September 3, 2011

Preview: Tulsa at Oklahoma

The season is finally here and Tulsa begins with a primetime game on FX versus in-state foe Oklahoma, the nation's No. 1 team. These two met early in the 2009 season with OU cruising to a 45-0 victory, but Tulsa hopes a veteran offense and improved defense will make this game much more competitive.

Here is a look at the season opener for the Golden Hurricane, as they attempt to start 2011 off with an upset win.

• When Tulsa has the Ball

Tulsa's offense is going to have to keep this game close by matching the explosive Sooners, but that scenario took a hit when Damaris Johnson was suspended last week. The Golden Hurricane takes pride in their system, but replacing a guy like Johnson is close to impossible.

Luckily, G.J. Kinne is playing, and as long as he's on the field, Tulsa has a puncher's chance. One area where Oklahoma's defense struggled last year was against the run, giving up just under 150 yards per game. Kinne's ability to make plays with both his arm and legs could give the Sooners trouble. Oklahoma has struggled with run/pass quarterbacks in the past, and Kinne accounted for 4,211 yards and 38 scores last year.

Another threat on the ground should be Trey Watts. The son of Oklahoma legend J.C. Watts, Trey should be fired up for this game, and he's coming off an outstanding camp. Tulsa usually likes to play fast, but against the Sooners, Watts, Willie Carter and Alex Singleton could be huge if they can run the football successfully and keep the Oklahoma offense on the sidelines.

Tulsa has depth at receiver but no clear-cut star to replace the void left by Johnson. A couple of guys from the group of Jordan James, Thomas Roberson, Freeman Kelley, Keyarris Garrett, Gary Owens and Ricky Johnson will really need to step up and give Kinne some viable options. All of them have showed flashes either in games or in camp, but with Johnson gone, one receiver needs to elevate their game and become Tulsa's No. 1 target. Keep an eye on the freshman Garrett. He's opened a lot of eyes this summer.

Carter is a great receiver out of the backfield, and he was already expected to have a big impact in the passing game. Now with Johnson gone, look for Carter's role to become even bigger out of the H-back position.

Two years ago, the Tulsa offensive line was a mess. Now with five returning starters, the line has become an area of strength. Seniors Clint Anderson and Tyler Holmes anchor the left side and are two of Conference USA's best at their positions. The right side isn't quite as strong, so look for Tulsa to run a lot behind Anderson and Holmes once again this season.

One thing to note is Oklahoma will be without two of its top linebackers from last season, Austin Box and Travis Lewis. Box passed away on May 19 due to an overdose of prescription painkillers, and Lewis - the team's leading tackler last season and Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year - has a broken bone in his foot that will keep him out for at least eight weeks. Sophomore Corey Nelson will try and pick up the slack until Lewis returns.

For Tulsa to have a chance, Kinne has to play out of his mind and a couple of receivers need to step up as well. Oklahoma spent all offseason emphasizing a defense that finished a pedestrian 53rd in the nation last season. This is Tulsa's strength against Oklahoma's weakness, so here is where the Golden Hurricane needs to capitalize if they're going to shock the world.

• When Oklahoma has the Ball

Here is where the Golden Hurricane is in all kinds of trouble. The Sooners have arguably the most talented offensive unit in the country and are loaded with explosive players at every position.

Everything starts with Heisman Trophy candidate Landry Jones at quarterback. Jones is as accurate at throwing the short-to-intermediate pass as any quarterback in the country. He connected on 65.6% of his passes last year. Jones is also coming off a season where he threw for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns. Now a junior, Jones is primed for an even bigger year, which is a scary thought.

Jones has one of the top receiving duos in the country in senior Ryan Broyles and sophomore Kenny Stills. A Biletnikoff Award finalist, Broyles produced the greatest receiving season in OU history a year ago, breaking nine school records.

Stills burst upon the scene as a freshman and makes defenses pay dearly if they focus too much of their attention on Broyles. However, his status for this game is unclear. He hinted on Twitter that he would not be available, but Stoops would not confirm one way or another.

The Sooners also return James Hanna at tight end, where he caught seven touchdown passes a year ago.

Gone is do-everything running back DeMarco Murray, but Oklahoma is far from hurting in the backfield. Sophomores Brennan Clay and Roy Finch both showed flashes last year but the real intrigue surrounds incoming freshman Brandon Williams. The 5-11, 190-pound Williams was the top running back recruit in the country, and he already has OU fans comparing him to Adrian Peterson. Expect to see a lot of Williams in this game.

While Oklahoma is loaded with skill players, it's equally as talented up front where four starters return along the offensive line. This unit was inconsistent in 2009 when it couldn't protect Sam Bradford, but it improved dramatically last season. Now led by a senior and two juniors, Oklahoma's offensive front has gone from a weakness to strength, similar to what Tulsa has experienced.

This offense strikes fear into the best defenses in the Big 12, so a Tulsa unit that ranked 120th in the nation against the pass last season could be in for a long night. Furthermore, the Golden Hurricane will be playing their first game in the 4-3 scheme under new coordinator Brent Guy after switching from the 3-3-5. Talk about baptism by fire.

Hopefully as the year goes on, a new coach and new scheme will help Tulsa improve against the pass, but it's unrealistic to expect the turnaround to happen overnight against the top team in the country. The only shot Tulsa has to slow down Oklahoma is it's the first game of the year. Once the Sooners get into a groove, no one can stop them, but since it's only Week 1, perhaps the offense will be a bit rusty and out of sync. Hey, it's something.

• Final Verdict

Welcome to the big stage, Bill Blankenship. While some teams get fat on a couple of cupcakes early in the year, Blankenship kicks off his college head-coaching career against the nation's No. 1 team in Norman, where Bob Stoops loses about once a decade. The Sooners 36 straight wins at home currently ranks as the longest home winning streak in the nation. The streak started on Sept. 1, 2005 with a 31-15 win over the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa should have an excellent season, but beating the Sooners in Norman is obviously a tall order.

The Golden Hurricane's biggest weakness, pass defense, plays right into Oklahoma's hands. If Tulsa's offense can keep the Hurricane in the game for a while, it's a good sign for the team moving forward. However, upsetting the Sooners is a monumental task and the odds got slimmer once Johnson was suspended. Kinne gives Tulsa a shot, but the powerful Sooners will likely prove to be too much at home.





 

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