In a season in which mindless mistakes and bad luck often did in the Oklahoma Sooners, OU's 31-27 win over Stanford in the 2009 Brut Sun Bowl provided a refreshing change of pace.
Oh, the stupid mental errors–Landry Jones' downright awful interception, Gerald McCoy's boneheaded personal foul in the third quarter–were there. Same with the bad luck, such as Adrian Taylor's gruesome leg injury.
This time, though, OU refused to fold, and much of the credit for the Sooners' success against the Cardinal should go to OU's D.
Stanford's Heisman Trophy runner-up, Toby Gerhart, gained 135 yards on 32 carries, translating into a per-carry average nearly 1.5 yards below his mark for the season. Meanwhile, through much fault of his own, senior Cardinal QB Tavita Pritchard failed to get much going through the air, completing eight of 19 throws for 117 yards and two interceptions.
Trailing 24-17 at the break, OU's defense took its game to another level in the second half. After surrendering 17 points in the second quarter, the Sooners allowed just 88 total yards and three points in the third and fourth quarters.
With Taylor and standouts Jeremy Beal and Brian Jackson sidelined for all or part of the game, a number of youngsters gave Sooner Nation reason to believe next season won't be a complete rebuilding project on the defensive side of the ball. Freshman linebacker Ronnell Lewis, a former eight-man football standout from tiny Dewar, Okla., looked particularly salty. "The Hammer"–a nickname bestowed on Lewis by OU coach Bob Stoops–finished the game with six total tackles, including some vicious hits on special teams.
Offensively, Stanford's middling defense didn't exactly offer Jones and Co. much of a test. In particular, Jones lit up the Cardinal's porous pass defense to the tune of 418 yards and three touchdowns.
However, Stanford's weak D shouldn't curb the enthusiasm surrounding Jones' outstanding afternoon. The 'Stache showed better pocket presence than he has all season, as the Cardinal failed to sack him once. Top wideout Ryan Broyles obviously cashed in as a result, but Jones did a good job finding secondary receiving options like Trent Ratterree and Dejuan Miller.
Yet, the biggest positives from OU's first bowl win in three years won't show up on the stat sheet.
For a team that has struggled mightily in tight games in recent seasons, OU finally came through in the clutch. The Sooners also scored their first second-half comeback win in who knows how long.
Watching Beal limp off the field and seeing some questionable officiating go against OU in the second half, that "here-we-go-again" queasiness started to set in in the guts of Sooner fans. Patrick O'Hara's missed field goal late in the fourth quarter appeared to give scrappy Stanford the opening that inevitably has led to Oklahoma's demise.
This time, instead of letting victory slip through their fingers, the Sooners buckled down and held on for dear life.
Six months ago, a Sun Bowl win in El Paso isn't where the Sooners expected to end the 2009 season. All in all, though, it feels like a pretty good start for 2010.