them.”

Great defense will serve the Sooners well in Dallas. But the way Baylor keeps piling up the points, OU eventually will need more than just great defense down the line.

“In order to win this conference, like we’re used to doing,” Ikard said, “the offense has got to be better.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- About the time Oklahoma benched quarterback Trevor Knight, 1,800 miles away BYU running back Paul Lasike stiff-armed his way through the Texas defense for yet another rushing touchdown.

What a strange Saturday it was in this brave new Big 12 where one traditional power can’t complete a pass and the other can’t stop the run.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Brett Deering/Getty ImagesOklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight was pulled against West Virginia as the Sooners sputtered on offense. OU coach Bob Stoops indicated that Blake Bell might start next week vs. Tulsa.
And as Oklahoma and Texas showed why they’re still miles away from contending on the national stage again, the conference race looks even more wide open than it did in the preseason.

In Norman, the Sooners struggled to a 16-7 win over West Virginia, which struggled to escape William & Mary just last week.

The Mountaineers had the third-worst pass defense in college football last season. But they managed to completely shut down the Sooners’ once vaunted air attack.

After a lackluster first half, Knight’s confidence seemed to fade with every pass. In the second half, the freshman completed just one throw for six yards. And after he tossed back-to-back interceptions deep in West Virginia territory, the coaches’ confidence seemed to fade, too. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel called only one more pass play on the next two series before replacing Knight with Blake Bell.

“It wasn’t as good as we needed to be in the throwing game,” coach Bob Stoops said. “So we gave (Bell) a chance.”

But Oklahoma simply resorted to running a glorified “Belldozer” offense the rest of the way, as Bell attempted just one pass. By that point, the Sooners just wanted the game to be done.

“You don’t mess with the football gods,” Stoops said. “You do what you’re supposed to do and burn the clock.”

Last season in a 50-49 win at West Virginia, Landry Jones set an Oklahoma passing game record. Saturday, the Sooners scored their fewest points against a conference opponent since 2009 in a 10-3 loss at Nebraska – only Ndamukong Suh wasn’t on the other side of the line this game.

The Sooners did play terrific defense for the second straight week, and rushed the ball with tremendous efficiency.

“Tonight showed we can win a grind-it-out type of game,” said center Gabe Ikard.

But Stoops confessed that for the Sooners to meet their preseason goals of contending in the league and beyond, they’ll have to pass better than they have.

“Sure, we do -- we got to be able to,” said Stoops, who indicated he might make a quarterback change next week against Tulsa.

"We want to throw the ball and throw it well. We have to keep working on that."

Yet if Oklahoma’s passing game was a dumpster fire, Texas’ run defense was a full-blown forest inferno.

All preseason, Texas coach Mack Brown indicated this would be his best team since the 2009 Big 12 title team. In a humbling 40-21 defeat in Provo, the Longhorns looked like the same uninspiring program of the last three years.

The Cougars rushed for 550 yards -- the most ever against any Texas defense -- and averaged 7.6 yards per attempt.

“We missed assignments,” Brown said. “We missed tackles. They kept the ball and ran the ball up and down the field.”

Brown said afterward he would wait to “watch the video” before deciding what to do with embattled defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

But Texas’ troubles go way deeper than one assistant coach. And after losing offensive playmaker Daje Johnson (ankle) and quarterback David Ash (head) to injuries, the Longhorns appear to be on the verge of shambles with little time for recovery before surging Ole Miss arrives in Austin next weekend.

“We've got 11 more games,” said Texas receiver Mike Davis, “and we're trying to win them all.”

The weekend showed that won’t easily be done. As the Red River powers scuffled, the league’s other contenders shined.

Amid questions about his throwing acumen, Oklahoma State dual-threat quarterback J.W. Walsh completed 24 of 27 passes and finished with more touchdown passes than incompletions in a rout of UTSA.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield was surgical again in Texas Tech’s blowout of Stephen F. Austin. Through two games, Mayfield has completed 71 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

No offense, meanwhile, has looked more prolific than Baylor’s. The Bears piled up 70 points and a school-record 781 yards against Buffalo, prompting Bulls coach Jeff Quinn to suggests the Bears were more difficult to deal with than Buffalo’s last opponent, Ohio State.

“They've got a great team,” he said. “They're really good."

Saturday, the Sooners and Longhorns weren’t. And with those two struggling to regain their national perch, the rest of the Big 12 is looking better than ever.
DALLAS -- During this era of realignment, a sense of unfamiliarity has become common. Yet that doesn’t make the getting-to-know-you phase any easier.

In 2012, every Big 12 team faced the challenge of preparing for a conference game against an unfamiliar opponent. As teams prepped for TCU and West Virginia during their first season in the league, there was plenty of uncertainty about the different challenges the newcomers would bring to the table.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Texas Tech defensive tackle Kerry Hyder said.

[+] EnlargeDana Holgorsen
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsDana Holgorsen and the Mountaineers have had a full season to acclimate to the rigors of Big 12 football.
Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat added, “It’s kind of like those first three games against teams not in your conference. When I first saw West Virginia on film I was like ‘Wow, we’re really playing them.’ Everybody talked about playing them but to actually play them was cool, it made it real.”

TCU brought solid defense, West Virginia brought explosive offense and nobody in the Big 12 had a great feel for their new conference rivals.

“You had to do more studying than usual,” Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard said. “You may have seen that scheme but you haven’t seen their personnel. If I’ve played a guy at Texas three times, you kind of know a little about them, but I hadn’t played against any of them.”

It wasn’t a major issue that decided games, but it was a noticeable change from the weekly routine of preparing for a well-known conference opponent.

“Every year is different,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. “We knew less about TCU and West Virginia a year ago, but this year’s teams [at TCU and WVU] are going to be different than those teams. I don’t know if we have a leg up this year but it’s good to have a library of thoughts and film.”

For the first time since 2010, the Big 12 will enter this football season with the same members as it had the previous season, giving teams a better idea of what it is going to take to win a conference title in 2013.

“This year we’ll have a better game plan for them, we’ll be more prepared for them,” Hyder said of the newest conference members. “Experience helps in every aspect of life.”

On the flip side, TCU and West Virginia will have a much better understanding of what it takes to have success in the Big 12. TCU coach Gary Patterson and WVU coach Dana Holgorsen did their best to prepare their teams with their words, but actually experiencing a Big 12 schedule was a better teacher than anything Patterson or Holgorsen could have said.

After one season in the Big 12, TCU safety Sam Carter came away with a much better idea of what success in the new conference requires.

“One mistake can cost you a game,” Carter said. “Not just on defense, our offense understands that mistakes can kill you in this conference. Our first Big 12 loss [to Iowa State], we gave up a few big plays, and coaches had been telling us the whole summer that one mistake can cost you in the Big 12. And it came up and really cost us in a few games.”

The Mountaineers had a slight advantage with Holgorsen at the helm. He had an extensive Big 12 background with coaching experience at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech before taking over at WVU in 2011. However, Holgorsen believes it will take at least two seasons before the Mountaineers really feel at home in the conference.

“I did my best of explaining what it’s going to be like at the different places,” Holgorsen said. “After a couple years, you start getting some familiarity with it, the fan base understands it, the administration understands it and your players understand it, and they can talk about it with the other guys.”

While the Mountaineers have more experience after one season in the conference, Holgorsen said he’ll still have some teaching do to. For example, since the Mountaineers hosted the Sooners in 2012, the players still don't know what it’s like to play OU in Norman, Okla. Once they have played in stadiums across the Big 12, then he’ll be more confident that his team has a complete understanding of what Big 12 football is all about.

“It’s going to take time for half of our team to understand what it’s like in Lubbock, Texas,” he said. “And be able to relay that to the other kids in the locker room."

All these variables add to what could be one of the most entertaining Big 12 seasons in recent memory.

“It’s the first year with everybody knowing what everybody is going to do,” said OSU receiver Josh Stewart, a junior who has never experienced playing a conference schedule that featured the exact same teams he played the previous year. “It’s going to be some exciting football in the Big 12.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES