Fiesta Bowl Preview
Oklahoma knocked one team out of the BCS title game on the final day of the regular season.
So did West Virginia.
That wasn't enough to get the Sooners a shot at the national championship, so instead they will play in a second straight Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 to face a Mountaineers team hoping to be recovered from the most devastating loss in school history.
The culmination of an upset-filled season saw Oklahoma beat then-No. 1 Missouri 38-17 in the Big 12 title game on Dec. 1. About the same time as that was happening, then-No. 2 West Virginia was being shocked at home in a 13-9 defeat to sub-.500 Pittsburgh.
The losses of the top two teams in both the AP poll and BCS standings brought a bevy of teams back into BCS title game consideration, including the Sooners (11-2). Their victory over the nation's top-ranked team and winning one of college football's most competitive conferences, however, only got them up to No. 4 on the BCS list and No. 3 in the rankings.
Another two-loss team, LSU, ended up making the BCS title game and will face Ohio State.
"I thought we had a shot, beating the No. 1 team in the nation," Sooners linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "I think everybody talks about how style points are a big factor in the BCS, and the way on a neutral site we beat them by 21 points and had a chance to go up by more than that, I thought we had a chance definitely to go to the national championship."
The Mountaineers (10-2) blew their chance.
They were four-touchdown favorites and playing at home against Pitt, which had not won a road game in more than a year and was second-to-last in the Big East standings. An injury that sidelined star quarterback Pat White for much of the game made things tougher, and the West Virginia offense failed to score over the final three quarters.
"The whole thing was just a nightmare," Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez said. "It was a flat out nightmare."
That's a good way to describe Oklahoma's visit to Glendale, Ariz., for last year's Fiesta Bowl.
The Sooners were big favorites against Boise State but were done in by trick plays, making the game one of the more memorable in recent years among many college football fans. The Broncos used a hook-and-ladder to force overtime, a wide receiver pass to tie the game in the extra period and a Statue of Liberty play on a 2-point conversion to win 43-42.
"When we went and played against Boise State, we weren't really on the top of our game and we let one slip away," said Lofton, the Big 12 defensive player of the year. "We've just got to go back and erase all that. It's a new year and it's a different team."
One of the Sooners' biggest obstacles will be trying to contain White, who is expected to be back at full strength to provide fans at University of Phoenix Stadium an outstanding quarterback matchup to watch.
While White is the two-time reigning Big East player of the year, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford finished the season as the nation's highest-rated passer (180.5) and set an NCAA freshman record with 34 touchdown passes.
Bradford completed 70.1 percent of his throws for 2,879 yards, had only seven interceptions and was sacked just nine times - once in the last five games. Oklahoma's only loss in its last eight games came at Texas Tech on Nov. 17, when Bradford left in the first quarter with a concussion and did not return.
West Virginia's only two losses this season came in games in which White got hurt. A thigh injury sidelined him for the entire second half of an 18-12 defeat at then-No. 18 South Florida on Sept. 28, and a dislocated thumb proved to be too much of a hindrance against Pitt.
The junior signal-caller suffered that injury in the second quarter, and would try to return in the fourth but was ineffective. His 50 yards passing were a season low and 41 rushing - on 14 carries - were his fewest since September.
"Pat White is a champion," backup quarterback Jarrett Brown said. "Everybody is hurt from it, but he is a champion and he will bounce back from it."
White is the Big East record holder for rushing yards by a quarterback with 3,356, including 1,185 this season to go with his 1,548 yards passing. He ran for 14 touchdowns while getting sacked just eight times, and threw for 12 scores with only four interceptions.
With White and tailback Steve Slaton, who ran for 17 TDs and his third straight 1,000-yard season, the Mountaineers boast the country's fourth-ranked rushing offense with 292.9 yards per game.
They face an Oklahoma run defense which ranks eighth nationally, giving up an average of 91.9 yards.
"They do a great job of using the quarterback in the run game, and that is a big part of it. Then they have great skill players," Sooners coach Bob Stoops said of West Virginia's rushing attack. "They are guys that even when you are in good position, they can make you miss them or outrun people. Again, they are creative in how they do run."
Stoops' pass defense will be missing one of its top players, with all-Big 12 cornerback Reggie Smith sidelined by a broken toe. Safety Lendy Holmes will move to corner to fill in for Smith while his spot gets taken by senior Darien Williams, a starter last season who saw limited action this year following offseason foot surgery.
Smith's absence, though, means Stoops would like to see his defense get more pressure on White, meaning a big game from Auston English would help. The sophomore defensive end led the Big 12 with 9 1/2 sacks.
English and Bradford were redshirting last season when Oklahoma lost for the third time in its last four bowl games. While the Sooners have the third-most bowl wins in college football with a 24-15-1 record, the Mountaineers are 11-15 and have won their last two - including a 2006 Sugar victory over Georgia in their only previous BCS bowl.
Oklahoma is 1-2 at the Fiesta Bowl and West Virginia lost its only appearance, falling 34-21 to Notre Dame in 1989.
The Sooners are 2-1 all-time versus the Mountaineers, but these programs have not met since 1987. Still, Stoops and Rodriguez are already familiar with one another.
"I know they've got a lot of great athletes at every position and since Bob has been there, they've done a great job recruiting and a great job coaching them up," Rodriguez said. "We actually visited there a few years ago and talked some football. We've got a tremendous amount of respect for not only the kind of players they have, but how they have built their program.
"Each and every year, they're one of the best teams in the country and they've proven that again this year."
by: Staff Writers - Email Us
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