After a stunning loss to Texas Tech on its home turf, the Oklahoma Sooners football team looks to rebound with a win over No. 8 Kansas State in The Little Apple on Saturday. Bob Stoops' squads have performed very well coming off losses, but the Wildcats will be salivating at the opportunity to reverse this trend.
The Wildcats aim to keep their storybook season unblemished, while the Sooners strive to keep their slim national title hopes alive.
With this in mind, what are the essentials for OU to focus on if it is to leave Manhattan victorious Saturday?
The Wildcats are 19th in the nation in rush yards, averaging almost 215 yards per game, and as any football fan knows, limiting the opponent's run game is a crucial ingredient in a recipe for victory. Junior QB Colin Klein leads KSU with 670 yards rushing, while diminutive back John Hubert is close behind with 637 yards.
The Sooners have been mostly successful in limiting the run, save for the Missouri game. In order to put themselves in a position to win, they must get a consistent surge from the defensive line and force Kansas State to pass.
In its loss against Texas Tech last week, OU had five three-and-outs. This was a major reason for the Sooners' problems because not only does it indicate a failure to perform offensively, but it also tired out the OU defense by limiting recovery time and keeping the high-octane Red Raiders offense on the field.
If Landry Jones and Co. don't generate consistent drives and develop rhythm offensively, the KSU offense will eventually be able to establish the run, which, as stated earlier, will lead to more problems for Oklahoma.
A recurring trend for the OU offense in recent times has been a lack of production in the red zone. Capitalizing inside the 20 is like putting in golf: both are crucial components of success in their respective sports. And considering the weapons the Sooners have on offensive, there is no excuse not to score touchdowns in every red zone opportunity.
In 38 total red-zone opportunities this season, OU has scored only 21 touchdowns. In order to beat a formidable foe in a hostile environment, Oklahoma must make the most of every chance it has. Versatile yet overlooked players like fullback Trey Millard and tight end James Hanna could help alleviate OU's red zone woes.
Granted, when the hurry-up works, it works fabulously. But sometimes the OU offense looks simply out out of sync and lethargic. Bill Snyder is a genius strategist, which means he will have his defense ready to face the vaunted OU attack.
To counter this, Jay Norvell and Josh Heupel should think outside the box in terms of play-calling. How about a reverse or a halfback pass? Using stars like Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills as decoys could work wonders and, in a game like this, may turn out to be the difference between winning and losing.
Coaches don't allude to the "three phases of the game" for nothing. Special teams, although often overlooked, definitely plays a role in the outcome of a football game. And the bigger the game, the less margin for error a team has if it wants to win.
In several of its recent losses, OU has failed to execute on special teams when it mattered most. The opening kickoff return for a touchdown against Missouri in Columbia last year, for instance, immediately set the tone for the game. Missed field goals by Michael Hunnicutt last week, while definitely not the reason the Sooners lost, played a factor in determining the outcome of the game.
This weekend is a crucial test for Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma football team. A win over an undefeated, Top 10 opponent in a hostile environment could catalyze a major surge that puts OU back in the national championship picture. A loss, on the other hand would effectively kill any title chances in Norman.
The mettle of this so-called "championship-caliber" team will truly be tested this weekend in Bill Snyder Family Stadium.