Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sun Bowl: Oklahoma (7-5) vs. No. 21 Stanford (8-4)

Oklahoma running back Chris Brown, left, and Stanford running back Toby Gerhart.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press, left; Paul Sakuma/Associated Press Oklahoma running back Chris Brown, left, and Stanford running back Toby Gerhart.

Oklahoma was disappointing in 2005 — sliding to 8-4 after going 60-7 from 2000-4 — but that was a largely young core of Sooners, a group led by then-freshman Adrian Peterson. This season, despite Oklahoma still having a chance at reaching eight wins, has been far more disappointing. Injuries have certainly played a part. A lack of consistency on offense (a group that sorely missed Sam Bradford, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, and tight end Jermaine Gresham) was equally damaging. Stanford did not lack for consistency or confidence with its offense, a unit led by the Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart and a shockingly mature redshirt freshman quarterback, Andrew Luck. Unfortunately for Stanford, Luck will miss the Sun Bowl due to injury.

Brut Sun Bowl

Thursday, 2 p.m., CBS

Oklahoma opened the season inside the top five, thanks to a narrow loss in last season’s national championship and returning talent on offense. That talent took a hit prior to the season opener after the all-American Gresham tore cartilage in his knee, costing him the entire season. Making matters worse was the shoulder injury suffered by Bradford in a season-opening loss to B.Y.U.; the Sooners lost that game, and after suffering a relapse against Texas, Bradford missed the final seven games of the season. The redshirt freshman quarterback Landry Jones was not expected to see many snaps in 2009, but played pretty well after being thrust into the starting lineup. His play against the two best teams Oklahoma met in conference play — Texas and Nebraska — left a bit to be desired: 50 of 101 for 495 yards with 7 interceptions. The explosiveness simply wasn’t there when compared to last season (of course, O.U. set an N.C.A.A. record for points in a season in 2008), though receiver Ryan Broyles (76 receptions, 12 touchdowns) was among the most dangerous at his position in the Big 12, if not the F.B.S.

Jim Harbaugh surely knows that work remains to be done at Stanford (whether he’ll be around to see it through remains unknown). Nevertheless, it is striking to see the improvement the Cardinal have made over the last three seasons, since Harbaugh replaced Walt Harris and began rebuilding a program coming off a 1-11 2006. The turnaround seems complete after this year’s 8-4 regular season, which included a Top 25 ranking; a Heisman Trophy finalist; and memorable wins over Oregon, U.S.C. and Notre Dame. This year’s offense, led by Toby Gerhart, has already set a school record for points in a season (434). Andrew Luck’s most impressive statistic is his lack of interceptions, only four in 288 attempts, which would be great for a senior, let alone a redshirt freshman. Luck can also make plays with his feet (354 yards), adding another dimension to Stanford’s ground game. The defense has not been great — it hasn’t had to be — but the nation’s 105th-ranked pass defense will be tested by Oklahoma’s ability to spread the field and deliver the ball to multiple receivers.

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Pick ‘Em

Pete: Oklahoma. It’s hard to not be down on the Pac-10.
Thayer: Oklahoma. Brian Jackson isn’t the only one concerned about safety in El Paso.
Paul: Oklahoma. Good time for the Sooners to finally show what they’re made of.
Fred: Stanford. Toby Gerhart has a big day and the Cardinal beat another traditional power.
Connor: Stanford. A great chance for Toby Gerhart to show that he can put up big numbers against any conference.

Records Through Dec. 30

Connor: 44-26 (regular season); 8-7 (bowls)
Thayer: 44-26; 9-6
Paul: 43-27; 7-8
Pete: 43-27; 6-9
Fred: 43-27; 9-6

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