Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Five keys to the Sun Bowl
By Richard Durrett
Before anyone breaks out the bubbly and celebrates the end of the decade, Oklahoma and Stanford will face each other in the Brut Sun Bowl at 1 p.m. on New Year's Eve.
It's been a disappointing season for the Sooners, but they can at least end things on an upswing with a solid showing in El Paso.
Let's look at five keys to the game:
Who wants it more?
Motivation will be a huge factor in this game. Stanford rolls into El Paso excited to be participating in its first bowl game since 2001, when the Cardinal lost to Georgia Tech in the Seattle Bowl. Stanford wants to show that the program is back and ready to be an annual contender in the Pac-10.
How pumped up will the Sooners be to play in El Paso? This is a program that has competed in the BCS championship game three of the last six years and been to a BCS bowl six of the last seven. But that's what happens when injuries occur at the wrong times to key players and the program loses five games.
It's a challenge for coach Bob Stoops and his staff to make sure his players are ready. He's been pleased with how they've practiced and prepared.
Oklahoma rush defense vs. Toby Gerhart
It's the matchup everyone will be watching. Oklahoma must be able to contain Gerhart and the Stanford running game.
The Sooners have the No. 7 rush defense in the country, allowing 88.58 yards per game on the ground. Stanford is 11th in the nation in rushing offense at 224.33 yards per game. So something has to give there.
Gerhart, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, had 1,736 net rushing yards this season, a 5.6-yard average per carry. He had 26 touchdowns.
Oklahoma must win in the trenches. Stanford has a good offensive line that has created some big holes for Gerhart. But they haven't faced a defense as solid as the Sooners.
We know that freshman quarterback Landry Jones will be starting for Oklahoma. He's had, as you would expect, an inconsistent season after being thrown into the top job when Sam Bradford went down with injury. Jones, though, has learned some valuable lessons and is progressing. And Thursday is a chance for Jones to get a confidence boost for the offseason.
His counterpart will likely be Tavita Pritchard, though Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said Andrew Luck got the pins taken out of his surgically-repaired thumb and will try to throw. He could be a game-time decision.
Either way, the play of the quarterbacks will certainly impact the game. Pritchard led Stanford to a 24-23 upset win over USC in 2007. But he's also 7-12 in 19 career starts with 22 interceptions and 15 touchdowns. Luck threw for 2,575 yards in 2009 and kept the turnovers to a minimum with four interceptions. He had 13 touchdowns and was second in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency.
Just ask Texas A&M how important it is to have good special teams in a bowl game. It could make the difference, especially in a close game. Look for which team gets the field position advantage.
Oklahoma could have the edge here. Punter Tress Way is fourth in the nation in average at 45.46 yards. And Ryan Broyles has become a reliable returner on punts. He's third among FBS schools at 16.48 yards per return. He's also returned a punt for a touchdown.
On kickoffs, look for Stanford's Chris Owusu. He's fifth in the country with a 32.53 yard average on kickoffs.
Winning on the road
As we discussed earlier this week, the Sooners are a much better offense in the friendly confines of Owen Field in Norman. And overall, Oklahoma's record reflects stark differences between home and road/neutral site games. The Sooners are 1-5 on the road or at a neutral site -- that includes Cowboys Stadium in Arlington and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas -- and 6-0 at home.
Like Oklahoma, Stanford played its best football at home, going 6-1. But the Cardinal also beat USC on the road, 55-21. So they have won a big game away from home, something Oklahoma hasn't done this season (the Sooners' lone road win was at Kansas).
The Sooners must get past the road woes. Maybe playing in a bowl game with a predominately Oklahoma crowd will help.
Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.