Once a national title shot was out of the picture, Oklahoma surely would have been happy to return to Arizona for its bowl game.
Just not this one.
The AP’s preseason No. 1 team missed out on a BCS bid after an ugly finish, so the 19th-ranked Sooners are relegated to playing the Insight Bowl on Friday against an Iowa team that hasn’t been among the Top 25 all season.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed the Sooners as 13 1/2-point favorites, with the total set at 57 1/2.
While the Hawkeyes (7-5) were likely thrilled to be invited back to Tempe after winning this bowl game last season, Oklahoma (9-3) should be disappointed it’s not at least playing in nearby Glendale. That’s where the Sooners were at this time last year for the Fiesta Bowl, beating Connecticut 48-20.
Another trip to a BCS bowl remained within their reach entering the season finale against Oklahoma State despite two surprising Big 12 defeats having ruined their national championship hopes. Oklahoma could have claimed a share of the conference title and the Big 12’s BCS berth, but an already mediocre second half of the season turned into a virtual disaster with a 44-10 loss.
“That’s masking the problem if you say, ‘Oh, we weren’t ready to play, didn’t want to play,’ any of that,” coach Bob Stoops said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. We just weren’t good enough, made mistakes.”
Mistakes were abundant following the Sooners’ 6-0 start. A 41-38 loss to heavy underdog Texas Tech on Oct. 22 ended a 39-game home winning streak, and their national title hopes were completely dashed four weeks later as Baylor beat them for the first time.
Another stunning result soon followed – their worst Bedlam game loss since 1945. Though the Sooners weren’t favored to win, it seemed they didn’t come ready to play. They fell behind 24-0 in the second quarter and were kept out of the end zone until the game’s final minutes against a Cowboys defense ranked 107th in the FBS.
“Obviously the season didn’t go the way we planned,” center Ben Habern said. “Our goals every season are to win a Big 12 championship and a national championship. For those goals not to be met, it’s obviously frustrating. We have to take ownership of what happened.”
Junior quarterback Landry Jones has done that, saying he was “single-handedly” to blame for the Oklahoma State loss. He had four turnovers that day – Oklahoma tied for the eighth-most in the FBS with 28 – and failed to throw a touchdown pass for the third straight game.
Considered a possible Heisman Trophy contender to start the season, Jones tied for the Big 12 lead with 14 interceptions. He did throw for 28 touchdowns and 4,302 yards as Oklahoma relied more on the passing game, particularly when leading rusher Dominique Whaley was lost for the season after six games with a broken ankle.
A more devastating injury came three weeks later with a torn ACL suffered by Ryan Broyles, the NCAA’s all-time leader with 349 receptions. It may be no coincidence that Jones had no TD passes and five interceptions in the three games Broyles missed as Oklahoma went 1-2.
“We have a lot to get straight. We have a lot to correct,” said Stoops, an Iowa graduate. “And I don’t know if just the bowl practices can get it done but we’re going to try.”
More recent injuries have left Stoops’ team further depleted. Starting wideout Jaz Reynolds (kidney), tailback Brandon Williams (neck) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski (back) will miss the game.
Oklahoma could finish out of the final AP poll for the second time in three years with a loss to Iowa.
The Hawkeyes didn’t receive a vote in the latest Top 25, having lost three of their final five games.
Coach Kirk Ferentz now can only hope for a finish similar to last year – follow a disappointing end to the regular season with an Insight Bowl win over a ranked Big 12 foe. Iowa had Big Ten title aspirations before losing its final three regular-season games of 2010 but defeated then-No. 14 Missouri 27-24 in Tempe.
“Like last year, we are facing a heck of a challenge,” said Ferentz, an assistant on Iowa’s staff with Stoops in the 1980s. ” … Missouri threw that ball around and scored well last year. And now with Oklahoma the same way, we are going to have to be at our absolute best.”
No player was better than Marcus Coker in last year’s bowl, rushing for 219 yards and two touchdowns, and an impressive sophomore season followed as he was the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher with 1,384 yards and 15 TDs. However, he was recently suspended for this game after violating the university’s student-athlete code of conduct.
Coker’s absence is a huge blow considering no other Iowa running back had more than 18 carries or 80 rushing yards this season. This could be a big break for an Oklahoma defense which has given up at least 120 rushing yards to its last seven opponents, including 278 to Oklahoma State.
Iowa’s other big weapon has been Marvin McNutt, who set school records and led the Big Ten with 1,269 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches. The senior’s athleticism and good hands helped quarterback James Vandenberg have a solid season, throwing for 23 TDs with six interceptions.
That duo hopes to extend the Sooners’ struggles on defense. They allowed averages of 29.7 points and 449.2 total yards during the 3-3 finish, though Frank Alexander still took Big 12 defensive player of the year honors after tying for the conference lead with 8 1/2 sacks.
Turnovers may be a key. The Sooners forced only one in three losses, compared to 24 in their nine wins. The Hawkeyes defense had just three interceptions in the final six games and ranked last in the Big Ten against the pass.
Iowa, which lost 21-6 at Oklahoma in 1979 in these programs’ only previous meeting, has won a school-record three straight bowl games.