OU-KSU Preview: QB's face toughest challenge yet

James Hale talks with the key figures from each team to get the latest inside scoop on this weekend's showdown in Norman

Already it seems this football season has gone on forever, yet on the other hand it's seems like it's opening day for the Sooners again. The Sooners are 3-0, but can anyone really remember what happened in the North Texas game? It seems like OU has gone through preseason workouts again, but this camp has been done in secret. The OU coaches have plugged up every nook and cranny and have been reluctant to give away any trade secrets.

However, we have snooped around and uncovered some and things that look promising on the OU front. The Sooners will enhance their offense and add a few new wrinkles as Mike Stoops, Brent Venables and company are ready to turn loose the Sooner defensive dogs.

The game matches two programs that don't like each other, but the hatred is not as intense as a year ago. Two Sooner victories in 2000 have taken some of the steam out of the coaching staff tiffs and more of the focus is on the playing field. A year ago it was Kansas State that was spewing most of the hatred and after taking their best shot at the Sooners, and coming up short, they are not as confident this year.

The terrible attack on our nation has taken some of the steam out of the game as well. It's hard to hate fellow American's, even Kansas State Wildcats, when many of our fellow countryman and countrywoman have lost their lives or had their lives so terribly effected by the attack on America.

However, President Bush has asked that we go on and return to normal, which means that when the game kicks off, both teams will play like the national title is on the line, which theoretically it is. Both teams are national title contenders and for the Sooners, just like last year, they will have to go through Kansas State and Texas back-to-back to get in line for a repeat.

I think the game boils down to three different keys to the game. First, both teams sport two quarterbacks, with outstanding ability but limited experience. Junior Nate Hybl of Oklahoma and sophomore Ell Robertson of Kansas State were both highly recruited, both could be among the nations best before their career's are over, and both have never faced a defense like they will face on Saturday.

"Man, Kansas State really likes to bring it and they look like they enjoy it," said Hybl. "It's no secret what they try to do. They haven't changed much since last year when they tried to blitz Josh (Heupel) every play it seemed like in both games last year. We have been working on beating the blitz for the last couple of weeks in practice and it's something that we have been preparing for since the summer. I think I am ready for it and feel that we can hurt them when they blitz just like we did last year."

Last year in the Big 12 Championship victory for the Sooners, Heupel found tight end Trent Smith for eight catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. Smith drew one-on-one coverage against Wildcat all-conference strong safety Jared Cooper the entire game and constantly beat him. Cooper has graduated, but surely the Wildcats won't cover Smith again with strong safety Milton Proctor?

"Hey, you never know, because Coach Bennett believes in his stuff and doesn't change much from it," said Smith.

"Knowing him (Smith signed and redshirted with OU when Bennett was the Sooner secondary coach) like I do, he probably thinks that I just had a good day and he will test me to see if I can do it again. I hope so, because I would certainly like the opportunity."

Kansas State always keeps their quarterback under wraps, so you really don't know what he is thinking. However, I can guess that Roberson is worried about the Sooners' team speed and ability to get eight men around the football at a moments notice.

At the moment, Robertson is more Eric Crouch than Cliff Kingsbury as he has proven to be an outstanding option runner and just a marginal passer thus far. However, Kansas State is a physical team and for the first time this season the Sooners manhood is going to be tested.

"There is no question that Kansas State does test your manhood a little bit," said Head Coach Bob Stoops. "They came right at you with a big tailback, with the lead draws, with the isolation plays and with the option game. It really doesn't get more physical than that. When teams play that way they are saying that their offensive line can beat your front-seven on defense. We have to prove that our run defense can hold up to that kind of attack and force them to throw the ball, which right now you can tell they don't have as much confidence in. Our entire defensive philosophy is set up for our defense to stop the run and I guarantee that is what we are going to do. If they are beating us with the run then we are in trouble."

Oklahoma feels they will be able to run the ball too. Kansas State is starting eight new defenders for Defensive Coordinator Phil Bennett.

"To be honest I am not sure what kind of defense we really have," said the former OU secondary coach. "We are giving up less than a hundred yards (72.1) on the ground, but we can be better defending against the pass (133). Actually, we played pretty well, especially against USC. USC had 297 yards total offense against us, but we did a good job of holding them in check. However, OU will be our biggest test. They will spread us out and then run Quentin (Griffin) right at us. I think he is the key to their team. People don't realize how good Quentin is, but he is the heart and soul of their team. Hybl has a big time arm and you can see on film that he is getting better every game. We can't give up the big play against OU."

The Wildcats have a lot of new faces on defense, but they still have two stars to build their unit around. Linebacker Ben Leber is all-conference material and free safety Jon McGraw is a three-year starter.

The third key centers on special teams. Kansas State plays the best special teams in the conference with the Sooners right behind. The OU coaches feel that Kansas State is the only team that outperformed them last year in special teams. Actually, both teams came up with big plays in special teams.

In fact, both teams count on big plays in their special teams every game and that won't change when the Sooners and Wildcats hoop up Saturday in Norman.

"I visited with our football team Wednesday night following our workout," said Wildcat Head Coach Bill Snyder. "I think that is exactly right. You look back at the first game we had against Oklahoma last year they got off to a big start and built a substantial lead early. You go back and look at the thing that catapulted that was the fact they ran a kickoff back against us very early in the game, right after we had scored a touchdown to go ahead. They ran the next kickoff back against us and that had a major impact in the game. Of course, in the last game that we played we had a punt blocked and another one that was bobbled so consequently in my eyes anyway we lost the kicking game battle and that also had some impact on that game."

"I don't see this upcoming game being to tremendously different," continued Snider. "By and large, most of the time the kicking game is going to have an impact on the outcome. This year we feel we are good in our special teams. We have a great return man in Aaron Lockett and our team takes great pride in how they play special teams. However, we believe that Oklahoma has one of the best special team units in the country and in Tim Duncan and Jeff Ferguson, they have the best pair of kickers in the conference."

Kansas State receiver Aaron Lockett is KSU's playmaker. The senior from Tulsa already has already returned a 97-yard kickoff for a touchdown this season. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Aaron Lockett led the nation in punt returns a year ago with an average of 22.8 yards per game. He returned three punts for touchdowns.

Oklahoma is equally as respectful of the Wildcat special teams and for new punt returner Curtis Fagan, this game is an opportunity to show what he can do.

"Those of us that play special teams know what kind of challenge we have in front of us," said Fagan. "We take pride in our special teams, but we are aware that Kansas State is our challenger for best the special teams in the conference. Last year both teams came up with several big plays in special teams. I am glad that I was able to get a game under my belt against North Texas and I am looking forward to really getting into my returns against Kansas State."

Finally, the biggest advantage for Oklahoma is the fact they are the better overall football team. OU has more weapons on offense, a better defense, and the best kicking game. It is not by much in any of these areas, but OU is better.

Kansas State has a tremendous running game, but I don't think any team can run it down Oklahoma's throat. If the Wildcats can succeed and run at will against OU, then they deserve to win the game.

I feel the Wildcats chances will come down to whether or not Roberson can throw the ball against the Sooners.

Thus far this season Roberson has completed 14 of 26 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Most of that came in the Wildcats 64-0 blowout of New Mexico State. In the 10-6 win over Southern California, Roberson was ineffective throwing for only 26 yards. That certainly didn't indicate that Roberson could throw the ball.

I don't believe the Wildcats can run the ball against OU and Roberson is not good enough in the passing game yet to beat OU. Griffin will wear down the stout Wildcat defense. Hybl will prove improved enough to play winning football for the Sooners. The game will be a good one, very physical with big plays on both sides.

Kansas State has won 11 games per season for the last four seasons. That is a testament to the program that Snyder has built. However, the monster is now fully awake and needs to be fed, and a little Wildcat would taste pretty good. Sooners will have more big plays and play more consistent in winning 24 to 14.

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