KICKOFF: Wednesday, 9 ET
GAMEDATE: Dec. 29, 2010
SITE: The Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas
SURFACE: Soft Top removable turf system
SERIES: Tied 3-3 (last meeting, 1942, Arizona 20-6)
RECORDS: Oklahoma State 10-2, Arizona 7-5
POLLS: Oklahoma State (16 AP, 13 USA Today)
PREDICTION: Oklahoma State 48-28
KEYS TO THE GAME:
For Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State could be reeling. The Cowboys controlled their destiny for a Big 12 South title, but lost to Oklahoma on Nov. 27 and slid into the Alamo Bowl. The bid is not bad, but a berth in the Bowl Championship Series was possible if the Cowboys had been able to avenge their other conference defeat to Nebraska in the Big 12 title game. This is a young team, so it should be resilient.
Oklahoma State's conversion to an all-out passing attack once it hired Dana Holgorsen as coordinator was delayed by the presence of senior RB Kendall Hunter. After struggling with a foot injury last season, Hunter regained the Big 12 rushing title he won in 2008. RB Joseph Randle is a promising freshman who will keep opponents honest in the years to come. Randle is more dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield.
The inexperience of QB Brandon Weeden quickly became a non-factor as the 27-year-old former minor league pitcher quickly grasped the new offense. Solid work up front from an inexperienced line usually allowed Weeden time to pick apart opponents. Plus, WR Justin Blackmon emerged as the nation's top receiving threat, capable of making tough grabs and gaining yards after the catch.
Injuries within the interior of the Oklahoma State defense hampered progress and made the Cowboys susceptible to the rush, though LB Orie Lemon ranked as the third-leading tackler in the Big 12 and is rangy. As the year progressed, Oklahoma State became more stingy against the rush.
An inexperienced secondary was instructed to gamble for interceptions and fumbles to help overcome its shortcomings. The strategy was effective as Oklahoma State ranked second in the Big 12 with 16 interceptions and third in turnover margin with a plus-8 ratio. CB Andrew McGee leads the Big 12 with five interceptions, while a pick by LB Shaun Lewis late in the game against Texas A&M set up a game-winning field goal.
P Quinn Sharp and PK Dan Bailey rank among the best in the country. Not only does Sharp have a strong leg, he is also adept at pinning opponents inside the 20. Bailey made 24 of 28 field goals and led the Big 12 in scoring with 137 points. KR Justin Gilbert is a budding freshman who provided touchdowns on two runbacks during the last three games.
For Arizona: Arizona lost four games in a row after a 7-1 start and is coming off a painful 30-29 loss to rival Arizona State when about all the Wildcats needed to do was tack on an extra point with 27 seconds left. Will the Wildcats rally with an "us-against-the-world" mentality? Or do they just want this season to end?
Arizona tries to be diverse, as it's able to play a four-wide spread and also line up in power sets with a blocking tight end and a fullback. That second part of the equation never really developed this season. Senior RB Nic Grigsby, who has good cutting ability and is a home run threat, didn't do much in the second half of the season because of an ankle injury. Junior RB Keola Antolin is a tough, hard-charging back who take punishment, but he's not a make-you-miss kind of runner. Arizona averages 135.17 rushing yards per game, 85th in the nation.
Junior QB Nick Foles improved his footwork and his accuracy from his sophomore season, completing 67.6 percent of his passes (254-of-376). The Wildcats like to attack with quick, short passes and a variety of screens, then take some shots downfield to WR Juron Criner. Nobody else on the team has Criner's big-play ability -- either on deep balls or after the catch -- but Foles spreads the wealth to several receivers. Watch for sophomore inside receiver Terrence Miller, who emerged late in the season as the over-the-middle threat the team had been lacking. Miller had seven catches through nine games. He made 20 receptions for 286 yards in the past three games.
Although the regular-season numbers were good (Arizona allowed 136.7 rushing yards per game), the Wildcats are better defending a spread passing team than a power running team, as they were gashed up front in losses to Stanford and USC. Coach Mike Stoops said his team was just not playing physically enough in the latter stages of the season. Now, Arizona is facing the nation's top offense, which includes RB Kendall Hunter, who ranks seventh in the nation with 126.33 yards per game.
Arizona rotated three cornerbacks at the end of the season -- juniors Trevin Wade and Robert Golden, as well as true freshman Shaquille Richardson -- and often played with five defensive backs, sometimes six. The Cats will need them against Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon. Sophomore Adam Hall, a safety/nickel back, is a hard hitter who was playing well late in the season. The Wildcats gave up too many big passing plays and dropped about a half-dozen potential interceptions against Arizona State in the finale.
Special teams have mostly been a mess, with the biggest question being how will PK Alex Zendejas respond to having two extra-point attempts blocked against Arizona State -- one with 27 seconds left in regulation and another at the end of the second overtime. P Keenyn Crier has been so inconsistent that Arizona has dabbled with Zendejas as a pooch punter and LB Derek Earls as a rugby-style punter.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Brandon Weeden -- After playing sparingly last season, the former minor league pitcher flourished in the new spread attack Oklahoma State introduced. He became the first OSU passer to throw for more than 4,000 yards and also set a school record with 32 touchdown passes. He improved as the season progressed and distributes the ball well.
WR Justin Blackmon -- Blackmon was named the Big 12's Offensive Player of the Year after a remarkable breakout season. The sophomore exceeded 100 yards receiving in each of the 11 games he played, averaging 9.3 receptions and 151.4 yards, with 18 touchdowns. He never seemed bothered by the one-game suspension he drew following a DUI citation.
LB Orie Lemon -- Lemon didn't get on the field last season because of a knee injury suffered in preseason camp. As a senior, he was quickly appointed as the Cowboys' defensive leader, despite any rust, and he responded with a terrific season. He helped groom freshman LB Shaun Lewis into one of the league's rising defensive stars.
QB Nick Foles -- Foles has excelled in the clutch. He led late game-winning touchdown drives in home victories against Iowa and Cal and also directed late touchdown drives against Oregon State and USC. Foles did it again in the regular-season finale against Arizona State, but his hero status went unfulfilled when Alex Zendejas' extra-point attempt was blocked.
WR Juron Criner -- Criner battled injuries throughout the regular season (toe, ankle) and put together one of the best seasons for a receiver in school history. A 6-foot-4 junior, Criner, goes into the bowl with 73 receptions for 1,186 yards and 10 touchdowns.
DE Ricky Elmore -- Elmore is a guy to watch on defense. He leads the Pac-10 with 11 sacks, one season after finishing second with 10.5. He's a high-energy end who isn't a fearsome physical specimen, but he's quick and smart and plays with great technique.
Cowboys: WR Justin Blackmon (ankle, probable), OT Nick Martinez (hand, probable).
Wildcats: WR/PR Bug Wright (suspended, questionable), RB Nic Grigsby (ankle/knee, questionable).