Fiesta Bowl Preview: Oklahoma State-Stanford

Monday night’s Fiesta Bowl (8:30 PM ET, ESPN) is the best of the four BCS bowl matchups that lead up to the national championship game a week from tonight, as Oklahoma State meets up with Stanford. For Okie State, it’s a chance to send a message to voters who preferred giving Alabama a second chance at LSU rather than sending the Cowboys to New Orleans. For Stanford, it’s the final college game for Andrew Luck, the most anticipated NFL prospect I can recall. Here’s the summation of how each team got here and how they matchup…

Oklahoma State (11-1): Oklahoma State didn’t play heavyweights in their three weeks of non-conference play, but they fatten up on pastry either. UL-Lafayette and Tulsa were both bowl teams, while Arizona brought one the country’s top quarterbacks in Nick Foles for a Thursday night game. OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden let it be known early on this was going to be a prolific year. He went over 350 yards in all three games, while running back Joseph Randle cleared the 120 mark in each one. The Cowboy offense would never stop firing.

You couldn’t be as confident with the defense, which gave up big chunks of rushing yardage, particularly to Tulsa, who blasted them for 365 yards on the ground. It was a cause for concern as Okie State entered a four-game stretch in which they would play road games at Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri. Weeden gunned down all three, including a big comeback against the Aggies, with over 1,000 yards passing combined. While Justin Blackmon was his primary receiver, secondaries couldn’t lock in on him, as Weeden consistently involved an array of receivers into the offense, a pattern that would continue throughout the year. While the problems defending the run didn’t go away, the Cowboy secondary was turning into a ball-hawking unit, getting three interceptions apiece in all three road wins, which were sandwiched around a 70-28 blasting of Kansas at home.

In the Big 12, there’s no rest for the victorious and coming home meant Baylor and Kansas State were waiting. Blackmon had two huge games, catching 26 passes for 377 yards, as the offense put up 111 points in a pair of dazzling wins. Randle kept churning out yardage on the ground, as you couldn’t focus in on just one part of the Oklahoma State offense, lest another part bury you. While Oklahoma was still considered the top dog in the Big 12 at the time, it would be K-State and Baylor that would finish second and third in the league respectively, so in retrospect this was the point of the season were the Cowboys secured a conference title.

They were thinking a lot bigger, sitting at #2 in the national polls. But on a Friday morning they were to play Iowa State, tragedy struck the Oklahoma State community. A plane carrying the woman’s basketball coach and his assistant crashed and a pall went over everyone involved with the game. To this day, I believe the game should’ve been suspended until at least the next day, but with ESPN’s cameras on hand for a Friday night exclusive that wasn’t happening. The Cowboys looked flat, Weeden threw three interceptions and the Cyclones won in double overtime. To their enormous credit, no one associated with Oklahoma State has ever used the tragedy as an excuse for the loss. But those of us who are in the outside can exercise some common sense and say that it had to have affected. They played the game the same day the news was reported!  In the end, though it may have cost Oklahoma State a national title shot, they have their honor intact, knowing they didn’t use the deaths of those close to them as a way of angling out sympathy votes for a national title game berth.

Oklahoma State still got a Fiesta Bowl bid when they destroyed Oklahoma 44-10 in the season finale, with their secondary continuing to play well and Randle having a big game on the ground. It may not have gotten into the BCS National Championship Game, but I wouldn’t expect a letdown—it’s the program’s first major bowl bid since the 1945 Cotton Bowl, when they matched up with St. Mary’s (CA).

Stanford (11-1): Even with the departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL, the return of Andrew Luck had everyone abuzz about Cardinal football and Luck gave little reason for anyone to question his undisputed status as not only the #1 pick in the NFL draft, but the best QB prospect in a generation. In a year where the NFL produced outstanding quarterback seasons from Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, it’s not too much to suggest that Luck’s presence in the NFL this year matched both of them, as lower-level teams raced for the bottom.

On the football field in Palo Alto, Luck’s current team opened with easy wins over San Jose State and Duke, in which the basic offensive formula was established. Luck hit a high percentage of his throws, made few mistakes and spread the ball around, while getting 75-100 yards of ground support from Stephan Taylor. It set the stage for five easy wins to start the Pac-12 schedule. Stanford cruised past Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, Washington State and then hung 65 points on Washington. Luck threw 14 touchdown passes in these games against only two interceptions. The Stanford defense was respectable, if not overwhelming and Taylor had four 100-yard games.

Next up was a prime-time battle in Los Angeles against USC and it proved to be another one of college football’s memorable battles of 2011, right up there with Wisconsin-Michigan State‘s regular season game. This one went triple overtime before Stanford won 56-48. Luck outplayed Barkley, but Stanford committed 11 penalties, a circumstance they can’t afford to repeat tonight in the Fiesta Bowl.

After an easy win over Oregon State, it was time for an anticipated showdown with Oregon to settle the Pac-12 North and keep the Cardinal on track for an appearance in the BCS National Championship game. Playing at home for a prime-time audience, Stanford came up with a dud. They lost three fumbles and turned it over five times overall. Luck completed 27 of 41 passes, but Oregon effectively kept him underneath, making those completions add up to just 256 yards. Stanford couldn’t stop LaMichael James on the ground and they were beaten badly, 53-30.

To the credit of head coach David Shaw, he kept his team focused for challenging games against improving Cal and Notre Dame to end the season, both of which Stanford needed if they wanted to make a major bowl game. The Cardinal didn’t play their best game in either spot, but they were good enough to beat decent teams and the rush defense was solid both times out.

The Matchup: The Weeden-Luck showdown is what gets the media attention and I see the logic. But what I’m watching is the Randle-Taylor matchup. While Stanford played good rush defense against above average teams, they couldn’t handle James, and if I’m Mike Gundy I absolutely think my running game is as good as Oregon’s. In the case of Oklahoma State, when you have a team that can’t stop the run, while intercepting passes left and right, doesn’t that make committing to the ground an obvious choice? Taylor is one of the more underrated backs in the country and Stanford’s physical nature is also underappreciated. If it’s me, I’m pounding him early on and opening things up for Luck. As is the case with today’s Rose Bowl, Las Vegas is expecting a shootout and the Over/Under is slotted at 74. I like Oklahoma State to get the win. The ability of the secondary to create some mistakes, combined with the general superiority of play in the Big 12 make the Cowboys the pick here.


Please note will be doing a live blog during the Rose and Fiesta Bowls today, along with the Sugar and Orange Bowls the next two nights. Stop by during the game to get reaction as the games unfold.