Oklahoma (11-2) vs.
Saturday, January 1st, 8:00 ABC
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By Pete Fiutak
Throughout history there have been presidential debates with one side clearly better than the other. The goal of the weaker orator is simply not screw up, and then, because of the low expectations, the poor performance will actually be seen as a win. Connecticut comes into the 2011 Fiesta Bowl as the Bob Dole of BCS teams.
Because Oklahoma has failed before in Fiesta Bowls as the far superior team, at least talent–wise, being on the wrong end of Boise State’s trick play-fest in 2007 and shockingly not showing up in the 2008 loss to West Virginia, there’s some thought the vastly underrated Huskies could pull off the upset. The expectations are so low, that it’s human nature for the Sooners to assume that they’re be able to show up and win, even though they plan to give their best effort, while all UConn has to do is not screw up, play its game, and maybe, just maybe, lightning can strike OU a third time.
But while it might be a total shocker and would be the headline on January 2nd if the much-maligned Huskies pull this off, it’s not like Oklahoma is a be all, end all world beater. The Sooners turned out to be the best team in a bad Big 12, and while beating Oklahoma State and Nebraska to take the title was impressive, the losses to Texas A&M and to Missouri showed how above-average this team really is. And then there were the September close calls.
OU struggled way too much in the opener against Utah State, needed everything in the bag to beat Air Force, and had problems getting by Cincinnati on the road. The thumpings, like a 52-0 blasting of Iowa State and the 47-17 destruction of Florida State, only fueled the idea that this was a tremendously talented team that didn’t quite have it on a weekly basis. It all seemed to depend on which OU team was going to show up, and considering the program has been so average outside of the state of Oklahoma, assuming that this will be a coronation could be very, very wrong.
Of course, Oklahoma has spent the last month hearing this. It had to deal with 12 months of the Boise State loss, and that didn’t seem to matter in the Fiesta loss to West Virginia, but this is a bit different. This is a new team and a new time, and while many tasted the success of the near-miss in 2008, losing the BCS Championship to Florida, this has been a team that seems to understand that it has to scratch and claw at times. Missouri happened to play its best game of the year when OU can to Farout Field as the BCS No. 1 team. Texas A&M came up with a tremendous effort and was the hot team of the second half of the season. But when OU absolutely, positively needed to step up its game, it did. Considering the program has lost five of its last seven bowl games, from all indications, everyone is taking this game extremely seriously.
This will be Oklahoma’s 44th bowl appearance. This will be Connecticut’s fifth. Head coach Randy Edsall took the program from being an FBS newbie in 2000 and made it into a Big East player. Edsall and the program have changed over the last decade, going from being a decent passing program, led by a great passer in Dan Orlovsky, to creating sort of a mini-Wisconsin with a formula that has worked extremely well over the last few seasons. Play great defense, win on special teams, don’t make mistakes, and run, run, run, run, run.
Connecticut might have played several exciting games, getting to the BCS with a dramatic win over South Florida, but the team is hardly a thrill ride. By design, games are kept close, with the idea that the Huskies will prevail by wearing teams down late, and that’s exactly what happened in the key wins over Pitt and West Virginia to get here. The offense pounded away with the tireless Jordan Todman, the defense came up with the stops it needed to in key moments, and when the team needed a play, it got it. On fourth down conversions this year, UConn is a tremendous 11-of-16, while its opponents converted just 3-of-15 chances.
The problem is that Oklahoma has the ability to come out and blow the doors off the Huskies. If the Sooners get a lead in any way, it’s over; UConn isn’t built to mount a comeback. But the Huskies are here for a reason. They have the ability to control the clock on offense, keep the big plays to a minimum on defense, and to grind out a dogfight of a game. But for a team that appears to be the only one in America who wasn’t able to do much against Michigan’s defense, losing 30-10, and with a 30-16 loss to Temple, a loss to Rutgers, and a 26-0 loss to Louisville, it’s hard to give too much hope for those dreaming of an upset.
The Fiesta Bowl hasn’t exactly been a showcase for the Big 12 over the last several years. The conference sends its champion, or, usually, its top team when the champion is playing in the BCS Championship, but the Texas comeback win over Ohio State in 2009 was the league’s lone Fiesta Bowl win since 2000. The Big 12 is 1-4 since Nebraska beat Tennessee over ten years ago, and Connecticut is a solid 3-1 in bowl games since 2004.
Sometimes when you don’t expect much, you’re pleasantly surprised. Connecticut hopes so.
Players to Watch: It’s this simple. Either Jordan Todman is fantastic, or Connecticut will get blown out. Everything the team does revolves around the ability of the offense go grind out the clock and tough out yards with Todman leading the way. There’s no guesswork here; Todman, banged up shoulder and all, will carry the ball over 30 times if he’s able. The nation’s second leading rusher behind Oregon’s LaMichael James, Todman ran for 100 yards or more in every game but three, missing the Buffalo game, the Louisville loss, and the regular-season finale against South Florida. Against Pitt he ran 37 times for 222 yards, and he hammered West Virginia for a brutal 113 yards on 33 carries. Though not built like a feature back at 5-9 and 190 pounds, he squeezes every ounce of potential out of his physical ability, running deliberately and with keen vision and quick feet in the hole. He’s slippery, but he’ll go between the tackles and isn’t afraid of contact.
While Connecticut will be looking to control the game with Todman and the ground game, Oklahoma will try to put the game away early through the air. Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon won the Biletnikoff as the nation’s top receiver, and deservedly so, but Ryan Broyles would’ve won in almost any other year. The junior isn’t big and doesn’t have the NFL look, but he’s a peerless route runner and catches everything that comes his way. The first Sooner ever to catch 100 passes in a season, he made 118 grabs for 1,452 yards and 13 touchdowns as the offense’s main weapon. He’ll go across the middle from the slot, can hit the home run, and can do everything in between.
Broyles is the star of the Sooner attack, and RB DeMarco Murray is the balance, but this game, at least for OU, could rest on the arm of Landry Jones, who’s coming into his own as a star in an offense that makes Heisman winners out of its quarterbacks. Jones isn’t Sam Bradford, but he’s a more talented Jason White with a fantastic arm, good mobility, and improving decision-making skills. He threw 11 picks this year, with three coming against Oklahoma State and with five in the final three games, but he has also picked a great time to get red hot throwing for 300 yards or more in seven of his last eight games. The one game he was under the mark was in the loss to Texas A&M. He threw for 290. He’ll find Broyles and will go to him on the big plays, but he’s also great at spreading the ball around and will take what the UConn defense gives him. Expect plenty of check downs to Murray to set up the deep ball to Broyles.
Oklahoma will win if ... the defensive front owns the game. Nebraska came into the Big 12 Championship needing to run the ball to get by, and while the game became way too close considering OU’s dominance, the Sooner run defense was terrific. Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez not only didn’t run, he was beaten up behind the line over and over again, finishing with -32 yards on 14 carries. Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead combined for 181 yards, but 66 of them came on one Helu scoring dash in the first quarter; the duo was effectively shut down for most of the game. Connecticut can’t throw, so if Todman is kept in check, OU should win without a problem.
The other key will be to simply start bombing away … conservatively. Connecticut might be 16th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, but it hasn’t exactly faced a who’s who of top-shelf passers. Jones should be able to get his yards, but he has to keep the interceptions to a minimum against a ball-hawking Husky defense that game up with ten picks over the final four games including four against Cincinnati and three against South Florida. If Jones can make the right pre-snap reads, and if he can get the ball out of his hands in a hurry, the mismatches in the passing game will be there against the UConn linebackers.
Connecticut will win if ... the defensive front four can hold its own against the run. Oklahoma will come out with a balanced attack, trying to mix up a little Murray with the passing game to create a quick tempo. As long as UConn’s tremendous linebackers can focus on the short-to-midrange throws, and as long as they don’t have to worry too much about Murray as a runner, the defense should work and the chances will be there to come up with plenty of turnovers. The linebackers also have to be sound. Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson don’t miss plays when they get there, but OU might be able to use its quickness against the overaggressive Huskies. If the defensive front is able to hold its own, the linebackers aren’t going to have to take chances.
While the defensive front has to be great, and Todman and the running game have to be even better, this game, for UConn, could come down to the ability to take the ball away. The defense forced 29 turnovers on the year, but only one of them came in the four losses. The UConn offense just isn’t good enough to produce points on a regular basis without great field position and the defense providing the breaks, and lots of them. Not only did the Huskies come up with takeaways in the eight wins, it came up with three or more in every victory except against Syracuse, coming up with two. And there’s the problem. Oklahoma only turned it over twice or more in three games.
What will happen: This isn’t a good matchup for the Huskies. The offensive line might be great, and Todman might be special, but Oklahoma can release the hounds to stop the one key player that needs to be stopped. UConn QB Zach Frazer isn’t efficient enough to scare the OU back seven, and there will be times when the Husky offense bogs down and goes nowhere. As long as the Sooners can be diverse, and as long as they don’t start screwing up in a big way, they can’t lose this game. They can be pushed, but they can’t lose it they play up to their capabilities. Jones will be good, Murray will be better, and OU will finally win a BCS game again.
CFN Prediction: Oklahoma 34 … Connecticut 20 ... Line: Oklahoma -17
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Fiesta Bowl History
2010 Boise State 17, TCU 10
Texas 24, Ohio State 21
West Virginia 48, Oklahoma 28
Boise St 43, Oklahoma 42 OT
Ohio State 34, Notre Dame 20
Utah 35, Pitt 7
Ohio State 35, Kansas State 28
Ohio State 31, Miami 24 2OT
Oregon 38, Colorado 16
Oregon State 41, Notre Dame 9
Nebraska 31, Tennessee 21
Tennessee 23, Florida State 16
Kansas State 35, Syracuse 18
Penn State 38, Texas 15
Nebraska 62, Florida 24
Colorado 41, Notre Dame 24
Arizona 29, Miami 0
Syracuse 26, Colorado 22
Penn State 42, Tennessee 17
Louisville 34, Alabama 7
Florida State 41, Nebraska 17
Notre Dame 34, West Virginia 21
Florida State 31, Nebraska 28
Penn State 14, Miami 10
Michigan 27, Nebraska 23
UCLA 39, Miami 37
Ohio State 28, Pitt 23
Arizona State 32, Oklahoma 21
Penn State 26, USC 10
Penn State 31, Ohio State 19
Pitt 16, Arizona 10
Arkansas 10, UCLA 10
Penn State 42, Arizona State 30
Oklahoma 41, Wyoming 7
Arizona State 17, Nebraska 14
Oklahoma State 16, BYU 6
Arizona State 28, Pitt 7
Arizona State 49, Missouri 35
Arizona State 45, Florida St 38
Pick ATS: Oklahoma
Confidence Score: 20
OVERALL CONFIDENCE (35 most - 1 least): 6 out of 35
Pete Fiutak: Pick ATS -
Connecticut Pick Confidence -
- Oklahoma has had a bad habit of clunking in BCS games in recent years, choking away losses to inferior Boise State and West Virginia teams in Fiesta Bowls, but if the offense can come up with 17 points in the first half, this will be over. Connecticut is a great story and it plays hard, but it doesn't have the firepower to keep up if this gets into any sort of a shootout. If you saw what OU did to the Nebraska running game in the Big 12 Championship, get ready for Part Two.
Richard Cirminiello: Pick ATS -
Oklahoma Pick Confidence -
- Oklahoma can’t possibly be upset in the Fiesta Bowl for a third time, right? Right. The talent gap between the Sooners and Connecticut is much wider than it was with Boise State and West Virginia.
Matt Zemek: Pick ATS - Oklahoma Pick Confidence -
- This really isn’t a bad thing for OU. The Sooners will finally get to win a January Fiesta Bowl (OU won when the game was a third-tier bowl played in December, in 1976) and remove that stain from their record as a program. They also won’t have to stress too much and can ramp up their player development for 2011. Connecticut will be criticized, but it shouldn’t be. The Huskies’ presence on the big stage is something to celebrate, just 13 months removed from the Jasper Howard tragedy. UConn’s players, coaches and fans deserve to have their moment of joy and redemption. It’s really neat that the Huskies will get this chance. Blame the system, not UConn, for this matchup. Salute Edsall and his athletes for what they were able to achieve in 2010.
Russ Mitchell: Pick ATS -
Connecticut Pick Confidence -
- All due respect to UConn, which has built a solid program out in the basketball crazy, football wasteland of Storrs, Connecticut, but how is this a reward for Oklahoma? The Big 12’s two best teams got shafted this season. Private promoters running amok. Keep to the rock concerts and give us our sport to run responsibly.
Barrett Sallee: Pick ATS -
Oklahoma Pick Confidence -
- Randy Edsall is a very underrated coach, and he gets a chance to take on “Not-So Big Game Bob” and the Sooners in the desert. This stadium has to bring back bad memories for Oklahoma, and the Huskies get the chance to add another chapter to that misery.
Gabe Harris: Pick ATS - Oklahoma Pick Confidence -
Brian Harbach: Pick ATS -
Oklahoma Pick Confidence -
Matthew Smith: Pick ATS -
Connecticut Pick Confidence -
Billy Gomila: Pick ATS - Oklahoma Pick Confidence
Clucko (A coin flip): Pick ATS - Connecticut Pick Confidence