Oklahoma's trend of abysmal performances in big bowls against
quality opponents can no longer be blamed on players.
From teams quarterbacked by Jason White to Paul Thompson to Sam Bradford to Landry Jones, bowl flops now have crossed generations of Sooners.
OU's 41-13 malfunction Friday night against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl Classic is the latest irrefutable evidence: It's clearly not the players' fault that this keeps happening.
It's the coaches.
A series of mishaps early in the Cotton Bowl illustrates that Oklahoma players were not properly prepared to play in the game. They were not prepared to adapt and overcome, they were not prepared to adjust and improvise.
But this isn't on the players. It's on the coaching staff for failing to prepare them. Players don't scout opponents, and they don't come up with ineffective game plans or misguided personnel packages. Coaches do.
A few examples stood out against the Aggies:
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops needed a timeout on Texas A&M's first drive. That's the fourth time that's happened this season, and the sixth time Stoops has needed a first-quarter timeout. (The OU offense burned a timeout seven times in the first quarter of games this season.)
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel had an otherwise brilliant game plan of utilizing short passes on first down and running plays on second down to keep the football and minimize A&M's offensive opportunities, but when it became clear the Aggie defense would not allow any short-yardage success from the Belldozer formation, Heupel scrapped it but never had a backup plan. The offense then went three- and-out on three straight possessions to start the second half - twice after failing in short-yardage situations.
Most curious of all, head coach Bob Stoops declined a defensive penalty that would have given the Sooners first-and-goal at the 2 and instead took the play that gave them second-and-goal at the 1. Failing to score on second and third down, OU was forced to kick a field goal.
Preparation and attention to detail was lacking in all three scenarios. But that wasn't all.
Heupel's play-calling in the red zone and in short-yardage situations lacked creativity. Mike Stoops' decision to use one linebacker, a backup, was exploited repeatedly by Johnny Manziel's Heisman-winning improvisational skills - as if the 344 rushing yards by West Virginia's Tavon Austin never happened.
When Manziel faked a handoff, read the defensive end and scooted five yards into the end zone for a second-quarter touchdown, OU defenders looked as if they had no idea Manziel - who rushed for 1,410 yards and 21 TDs this season - might actually keep it. It was every bit as surprising to them as Boise State's Statue of Liberty play to win the 2006 Fiesta Bowl.
And when A&M came out in the third quarter having made significant adjustments - a three-man defensive line with an extra pass defender - the result was a 27-0 second-half margin for which Sooner coaches had no answers.
In the past, Bob Stoops and other Oklahoma coaches have spoken about player entitlement and how it can erode a team and a season. The 2005 season is a clear example, wherein some players thought that just because they were next on the depth chart, they could just step in for a large group of accomplished seniors without making the same commitments and sacrifices. They couldn't.
The 2011 season is another example. Oklahoma was a team pockmarked with personnel holes but was granted a consensus No. 1 ranking after the Fiesta Bowl (an uninspiring victory over a bad Connecticut team).
After ESPN cameras were allowed inside the team's training camp - the locker room, team-building functions, even Bob Stoops' car as he drove his kids around town - Stoops found himself having to purge a dozen or so players who detracted from the team concept.
Player entitlement is real, and it can become cancerous.
But given the program's body of work over the last 10 years, maybe it's not really the players who have felt entitled in bowl games.
Maybe it's the coaches.
A few years ago, the OU coaching staff gained a reputation, deserved or not, for not truly investing in bowl preparations if a national championship wasn't on the line.
Winning the Big 12 and getting to a nice bowl game provided all the incentives Sooner coaches needed after a long, tough season. Grinding through December in preparation for a game that amounted to little more than an exhibition wasn't high on their priority list.
Attitudes relaxed even more when the team arrived at the bowl destination. The team's posh resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., became a place to kick back, relax and have a good time with family and friends leading up to the game.
That explains much of what happened in Fiesta Bowl losses to Boise State and West Virginia. Those teams were not better than Oklahoma. Yet, they embarrassed the Sooners in back-to-back bowls.
Does it also explain a bit of what the nation saw unfold inside Cowboys Stadium?
Don't misunderstand: Just like LSU in the 2003-04 Sugar Bowl, USC in the 2004-05 Orange Bowl and Florida in the 2008-09 BCS national championship game, Texas A&M was the better team - on both lines, in the secondary, at wide receiver, at running back, at linebacker and certainly at quarterback.
But A&M isn't four touchdowns better than Oklahoma. Or shouldn't be.
The Cotton Bowl was just the most recent postseason egg laid by the Sooners.
Sure, OU won the Sun Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl and the Insight Bowl in the last three seasons. But, even with the national championship a million miles away for those teams, Oklahoma's talent against overmatched opponents was enough in those bowls.
Since winning the 2002-03 Rose Bowl, the Sooners are 1-5 in January bowl games.
If OU coaches keep taking December vacations, that trend may continue.
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