TEMPE, Ariz. -- Oklahoma arrived in Tempe with tremendous negativity surrounding its program.
Then Landry Jones proved he could still throw a touchdown pass, the Belldozer reminded everyone he's still unstoppable and Mike Stoops curiously hung out outside the OU locker room.
The Sooners even avoided any injuries from a plummeting ESPN skycam.
All of a sudden, things don't look so bad.
Friday night, the Sooners cured many ills at the Insight Bowl against Iowa with a 31-14 victory far more lackluster than the final score indicated. Still, there was reason for optimism for 2012, something the Sooners desperately needed after a disastrous finish to a disappointing regular season.
"We've started some steps in what we've done and what we're doing as a program, and these guys have been awesome," coach Bob Stoops said. "I was really proud of the way they worked back home. They came back and had four practices here. They were awesome. They really went hard and they prepared well."
That alone should buoy hopes for next season. No one ever questioned the talent of this team. The intangibles were another story. Sure, injuries to Ryan Broyles and Dominique Whaley hampered the offense. But so did failed drug tests, tardy workouts and skipped classes that led to multiple suspensions, even in the closing weeks of the season.
For those reasons, many people justifiably questioned just how motivated Oklahoma would be to play an average team in an average bowl. But the Sooners didn't play like a team burdened by immense expectations. They didn't exactly play well. But they played hard and played like they cared. And that was enough to hold off the plucky Hawkeyes, who didn't go away without a fourth-quarter fight.
"Our guys persevered," said Stoops, who was doused with Gatorade in the waning moments.
The Sooners weren't dominant defensively. But they didn't bust any assignments either, limiting Iowa's biggest play of the night to 21 yards. OU will miss defensive end Frank Alexander and cornerback Jamell Fleming, who shut down All-Big Ten wideout Marvin McNutt. But Tony Jefferson, Aaron Colvin and Corey Nelson were terrific, too, and will give the defense a sturdy foundation to retool around next season.
Offensively, the Sooners continued to sputter. Then again, there were flashes of brilliance, too, beginning with Insight Bowl MVP Blake Bell, who has been given the nickname "Belldozer." Out of the package named for him, Bell rammed away for three touchdowns and was virtually un-tacklable anytime the Sooners put the ball in his hands.
"They're a tough preparation, no matter how you slice it," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Jones can really throw the football. And the other side of that, that guy (Bell) is a load."
Jones didn't have his finest passing performance. But he finally broke a four-game touchdown-less streak with a 3-yard scoring strike to tight end Trent Ratterree, which gave the Sooners a three-touchdown cushion in the third quarter.
Jones maintained after the game that he still "doesn't know" if he'll be back next season. If he is, the Sooners will have the luxury of a four-year starter at quarterback.
If not, they'll still have the Belldozer.
And who knows, the Sooners might have defensive whiz Mike Stoops back, too. The former Sooners defensive coordinator watched the game from the OU sidelines, then hung out outside the locker room as the team celebrated the victory, noting he was "ready to get back to work."
The Sooners arrived in the Valley of the Sun with a dark cloud hanging over the program. Those clouds no longer look so dark.
"Guys played well," Stoops said. "Gives us lots of momentum for next year."
Jake Trotter covers University of Oklahoma football for SoonerNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submit questions to his mailbag and look for answers every Friday.