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January 1, 2011
Sooners hope for happy Fiesta this time
GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Oklahoma program has etched itself into college football lore for many reasons.
There are seven national championships. Five Heisman winners. Iconic coaches such as Bennie Owen, Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer.
But the Sooners also always will have a dubious place in college football history. They were on the losing end of a Fiesta Bowl that was one of greatest games in college football history.
After the 2006 season, Oklahoma played Goliath to Boise State's David in the Fiesta Bowl. The Sooners fell with a resounding thud.
Could it happen again?
As with that Fiesta Bowl, Oklahoma is a big favorite in this season's Fiesta Bowl, with oddsmakers having the seventh-ranked Sooners (11-2) as 17-point favorites over Connecticut (8-4). This game had "mismatch" stamped on it from the moment the pairing was announced. In fact, this Huskies team -- which isn't in the season-ending BCS standings -- may be the worst BCS team in the BCS era, which dates to 1998. UConn coach Randy Edsall doesn't care.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for us," he said. "For our program to be only seven years in the Big East and only nine years as a FBS school, to get here this quickly, and to be our first BCS game and to play in the Fiesta Bowl -- to me this is a dream come true."
Unlike that Boise State team, which was 12-0 and ranked No. 9 entering the Fiesta Bowl, UConn boasts a less-imposing resume. There were losses to Temple and Rutgers, neither of whom played in a bowl this season. And following a 26-0 drubbing at Louisville on Oct. 23, UConn was 3-4 and looked to be down and out. The Huskies looked more like a Pinstripe Bowl team than a BCS team.
"These guys are on a five-game winning streak," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "They are playing really well. They have an All-American running back, [Jordan] Todman, who does a great job running the football and is physical. They are a well-disciplined football team.
"They are really playing well and are a good, solid, and a well-coached football team. It will be a challenge. ... Any time you're playing another conference champion, those are tough games."
A national championship isn't on the line for Oklahoma, but this still is a big game for the Sooners. They have lost their past five BCS games: 2004 Sugar (to LSU), 2005 Orange (USC), 2007 Fiesta (Boise State), 2008 Fiesta (West Virginia) and the 2009 BCS title game (Florida).
None of those losses were a stunning as the defeat to Boise State. Not so coincidentally, that's the one setback amid the Sooners' recent BCS wreckage that draws the most parallels to this game with UConn.
The Sooners were No. 7 in the BCS that season. They were 11-2. And they were the Big 12 champs. The assumption was the big, bad Sooners were going to show little ol' Boise State -- which was making its BCS debut -- what it was like to play a college football power.
The Broncos controlled most of the game before the Sooners rallied and appeared to have the game wrapped up. But Boise State hit a 50-yard hook-and-ladder on fourth-and-18 for a touchdown in the final seconds to tie the score.
In overtime and down by seven, the Broncos scored when wide receiver Vinny Perretta tossed a fourth-down scoring pass. Boise State opted to go for two points and the win after the Perretta pass. In one of the most famous plays in recent college football history, Broncos quarterback Jared Zabransky executed a perfect Statue of Liberty play with running back Ian Johnson, who scooted in for the winning conversion in a 43-42 triumph.
Oklahoma's most recent trip to the Fiesta Bowl also ended poorly, with the Sooners getting hammered by West Virginia. The Mountaineers were playing with an interim head coach, Bill Stewart, after Rich Rodriguez had left for Michigan.
Edsall knows the history, but he also knows it really doesn't matter.
"I just know that they're a very good team," he said. "This game is totally different. We know that they're hearing all those things that everybody's saying, and we know that we're going to get their best effort.
"We just have to make sure that we give our best effort and play the type of football that we've been playing."
Edsall's first season at UConn was in 1999, when the Huskies still were a I-AA (now called FCS) program. UConn went 4-7 that season and tied for sixth place in the Atlantic 10. In 2000, the Huskies moved up to I-A (now called FBS) independent status; they suffered through three losing seasons before posting a 9-3 record in 2003. The program moved into the Big East in 2004.
"I don't know if everyone's going to say that we're an up-and-coming program anymore," Edsall said. "Maybe we've erased that kind of stigma because this is our fifth bowl game, we've won two conference championships and won one outright, basically, and we're [going] to a BCS bowl.
"There are a lot of schools in our conference that haven't been to a BCS bowl and that have been in the Big East since the beginning. ... Maybe [this] will remove the up-and-coming tag. Now maybe [people] will say, 'They have a good football team.' "
No further validation is needed for what Edsall has built at UConn. But a victory over mighty Oklahoma certainly would get people talking.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
UConn rush offense vs. Oklahoma rush defense: Coach Randy Edsall has an NFL background, so it's no surprise his attack is built around a tough, physical ground attack that averages 179.9 yards per game. Jordan Todman is the engine. He led the Big East and ranked No. 2 in the nation (143.1 ypg) in rushing and has 14 touchdowns on the ground. He has 1,574 yards rushing. G Zach Hurd is the best lineman. This hasn't been a vintage OU defense, as it yields 151.8 yards per game on the ground. Edge: Even.
UConn pass offense vs. Oklahoma pass defense: UConn's pass offense, in a word? Anemic. There is no other way to describe the Huskies' aerial attack, which ranks last in the Big East and 112th in the nation. UConn has only 10 touchdown passes. The biggest positive about QB Zach Frazer is that once he took over under center, the Huskies finished the season with five wins in a row. The Sooners have been good (No. 4 vs. the pass in the Big 12) and opportunistic (17 picks) defending the pass. Edge: Oklahoma.
Oklahoma rush offense vs. UConn rush defense: OU would like to run it better, but the ground game has been spotty and ranks just 77th in the nation (141.3 ypg). No Big 12 school averaged fewer yards per carry than the Sooners (3.35). Still, DeMarco Murray (1,121 yards rushing) and Roy Finch are weapons. The Huskies have been soft in the front seven. Witness a run defense that ranks No. 7 in the Big East (147.3 ypg). Edge: Even.
Oklahoma pass offense vs. UConn pass defense: The Sooners have the No. 4 passing attack in the nation (336.8 ypg), thanks to the continued maturation of QB Landry Jones. And Ryan Broyles is one of the nation's top wide receivers. UConn has had some success stopping the pass and paces the Big East with 19 interceptions, but that may be a function of the fact teams have been able to run so well against the Huskies. Edge: Oklahoma.
UConn special teams vs. Oklahoma special teams: UConn K Dave Teggart is 23-of-29 on field-goal attempts and forever will have a place in Huskies lore after hitting four field goals, including a winning 52-yarder in the waning moments, in a 19-16 season-ending victory at USF that clinched the BCS berth for UConn. He has had two blocked this season, though. P Cole Wagner averages 40.7 yards per attempt. Robbie Frey and Nick Williams are excellent kickoff returners. The coverage units have been shaky. OU P Tress Way is one of the best in the nation, and Sooners Ks Jimmy Stevens and Patrick O'Hara are a combined 21-of-27; neither is all that strong-legged, though. Broyles has struggled some as a punt returner this season, but he can go the distance. Murray and Mossis Madu are excellent kickoff returners. OU's kickoff coverage has been bad, but the punt coverage has been excellent. Edge: Oklahoma.
UConn coaches vs. Oklahoma coaches: Edsall is one of the nation's most underrated coaches. He took over in 1999, when the school was a I-AA member, and since has guided the Huskies to two Big East titles and the school's first BCS bowl. Stoops has an all-star staff led by defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who one day may be Stoops' successor. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson already has been hired as the next coach at Indiana. Edge: Oklahoma.
X-factor: Will the Sooners be motivated? That may have been an issue in the program's past two Fiesta appearances, which resulted in upset losses. If Oklahoma comes into the game dialed in, it should blow out UConn.
UConn will win if: The Huskies must generate turnovers; they forced 29 in the regular season. UConn leads the Big East in turnover margin and ranks 13th in the nation. The Huskies also need a big game from Todman; if he is stymied, this will get ugly.
Oklahoma will win if: Slowing down UConn's rushing game is of the highest priority. The Sooners figure to be the fastest defense the Huskies will have seen all season, which means they should have a good chance to mute the formidable UConn ground attack. The Sooners want the game in Frazier's hands; he's not capable of winning the contest.
Gerry Ahern: Oklahoma 35, UConn 17