What's the Matter with Oklahoma?

The question has been posed by numerous college football gurus throughout the nation as the Sooners dropped two of their three non-conference games, including a shocking season-opening loss to TCU in Norman.

Just when Oklahoma seemed to be getting back to normal with a blowout victory against Kansas State, they faced rivals Texas in the Red River Shootout, and were slaughtered in a game that they typically owned. True, Texas is one of the nation’s best teams this year, and the Longhorns probably would have given Oklahoma trouble even if the Sooners were at normal strength, but such a large victory margin?

The reasons for the fall off are many. First of all, any team losing a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist (and one-time winner), several starters off the offensive line including the nation’s top lineman in Jammal Brown and three of the team’s top four receivers, all of whom are now on NFL rosters,

“I felt like overall, coming into the year that we would’ve been stronger and better than we have been,” said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. “You can name a bunch of reasons we haven’t been. You can blame it on me. That’s fine. But I’m not going to sit here and act like coming into the year, I didn’t feel we’d be better than this. I did. But all we can do is try to improve from here.”

Those losses pushed Oklahoma from a senior-laden team that had consistently hovered in the top 10 and was a mainstay in the national title hunt to a young team looking for leadership.

To make matters worse, several hotshot recruits over the last few years have bounced out for various reasons, thinning what should have been a vast, deep talent pool. This especially hurt in the 2003 class, where only 11 members remain out of the 24 players that were signed.

“There’s no question. I would say even further than that,” Stoops said. “It’s any time players don’t pan out, or they’re not as productive as you hoped they would be or they don’t work with the program. Some of those guys, with their production and what they’ve done, I’m sure it does hurt to a certain degree.

“Other times, it’s hard to argue with the guy. We had a couple of guys who were wonderful young men in great academic standing, but Adrian got to play, and they wanted to go somewhere where they could get on the field,” Stoops said. “It’s hard to argue with that.

“In the end, some are hurting us more than others. But it’s not just the 2003 class. There’s probably a certain number of guys from each class that adds up.”

So far this season, it’s added up to an Oklahoma team that has shown moments of talent, followed by streaks of inconsistency. The Sooners, for the first time in recent memory were out of the national title hunt in September. They’re also now out of the top 25, and even a bowl game, at once a sure thing for a Stoops-coached team in Norman, isn’t totally secure.

But Oklahoma does still have talent. While the depth isn’t quite what it was, the Sooners are still stacked with Parade All-Americans, and seem to need only experience to improve.

One of those inexperienced players is Rhett Bomar, the nation’s top quarterback recruit two years ago. Bomar was tossed into an offense that struggled with consistency on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. As a result, OU’s once daunting passing attack has averaged just 128 yards per game, and has two touchdowns with three interceptions in five games.

Bomar is the quarterback of the future, a big, strong athletic player with an accurate throwing arm, which pushed fellow quarterback derby contestant Paul Thompson to wide receiver, where he joins Travis Wilson, who led last year’s team in touchdown catches.

The one consistent for Oklahoma should have been Adrian Peterson, who put up one of the best freshman seasons for a running back in college football history, but Peterson has been hurt with an ankle injury almost all season, and carried the ball just three times in the Texas shellacking. Still, he has six touchdowns in five games to go with his average of 80 rushing yards per game.

While the offense has struggled, the defense has been strong in the front seven, despite the loss of top defensive end Larry Birdine to season-ending injury. Birdine may have been the best defensive end in the conference but was hurt before the first game of the season.

Still, defensive end C.J. Ah You and reinstated defensive tackle Dusty Devoracek have made the line stingy against the run with the help of linebackers Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer, both of whom rank in the top six in the conference in tackles. Alexander uses his quickness and athleticism to make plays, and is one of the top linebackers in the conference. The defense also has 16 sacks, which ranks among the top teams in the Big 12.

The defensive backfield lacks the traditional Oklahoma shutdown cornerback or a true playmaker. D.J. Wolfe and Chijioke Onyenegecha are the best players there.

Several players said that the effort level against Texas was an improvement from where it had been, and the trick now will be to improve execution.

“With Kansas, we need to execute better,” Stoops said. “Going up to Arrowhead Stadium to play KU, we need to do our best to be as sharp as we can. That’s the frustrating part for us.  

“It’s one thing to give up plays and get beat when you’re in position or when you execute properly. But it’s another when you put yourself out of position and allow someone to convert on you and make a big play,” Stoops said. “That’s what we’re doing our best to correct. We need to do that this week, just to play smarter in some areas. I still think we can play more physically, and we can be more disciplined in what we’re asking players to do.”

If the players follow orders, people may stop asking Oklahoma what happened, and start saying ‘welcome back.’

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