by Nathan Rush
Oklahoma State (11–1) vs. Stanford (11–1)
Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
The No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the country — Oklahoma State and Stanford — go toe-to-toe in this year’s Fiesta Bowl, which features two of the three one-loss teams remaining from BCS conferences (with Alabama being the third one-loss squad and LSU, of course, the lone undefeated).
More than that, University of Phoenix Stadium will host the nation’s top-ranked team from outside the Southeastern Conference as well as the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming 2012 NFL Draft.
Both the Cowboys and Cardinal fell just short of the BCS national title game. But with so many players either set to graduate or expected to bolt for the NFL following this game, expect both sides to be motivated to end their impressive seasons on a high note with a BCS Fiesta Bowl statement.
After starting the year 10–0, main “man” Mike Gundy’s Pokes lost at Iowa State, 37–31 in double-overtime, in a Friday night thriller in their penultimate game — before dominating Oklahoma, 44–10, in the Bedlam finale to end an eight-game losing streak to OU, clinch their first-ever Big 12 title and first outright conference championship since winning the three-team Missouri Valley in 1948.
On the other side, first-year Cardinal coach David Shaw was off to a 9–0 start at Stanford before a disappointing 53–30 letdown to Oregon ended any Pac-12 North division, Pac-12 Conference or BCS national title hopes on The Farm. The Cardinal bounced back, however, with a 31–28 win over Cal in the Big Game and a 28–14 victory over Notre Dame in prime time.
The boys in Vegas are expecting a shootout in this one, with a 74-point over-under, which is the second-highest on the board — trailing only the Alamo Bowl (79) between Baylor and Washington. Expect a scoreboard scorcher in the desert.
WHEN OKLAHOMA STATE HAS THE BALL:
The Cowboys have the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense (49.33 ppg), No. 2 passing offense (386.25 ypg) and No. 3 total offense (557.0 ypg).
Quarterback Brandon Weeden is a former minor league pitching prospect who was drafted by MLB’s New York Yankees in the second round of the 2002 draft, traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the 2003 Kevin Brown deal and picked up by the Kansas City Royals in the Rule 5 Draft before arriving on campus in Stillwater. The 28-year-old Oklahoma City native has been throwing strikes for O-State all season — passing for 4,328 yards, 34 TDs and 12 INTs.
Only the second-ever two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, Justin Blackmon is the nation’s top wide receiver. The 6’1”, 215-pound junior has 113 catches for 1,336 yards and 15 TDs, but will need a whale of a game in Glendale to match his 2010 stat line of 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 TDs, along with four carries for 77 rush yards and one score on the ground. Blackmon is joined by Tracy Moore (672 yards, 4 TDs) and Josh Cooper (660 yards, 3 TDs), but there is no doubt about who is Weeden’s top target.
The Pokes’ running game has a solid one-two punch in feature back Joseph Randle (1,193 yards, 23 TDs) and sidekick Jeremy Smith (645 yards, 9 TDs). But O-State is powered by its dominant O-line — led by first-team All-Big 12 left tackle Levy Adcock (6’6”, 322) and center Grant Garner (6’3”, 292).
Stanford’s defense struggled against the top two offenses it faced this season, allowing 53 points in a loss to Oregon and 48 points in a triple-overtime win at USC. The unit ranked a respectable 23rd nationally in scoring defense (20.33 ppg); but the Cardinal’s 78th-ranked passing defense (241.08 ypg) is cause for concern against the Cowboys. All-Pac-12 safety Delano Howell must avoid getting beat over the top; end Ben Gardner and linebacker Chase Thomas will have to bring their A-game.
WHEN STANFORD HAS THE BALL:
Andrew Luck is being touted as the greatest NFL quarterback prospect since Tennessee’s Peyton Manning in 1998 and possibly since Stanford’s own John Elway in 1983. The son of former NFL quarterback and current West Virginia athletics director Oliver Luck was coached up by former NFL quarterback and current San Francisco 49ers boss Jim Harbaugh prior to this, his fourth-year junior season. Luck has the size (6’4”, 235), arm, athleticism, leadership and “it” factor to lead any team to victory.
Plus, the quick-triggerman plays behind arguably the top offensive line in the country — with a top-10 pick candidate at left tackle in Jonathan Martin (6’6”, 304) and a mauling All-Pac-12 guard David DeCastro (6’5”, 310).
This season, Luck completed 70 percent of his passes —albeit on far fewer attempts than Weeden, who threw 522 passes in O-State’s spread attack compared to Luck’s 373 attempts in Stanford’s pro-style offense — for 3,170 yards, 35 TDs and nine INTs, while rushing for two TDs and hauling in a highlight-reel diving 13-yard catch for good measure.
Luck has a solid running back corps behind him — with Stepfan Taylor (1,153 yards, 8 TDs), Tyler Gaffney (445 yards, 7 TDs) and Jeremy Stewart (8 TDs) — but lacks speedy downfield receiving threats. Instead, the Luck’s Cardinal use a Tom Brady, New England Patriots-style tight end attack with Coby Fleener (648 yards, 10 TDs), 6’8” Levin Toilolo (325 yards, 6 TDs) and H-back Ryan Hewitt (277 yards, 5 TDs) providing most of the plays. Griff Whalen (664 yards, 4 TDs) is the top receiver, while oft-concussed Chris Owusu (376 yards, 2 TDs) is a question mark.
O-State has the nation’s 61st-ranked scoring defense (25.83 ppg) and 102nd-ranked pass defense (265.58 ypg). On first glance, those numbers seem to favor Luck and the Cardinal. But the Cowboys’ top playmakers on defense are pass rusher Jamie Blatnick, roaming safety Markelle Martin and cover corner Brodrick Brown — players who could make Luck’s last game a tougher test than expected.
Also, the Pokes faced four of the top six passing offenses this season — Arizona (third), Oklahoma (fourth), Baylor (fifth) and Texas Tech (sixth) — posting a 4–0 record and winning by a combined score of 206–54. That defense against the pass doesn’t look too bad upon further review.
Cowboys kicker and punter Quinn Sharp is a valuable field-position weapon, averaging 46.6 yards per punt with a long of 60. He has also been steady inside of 46 yards, connecting on 20-of-23 field goals this season. Kick returner Justin Gilbert is quicksilver with the ball, averaging 25.8 yards per return with two TDs — including a 100-yarder to paydirt.
The Cardinal kicking game has struggled lately, with Jordan Williamson (12-of-15 on FGs) and Eric Whitaker (4-of-5) combining to miss three of their last four attempts — two from long range (48 and 49 yards) and one chip-shot (33). The return game is not much better, although kick returner Ty Montgomery did score on a 96-yarder earlier this year.
Oklahoma State is too powerful for Stanford. After all, Luck doesn’t play defense; and there’s only so much the future No. 1 overall pick can do with the limited offensive weapons at his disposal. Gundy will break out the big guns and the Pokes will have people asking why they aren’t playing for the national championship when the sand settles at the Fiesta Bowl.
Oklahoma State 48, Stanford 34