Oklahoma senior QB Landry Jones ends his career in the same venue in which he began in a 13-14 loss to BYU in the 2009 season opener. Jones is 1-1 at Jerry World, 2-1 against the Aggies, and 3-0 in bowl games. The only one of those statistics that could matter, however, is the record in bowl games. This version of Texas A&M is much different than any other that Bob Stoops or Oklahoma has ever faced, under first-year HC Kevin Sumlin and Heisman Trophy freshman QB Johnny Manziel. Jones has, however, been very good in bowl games and generally has played better in big games and championship games. He became the third OU QB to go 3-0 against Texas in his career and went 12-6 in games started against ranked teams. Jones has more victories, more TD passes, more passing yards, more completions and attempts than any quarterback in the school’s history. His career passing yards (16,368) put him first in the history of the Big XII and third in FBS history. The fact that half of the fans of the Oklahoma Sooners are literally counting down the hours until he graduates and another QB takes the helm for OU should tell you all you need to know about Jones’s rocky career at Oklahoma.
AT&T Cotton Bowl
Oklahoma (Big XII) (+3) vs. Texas A&M (SEC) January 4th 8 pm FOX
Oklahoma is another team that came into the season with National Title aspirations. Senior QB Landry Jones decided to forego promised NFL riches to return for a chance for more championships. Those dreams ended quickly in their fourth game of the year at home in what was a shocking (at the time) loss to Kansas St. They rebounded in the following weeks and seemed poised to crawl back into the National Title race, particularly with the Wildcats staying unbeaten and an undefeated and top-5 ranked Notre Dame team coming to town in the last week of October. The Irish proved to be too much as HC Bob Stoops lost multiple games at home for the first time in his 14 years in Norman. The Sooners rebounded and ran the table the rest of the way in conference and seemed poised to steal away an at-large BCS berth until N. Illinois happened. The coaches, players, and fans know that a Cotton Bowl victory over a top SEC team would be nice consolation.
Bob Stoops meets one of his old Lieutenants for the first time in this one. Sumlin served on Stoops’ staff before moving on to take the HC job at Houston which led him back to College Station, where he also served as OC. Although the Aggies are only one-year removed from the Big XII, the Aggies have asserted themselves into the SEC with their competitiveness all season and, of course, their big win against Alabama. Would a win by Oklahoma prove that they could compete against SEC teams in a Championship game, or would it just prove they still have one over on the Aggies?
Texas A&M came into the season with uncertain expectations in their first year in SEC play. The Aggies hadn’t beaten an SEC team since 1995 and 1st-year HC Kevin Sumlin sent in redshirt freshman QB Johnny Manziel to lead his offense. Due to Hurricane Isaac, their opening weekend game against La Tech was postponed making a home game against Florida the first collegiate game for Manziel. The Aggies put up a good fight, but blew a lead in the second half which reminded the fan base of their penchant for blowing leads late under HC Mike Sherman. The Aggies rebounded and recorded their first SEC win against Arkansas on the way to winning 5 straight before succumbing to LSU. Both of these losses were understandable with a first-year coach and a freshman quarterback and as the season went on, the fan base and Manziel gained confidence. They finished the season on a five-game winning streak, but the crown jewel was an upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That win thrust the freshman quarterback into the lead in the Heisman race and could put him into Aggie lore forever.
What to Expect:
The success of the Sooners is inextricably tied to the success of their senior QB Landry Jones. There is enough talent on this team to compete with anyone in the nation across the board, but Jones is the x-card. There are times when Jones plays like an NFL-caliber quarterback who can make any throw on the field; and then there are times he plays like a true freshman who panics in the pocket and throws into quadruple coverage from his own goal line. The one thing that I have always given him credit for is his ability to rally the offense and come from behind in the fourth quarter. He proved that in his sophomore season with comeback victories against the OSU Cowboys and the Nebraska Cornhuskers to win the Big XII title in 2010. The problem is that it is almost always terrible mistakes he has made earlier in the game that has put Oklahoma in the hole in the first place. The formula for forcing Landry into mistakes is a simple one; take away his deep options and bring pressure. If he is comfortable in the pocket and has time, he has the talent to pick apart any defense with pinpoint accuracy. With pressure, however, he has the tendency to throw off his back foot and into coverage. It will be on the offensive line and the coaches to give protection and design a game plan that will limit the instances when Landry is pressured into situations where he may make bad decisions.
The Oklahoma offensive line has been a patchwork all year since three-year starting C Ben Habern was forced to retire at the beginning of fall practices due to lingering effects of a neck injury and senior G Tyler Evans tore his ACL in the second practice before the season started. The offensive line was further depleted by G Nila Kasitati tearing his ACL against Texas in October and a variety of ankle injuries throughout the season. The ankle injuries should have time to heal with the month off and the health of the offensive line should be as good as it’s been since early October, but the position is thin. The good news here is that a lot of young players have gained experience with the injuries this year and they should have a lot of talent and experience for the bowl game and going into next year. OC Josh Heuple, in his second year calling the offense, has struggled at times finding the right balance to help Jones succeed on the field. He admitted to simplifying the playbook for Jones following the loss to Kansas St. in September and the results have been better. Jones has the supporting cast around him to win this game, but it will be on Heuple to involve those players and game plan a victory.
The Aggie defense has not been one of the stingiest on the year, allowing over 140 ypg on the ground and 389 ypg overall. They have been especially porous through the air and, outside of a game against La Tech, they have not faced many potent passing attacks. This could pose as a problem for the Aggies and I would look for them to employ a similar defense to slow the Sooners attack that the Irish used back in October. The way to limit Jones & Co. is to play a zone defense deep to limit big passing plays and force everything underneath. This worked for the Irish because they were sure tacklers and could limit the success of OU’s receivers in turning short passes into long runs and they were excellent in the red zone keeping drives from leading to points.
The Aggie offense begins and ends with freshman QB Johnny Manziel. Manziel leads the Aggies in passing and rushing yards, accumulating 4600 total yards on the season. He can beat a defense with his arms or his legs and is the reason for the team’s success this year. Balancing Manziel this season has been workhouse junior RB Ben Malena and speedster senior RB Christine Michael, but Manziel is the focal point. Manziel has a similar skill set to RGIII, who knocked off the Sooners last year, but his passing game is not as refined as Griffin’s was by the end of his Junior season. Oklahoma has an underrated secondary with 3 out of 4 defensive backs likely NFL-ready. Manziel will struggle through the air against the Sooners and they will need to beat them on the ground.
The Oklahoma run defense has been atrocious this year by any standards and downright embarrassing for the entire state of Oklahoma. With a lack of talent in the front 4 and linebackers who literally disappear at times, talented running offenses have run wild on the Sooners all year. There is no doubting that the Aggies will have success on the ground, but it will be up to junior FS Tony Jefferson to support the run defense and limit that success. If HC Kevin Sumlin has paid attention to game film, he knows the way to exploit the OU run defense most effectively is to line up in a spread offense with 4 or 5 WRs on the field which will force DC Mike Stoops to swap linebackers for extra defensive backs and run crossing patterns with those receivers which pulls the remaining linebackers out of the middle. This allows the offensive line to push the untalented DTs out of the way and clears a path to run up the middle for a TD, barring a tackle from one of the safeties. This has been a maddening formula that Sooners fans have watched all season and one that Mike Stoops seemingly has no answer for.
This game should be an exciting shootout with neither defense having the ability to slow down the opposing offense. Both quarterbacks will have to be on their game to keep up with their counterpart across the field. This game should literally come down to the last team having the ball winning the game. As a Sooners fan, I have to take Oklahoma in this game, but this is honestly a coin flip game. Oklahoma wins another exciting shootout to finish their season and the much maligned career of their senior quarterback Jones, 50-49.