Posted by Jerry Hinnen
The Basics: Oklahoma (11-2) vs. UConn (8-4), Jan. 1, 8:30pm ET
Why You Should Watch: If you like those nature programs where a pack of lionesses hunt down and ruthlessly slaughter a gazelle, this is totally the bowl game for you. Probably. Possibly. Not if you go by Bob Stoops' prior track record in BCS games, admittedly; he and his Sooners have lost their last five. And that's the real reason you have to tune in, no matter how lopsided a matchup this might appear to be. If a UConn team that is totally overmatched on paper -- remember that the Huskies lost to Temple, were shut out by Louisville, and won the Big East despite being outgained by some 600 total yards in league play -- can pull off what might be the upset of the season, or even come close, Stoops might hitch the first plane to Gainesville just to avoid the tomato storm that would await him on his return to Norman. It's not likely, but like the first round of the NCAA Tournament in hoops, the potential is tantalizing enough that it's still a game you have to watch. Just know that no one will blame you for making other plans for the third and fourth quarters.
Keys to Victory for Oklahoma: The biggest one for the Sooners is pretty simple: just don't screw it up. Stoops' team has overwhelming matchup advantages all over the field, and if they can merely avoid making the handful of catastrophic mistakes that would keep the Huskies in the game, they should cruise. Start with the passing game, where Oklahoma will feature the nation's No. 4 air attack at 337 yards-per-game, one headed by quarterback Landry Jones and featuring one of the FBS's most dangerous receivers in overlooked All-American (if there can be such a thing) Ryan Broyles. They'll be facing a low-wattage UConn secondary that was shredded by the likes of Michigan (8.5 yards an attempt), Rutgers (11.4), and Pitt (7.9). If the Panthers' Tino Sunseri can do that kind of damage (he finished 20-of-28 for more than 220 yards) against the Huskies, there's no telling what Jones and Broyles might do. It doesn't get much better in the run game, where 1,100-yard All-Big 12 rusher DeMarco Murray will face a young front seven ranked 56th in the country in rush defense -- lower even than the Huskies' pass defense. If the Sooners don't turn the ball over (and their 16 total giveaways were the fewest in the Big 12), they should put up major yards and points without too much effort.
Defensively, though, the Sooners aren't quite as overpowering; they rank outside the top 50 in total, passing, and rushing defense. But they do have a penchant for big plays, having forced 30 opponent turnovers this year, good for the fourth-highest total in the country. The ball-hawking secondary tag-team of senior safety Quinton Carter and junior corner Jamell Fleming each picked off four passes, with a big assist to Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Jeremy Beal. The senior defensive end wreaked havoc on opposing lines all season, recording 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles-for-loss. If Beal can force the Huskies into repeated third-and-longs or the Sooners' sticky fingers can negate a UConn drive or two with turnovers, the underdog won't stand a chance.
Keys to Victory for UConn: To actually win this game, UConn's going to have to catch a ton of breaks, and the bigger impact those breaks have, the better. Which is why they're going to need to make the game as low-possession, as short, and as break-dependent as possible, and that means a heavy dose of Jordan Todman. The nation's second-leading rusher, Todman gained 1,574 yards this season on an impressive 5.2 yards per-carry. Combine his toughness with a veteran line featuring a pair of first-team All-Big East performers in jumbo junior tackle Mike Ryan (333 pounds) and equally jumbo senior guard Zach Hurd (325 pounds), and you get what might be the Huskies' only real matchup advantage as they go up against a Sooner front that's allowed seven different teams to average 4.5 yards a carry or better. If Todman and the big Huskie front can grind out some big first downs, they'll take loads of pressure off the entire rest of the team: wobbly quarterback Zach Fraser (5.4 yards per-attempt for the season, 5-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio), a front seven that could be ground down by the Sooners' up-tempo attack if left on the field very long, a secondary that simply can't be allowed to face Jones, Broyles, and Co. with the burden of trying to salvage the game on their shoulders. For Uconn, it all starts with Todman and the line.
The good news is that if that start can keep the Huskies close going into the fourth quarter, they've shown an impressive ability to finish, winning tight games against West Virginia, Pitt, and South Florida with key late drives and clutch kicking from big-legged All-Big East kicker Dave Teggart. There's also little doubt that should the game stay competitive deep into the second half, all the pressure -- not only from this game, but from Stoops' previous BCS failures and Oklahoma's role as the overwhelming favorite -- will be on the Sooners, It won't be easy to get there, but if Todman can get rolling and the defense (notably all-league defensive end Kendall Reyes) can play far enough over its head to keep the Huskies in it, it might be the other team that makes the single game-deciding mistake.
The Fiesta Bowl is like: an inspirational underdog sports movie recast -- probably -- as a gritty indie drama. We've got a lovable, plucky underdog that's scraped and clawed to get its one shot at Goliath, a Goliath that by all rights should pound it into submission. (Big East or not, the Huskies are a far bigger underdog to Oklahoma than Boise State was four years ago in this same game.) If this was Rocky or The Mighty Ducks or something similar, the Fiesta would end with UConn executing some crazy trick play at the final whistle to pull out a shocking victory. Unfortunately for fans of those movies, it's far more likely that the Huskie heroes will be taught a cruel-but-authentic lesson about their inability to deal with powerful forces beyond their control. The critics might applaud if Oklahoma pulls away by three scores in the second quarter, but we're not expecting a crowd pleaser here.