December 29, 2010/9:15 pm Eastern
San Antonio, TX - Alamodome
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Before the regular season began, it was widely assumed that this would be a major rebuilding year for the Cowboys. QB Zac Robinson was gone, WR Dez Bryant was gone, and there was retooling to be done at most positions. Meanwhile, it was also assumed that Arizona would be right there in the thick of the Pac-10 race once more. QB Nick Foles had WR Juron Criner back to catch his passes, the defense was a veteran unit and the Wildcats were hoping for another opportunity to knock off Oregon for the Pac-10 title. For Arizona a strong September — which included a huge non-conference win over then-#9 Iowa — yielded a two-point defeat to Oregon State at home that derailed the season. Yet it wasn’t until November that things went truly south, as the Wildcats lost four straight to Stanford, USC, Oregon and Arizona State to stumble to 7-5 ahead of their bowl game. Only the dearth of bowl-eligible teams in the Pac-10 allowed Arizona the chance to play such a strong bowl matchup. Further east, Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden made everyone forget Bryant and Robinson, finishing second in the nation in passing and taking their only two losses from the Big XII division winners to reach ten wins for the first time in school history. Two teams heading in opposite directions will hope to end their season on a high note heading into 2011…
- Oklahoma State: The talk of the year was the dynamic production of first-year starting QB Weeden and his favorite target (and Biletnikoff winner) Blackmon, but focusing too much on the passing game only exposes the strength of senior RB Kendall Hunter. Bouncing back from a 2009 campaign in which he lost half the season to a right ankle injury and was less than 100% in the games he did get to play, Hunter returned for his last year in Stillwater and posted the second 1500+ yard season of his college career. With over 4000 yards in his career, he sits behind just Thurman Thomas in Cowboys career rushing, and would be the undisputed record holder had he not suffered his balky ankle in 2009. His presence keeps defenses honest, and as the front seven key in on the dangers Hunter brings to the table it also clears routes for Weeden to find Blackmon and his other receivers.
- Arizona: The lion’s share of the attention surrounding a bumper crop of wide receivers this season has gone to Blackmon on the opposite side of the field, but WR Juron Criner is just as dangerous a threat for the Wildcats. Nick Foles loves targeting the 6’4″, 210-pound junior from Las Vegas, whose averages line up just as impressively when compared to Blackmon (16.2 YPC versus 16.3 for the Cowboy), is a matchup nightmare for an Oklahoma State secondary that allows opponents to complete over 62% of their passes and has given up 23 passing touchdowns so far this season. While everyone will be waiting to see what Blackmon can do next, it might just be Criner who steals the show for Arizona.
KEY POSITIONAL BATTLE
For all the focus being put on the passing games both teams bring to San Antonio, the game will live and die based on how well the running backs perform in this one. And that all comes down to the play of the lines. In a battle of strengths, Oklahoma State’s O-line is going to have to contend with an Arizona front seven that averages nearly three sacks and seven tackles for loss each game. Either the Cowboys will open holes for Hunter and keep Weeden’s jersey clean in the pocket, or the Wildcats will show why they were regarded as a top-20 team until November rolled around. One way or another, this matchup in the trenches will decide who gets the upper hand early and often and is in the driver’s seat to head home with a victory.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Turnovers: Oklahoma State is one of the top ten schools in the country at taking away the football from their opponents, a hidden strength that was largely ignored with all their offensive fireworks. But the Cowboys also saw Brandon Weeden show some growing pains with his decision making — against top-40 passing defenses (Texas A&M, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma) he averaged two interceptions a game. Arizona, meanwhile, wasn’t nearly as adept at taking the ball away… but they also managed to protect the football well when they were on offense. Winning the turnover battle could tip the scales in favor of whichever team manages to protect the ball on offense and get it back for them on defense.
Based on an initial look at the numbers, this game shouldn’t even be close. Oklahoma State was a wild fourth quarter of Bedlam away from playing in the Big XII championship game. Arizona was quickly exposed as a pretender by the best teams on its schedule, throwing away the high esteem afforded their defeat of the Hawkeyes with a plummet to 7th in the Pac-10. But both teams match up well, and this one could be a lot closer than expected. Ultimately the stronger offense should prevail, but watch out for a shootout in San Antonio…
PREDICTION: Oklahoma State 38, Arizona 34